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The Great Colonnade at Apamea

One of the main characteristics of the most important cities of Antiquity in the Hellenistic kingdoms, first, and in the Roman territories of the East, later, are the great column avenues. They also existed in Rome itself and other European cities, but the eastern examples are usually larger and many of them are in better condition.

The largest of all, and possibly also the first to be built, is the one flanking the thistle of Antioch, which is about 2,275 meters long, that is, just over 2 kilometers. But there is hardly anything left of it.

Of the three best preserved, those of Ephesus, Palmira and Apamea, perhaps the latter is the one with the most spectacular features today, since many of its columns still stand.

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Photo: Andrea Campi/Flickr

Apamea (Afamia in Arabic) is the archaeological site of a city located in the Orontes river valley, in the northwest of present-day Syria, which Alexander the Great called Pella. In 300 BC Seleucus I Nicator, the last of the Diadochi, rebuilt, enlarged, and fortified it, naming it after his wife Apama.

Already then, a colonnade avenue was built, which was practically destroyed in the year 115. On December 13 of that year, an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 and intensity XI (extreme) on the Mercalli scale, shook the nearby city of Antioch and its surrounding region. Apamea and other cities were completely destroyed.

Trajan ordered immediate reconstruction, starting with the imposing colonnade, whose construction spanned the entire second century. The avenue is oriented on the north-south axis of the city, following the cardo maximus. From the north gate of the city, the colonnade extended about 2 kilometers in a straight line to the south gate.

After about 1,500 meters, it was crossed by the other main axis of the city, the decumanus maximus, an intersection marked by two triple arches. Around the colonnade avenue, the main buildings of the city were arranged: baths, agora, nymphaeum, basilica and the Temple of Tyche.

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Location of Apamea in Syria.

The inner street was 20.79 meters wide and paved with large polygonal stones. The lateral colonnades were 6.15 meters wide throughout the journey, with columns 9 meters high and almost one meter in diameter, raised on square bases half a meter high and 1.24 meters on each side. The different decorative motifs of the columns are attributed to different construction periods, the flattest ones to Trajan's time and the fluted spirals to Antoninus Pius’s. The porticos under the colonnade were decorated with large mosaics.

Some authors believe that the monumentality of the columned avenue was interrupted by the arrangement of shops and stalls in the spaces between the columns, which on many occasions extended to the pavement of the street itself. Perhaps for this reason in Justinian's time some parts of the colonnade were restored, and the interior street was reduced to 12 meters adding a sidewalk about 4 meters wide on each side. In any case, it remained one of the largest column avenues in the Roman world. And also, it is one of the few places where a row of windows has been preserved over the doors of the shops, typical of the Roman markets.

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Photo: Arian Zwegers/Flickr

The city came to have a population of up to 500,000 inhabitants, according to the funeral stele of Quintus Aemilius Secundus, which carried out the census in 6 AD. Destroyed by the Sassanid king Chosroes I in the 6th century, the city would be rebuilt in part after the Muslim conquest of Syria in 638. Its definitive end would come because of another earthquake, in 1152.

Interestingly the Greeks called Apamea kibôtos, which means chest of money, possibly because of its abundant wealth. As in Greek this word also meant ark, and so from the 3rd century the city began to coin money with the image of Noah's ark. It seems that the Apamea Christians held that this was the place where Noah's Ark had landed, in the biblical account of the universal flood.

According to Ross Burns, the Apamea colonnade is the most spectacular surviving example of a column axis as well as one of the most prestigious avenues in world architecture . And it surpasses all the others in three aspects: its dimensions, its linearity, and the extraordinary proportion of its surviving columns.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Photo: Alessandra Kocman/Flickr

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Remains of the shops of the Great Colonnade of Apamea. Photo: Gruppo Archeologico Romano/Wikimedia Commons

Great Colonnade at Apamea

Reproduction of the Great Colonnade of Apamea at the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Photo: filomela/Flickr

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