The principal city and capital of the Roman province of Cilicia; birthplace of the apostle Paul. (Ac 9:11; 22:3) Ruins of the ancient town remain in the modern settlement of the same name, situated about 16 km (10 mi) from the mouth of the Cydnus River, which empties into the eastern Mediterranean about 130 km (80 mi) N of the eastern tip of Cyprus.
No one knows when Tarsus was first settled or by whom, for it is a city of great antiquity. First mentioned in secular history as being captured by the Assyrians (it was never a strongly fortified city), Tarsus was thereafter in servitude and paid tribute much of the time to the successive powers of Assyria, Persia, Greece, then to the Seleucid kings, and finally to Rome.
Tarsus was situated in a fertile coastal area where flax was raised, and this, in turn, supported flourishing industries such as the weaving of linens and the making of tents. Fabrics woven of goat’s hair and called cilicium also found special use in the making of tents. A more important factor, however, contributing to Tarsus’ fame and wealth was its excellent harbor strategically located along a prime E-W overland trade route. Running eastward, it led to Syria and Babylon; leading to the northern and western sections of Asia Minor, this route threaded itself through the Cilician Gates, a narrow gorge in the Taurus Mountains about 50 km (30 mi) to the N of the city.
During its history a number of noted personalities visited Tarsus, including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, as well as several emperors. Cicero was the city’s governor from 51 to 50 B.C.E. Tarsus was also famous as a seat of learning in the first century C.E., and according to the Greek geographer Strabo, as such it outranked even Athens and Alexandria.—Geography, 14, V, 13.
So, for these several reasons, Paul could well describe Tarsus as “no obscure city.” He said this when informing a military commander that he was a citizen of Tarsus, not an Egyptian.—Ac 21:37-39.
From time to time in the course of his ministry, Paul returned to his hometown of Tarsus (Ac 9:29, 30; 11:25, 26), and no doubt he passed through there on some of his missionary journeys.—Ac 15:23, 41; 18:22, 23.