Stretching across a fertile, grassy highland overlooking the nearby Ghab Plain, the city of Apamea served as a major cultural and strategic center for a number of civilizations. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was settled in the Bronze Age or even earlier; Apamea as historians know it did not, however, did not begin to rise to prominence until some time later under the influence of regional Hellenism.
Seleucus I Nicator built the city in 300 BCE, naming it after his wife Apama. Under his leadership, Apamea became an important military base for the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, protecting the path to Antioch, the empire’s capital. The fertile green pastures surrounding the city also contributed to its military importance, allowing the Seleucids to breed cavalry horses there. Apamea was also known as a major center for the training of fighting elephants, a skill brought to the region from India. Due to the city’s pride and regional fame in this specific field, many of its coins featured elephants. Apamea’s fighting elephants were later slaughtered, however, as one of the conditions of a peace treaty between the warring Seleucids and Romans.
About 100 years later, Apamea was taken by Roman forces, beginning a new era in the city’s history. Roman rulers continued to develop Apamea as a regional center, expanding its economic influence and installing a number of new architectural wonders and impressive city design elements. Among the most famous of these was the cardo maximus, the perfectly straight road running exactly north-south through the center of town for nearly two kilometers. The street was lined with tall columns on either side, many of which were reconstructed in modern times to convey the dramatic effect of this main street to visitors of the archaeological site.
Another significant Roman construction in Apamea was the enormous theater capable of holding audiences of up to 20,000 people. This theater, one of the largest known Roman-era theaters, often featured many of Apamea’s great actors, recognized widely as some of the best in that part of the world. This reputation for quality theater was not the only indication of Apamea’s cultured status in those days; the city was also known as a center of philosophy and thought, famous for being home to many neoplatonists, philosophers who combined classical platonism with various streams of oriental thought and influence; the prevalence of this school of thought in Apamea points to the city’s location at a crossroads of cultural influences.
During the period of Roman control, Emperor Septimus Severus would often come to Apamea to consult a famous oracle to the god Zeus Belos at the deity’s temple. This temple was destroyed, however, after the city had passed from Roman to Byzantine hands. Under Byzantine influence, the city remained regionally significant, even receiving a bishop. It was this local bishop who ordered the destruction of the temple to Zeus Belos in the fourth century CE. Extra significance was attached to Apamea during the Byzantine period due to the city’s proud claims to possess a piece of the “true cross”, which was stored in a large cathedral there.
Many centuries later, after passing in and out of Crusader hands, Apamea found itself under Mamluk control. During this era, the former Seleucid acropolis became a citadel just west of the city, which large towers overlooking the surrounding valley. Later still, in the 16th century, the Ottomans added a khan, a resting place for pilgrims who would stop at this way station on their pilgrimage route from Istanbul to Mecca.