Tarsus is in south-central Turkey, about 12 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. The city has a long history of commerce and has been an important trading stop for thousands of years. Today, Tarsus is a thriving agricultural district, with a solid industrial center dedicated to food processing, farm equipment, and textiles.
The current population of Tarsus and its surrounding farming region is over 300,000.
There isn’t much from the time of Saul that has been excavated in Tarsus yet. The modern city was built right on top of the ancient ruins. However, there are a few sites to visit that connect to the Roman period, including a major paved street and a colonnaded podium from the Roman first and second centuries. Other excavations have turned up baths, porticos, a Roman theater, and a Roman temple.
During the Roman republic in 67 BC, the military leader, Pompey the Great, made Tarsus the capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia. It was at this time that any Jews of the Diaspora living in Tarsus could have received Roman citizenship. Tarsus also supported Julius Caesar and was briefly named “Juliopolis” for his visit in 47 BC.
In 42 BC, Mark Antony, the Roman general who then controlled the eastern provinces, declared the city free. That means the citizens of Tarsus weren’t subject to Roman taxation and received other special privileges. In 41 BC, when Mark Antony was in a struggle for power with another Roman leader named Octavian, Antony established a military alliance with Cleopatra of Egypt in Tarsus.
The “Gate of Cleopatra” (also known as the “Sea Gate”) still stands in Tarsus. Although this gate has been restored since the time of Cleopatra, ancient accounts say that this is the gate that she came through to meet Mark Antony to set up their secret coalition. It is said that she disguised herself as Aphrodite — the Greek goddess of love and beauty — and sailed up the Cydnus River to meet Mark Antony in his capital city. Today, this same river that connects Tarsus to the Mediterranean Sea is known as the Berdan. Paul would have very likely passed through this gate many times during his life in Tarsus.