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La cathédrale au crépuscule
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St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Antakya

Historical note

The first St Peter and Paul’s cathedral in Antakya was built in 1833 after permission was granted by Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Egypt ’s Khedive Mohamed Ali Pasha, during the Egyptian occupation. It was built in the Cenine (garden) district in the Southern part of Antakya, where lived at that time many Greek Orthodox believers of the Patriarchate of Antioch. The cathedral belonged to the local Syrian-Greek architectural style but it was rather ordinary, and built mainly of wood. Between 1849 and 1852 it was restored by permission of the Ottoman Government and the garden in front of the entrance was enlarged.

On 22nd March 1872, two days before Easter, an earthquake destroyed the church; furthermore, the oil lamps set it ablaze. About 500 people died in the city, of which 70 were Christians. The priest Ilyas was among the casualties.

After the earthquake, the Patriarchate of Antakya received from the Ottoman Government the permission to rebuild the church and a commitment for technical assistance from the vilayet Engineering Office. Likewise, the Russian Tsar sent funds for the church’s reconstruction; he also offered to send Russian engineers to the city.

An imposing stone cathedral was built, resembling by its dimensions the churches of important Ottoman cities such as Smyrna ’s. Nowadays, St Peter and Paul’s is still one of the tallest monuments of the old city of Antakya. It was built in the typical local 19th century Levantine Syncretic model, mixing on a Byzantine structure local and European forms, and some internal decorations of Russian influence. This style inspired other churches built in Mersin and Iskenderun.

Like all Christian shrines, the St Peter and Paul’s cathedral is orientated according to an East-West axis. It offers a classical basilical layout, comprising a three-vessel nave preceded by a narthex and ended by a sanctuary with three apses surrounding three altars. To the back of the central apse, facing the main altar of the church, stands the patriarchal throne[1], the Ano-cathedra. The throne seems to be older than the cathedral. It is placed on a pedestal with three steps. It is a stone-carved structure topped by a ciborium standing on fine small marble columns. The vaults of the lateral apses are covered by frescoes of the Virgin Mary, probably drawn by Russian artists. The Holy Cup is a masterpiece created out of silver and gold decorations. It was offered by the Russian church in 1756.

Two steps above the level of the church is the shrine. It is separated from the nave by a dark wooden iconostasis, which would have looked austere were it not its golden painted wooden epistyle: a real masterpiece with rich decorations carved in the Baroque style and supporting the Cross of the iconostasis. According to oral tradition, the original iconostasis was of marble. The icons hanging on the iconostasis are of different origins and styles: Byzantine, Russian, Macedonian and Syrian.

The nave is covered by three vaults sustained by 10 imposing limestone pillars and covered by a tiled roof. A large dome stands above the chancel. Inside, on the left and third column stands the chair (minbar) with a hand-wrought iron balustrade where the Gospels are read to the audience. Further ahead, on the right side, stands the seat of the Patriarch, a stall with floral decorations resting on two lions, all wooden. It is placed on a three-level white marble pedestal engraved with coloured motifs in Ablaq style. The baptism cistern, or jurun, is cut out of limestone; it stands under on the Northwestern angle of the church. Under the floor are the old now-unused priests’ graves. The last burial dates from 1982.

The floor of the cathedral is typical of the 19th century. It is tiled with square-shaped marble slabs and belted by a black marble line, a copy of Genoa palace floors.

Above the narthex is a special gallery called gynece from where the women used to attend Mass. This space is no longer used for this purpose. Until 1930, the gynece was entered from the garden, through a door and a stone staircase of its own.

Outside, under the tiled roof of the church, an arched portico runs along three sides of the monument, protecting its three entrances. The bell tower is of Baroque style and impressively high. It stands on the Southeastern corner. Looking from the entry courtyard, one can see the classical Orthodox facade of the church with two typical Ottoman openings: round-arched or pointed-arched windows.


One could enter the cathedral from the Southern official portal or from a small passage cut through the ancient Antakya lanes on its Eastern side. Both doors lead to the wide stone-paved precinct of the church. On the Northwestern part of the precinct is a garden with two pools and a fountain. From this garden one can also accede to the cathedral’s main door. As was the case for Ottoman kulliyes, a school (closed since 1939 and transformed into a large meeting hall), a library, the priests’ offices, a bedroom, a large kitchen and other dependencies surrounded this open area.

The last restoration of St Peter and Paul’s cathedral dates from 1999 and was carried out by the author of this paper. In 2000, the monument was ready for the celebration of the Birth of Christ. The celebration was attended by Bartelemeos, the Ecumenical Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul Fener, by the Antiochian Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignastıos Hazim, by Pope John Paul’s representative, by the Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan and by the Mayor of Antakya Gökhan Aydıner. The conference room has also been restored in honour of His Beatitude Ignatios Hazim, Patriarch of Antioch and of all the Orient.

Josef Naseh
President of the Antakya Orthodox Church Association

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[1] Antakya was the seat of the “Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and of all the Orient”. However, during the Mamluk period, the city was destroyed and the seat transferred to Damascus. However, the cathedral itself is still a dependency of the Patriarchate although the city and its region are under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Metropolite of Aleppo. The ecclesiastical territory of the Patriarcate extends from the Taurus Mountains to Palestine. Today,  the cathedral is administrated by 3 priests : Abuna Sami Sabagil (since 1982), Abuna Dimitri Dogum and Abuna Jan Dellüller, elected by the Christian orthodox flock in 2005.
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© Université de Balamand, Mise à jour mai 10, 2006