Looking back at our tour of Turkey, it was a continuously entertaining, informative and at times thrilling journey around the ancient and spectacular cities of Asia Minor. We came to Ephesus after flying from Istanbul to Denzli and spending three days in that area visiting the gorgeous Pamukkale and the Roman cities of Hieropolis, Laodocia and Aphrodisias. From this region we drove straight across Turkey to the coast of the Aegean and the resort city of Kusadasi. We stayed in some wonderful places in Turkey but our accommodation in the small hill town of Sirince outside Selcuk was our favourite. Our home for the three days was ‘The Terraces’, in one of three restored cottages that spoilt us with their luxury facilities. It was a great place to return to each night after our long days touring Ephesus and Pergamon.
The target for most visitors to the area is of course the ancient city of Ephesus, well known to so many Westerners due to its significance in the story of St Paul in the first century CE, his new Testament ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ and his two year stay in this Romanised city. The last book of the New Testament, ‘The Apocalypse of St John’ is said to have been written in or around Ephesus and one version of the biography of Jesus’s mother Mary tells us that St John brought her to Ephesus to live out her last years.
However Ephesus is very famous, not just for its Christian History but the fact that it was home to the third oldest in the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis. There is not a great deal of archaeological evidence as to what was happening along the coast of Asia Minor before the 11th century BCE arrival of Greek people from across the Aegean looking for places to settle outside the Greek Homeland. This ‘invasion’ consisted of tribal groups, the Aeolians, the Ionians and the Dorians, who built their coastal cities and settled in for the long haul of over 3000 years before their descendants were sent back to Greece in the 20th century. The map on the right of the Delian League around the start of the 5th century BCE shows how the Greek colonies hugged the coast line of the Aegean whilst the huge Persian Empire controlled the rest of Anatolia and the vast lands beyond to the east. The Persians over the two centuries before the Golden Age of Greece in the fifth century had intermittent control of this coastline. The one unifying feature over these years was the Temple of Artemis that was originally built in the 9thC BCE and was regularly destroyed and rebuilt over the following centuries until it was finished off by the great destroyers, the Goths, in 262 CE.
Part of Ephesus’s advantages over the years of its commercial existence was its harbour. Like the rest of this coastline (eg. particularly Miletus), human intervention in the landscape meant that rivers and harbours silted up and became useless to seafaring traders. Ephesus was moved and rebuilt a number of times but by the 15th century CE, its location was no longer viable with no functioning harbour and so was abandoned. It returned to world consciousness in the 19th century when the first archaeologists arrived and found its ruins to have safeguarded much of its story of the previous 3000 years.
We were lucky enough to have booked a guide for our first day at Ephesus. It was like having an interpreter to explain the maze that we found after we had exited the Ephesus car-park. Our first major stop was at the Great Theatre. One of the delights of touring Turkey is that most of the major ancient cities we visited had surviving theatres; the Greeks may have invented theatre but their Roman descendants ensured that everywhere they went, it was compulsory to have a grand amphitheatre, not just for plays of comedy or tragedy but for the compulsory Gladiator Games and the animal slaughter festivals.
Apart from its perfect location against a hill side, this theatre’s back story also makes it one of the great theatres to visit. In the image below with the view from the top of the theatre, the sea is a long way away; however in Paul’s day, the harbour was very close to the city. On the left in the image below is the Agora or market-place where Paul may have set up shop as a tent maker beside the other stalls of silversmiths who made statues of Artemis to sell to the Roman tourists. The first century BCE was time of great change in the Roman world and particularly in the Ephesian market-place where workers were losing jobs to the new religious craze that was sweeping the Roman Empire. Paul had spent over two years in Ephesus, “reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus” and was so successful with his preaching that “Many of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. They counted their price, and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver.” (Acts 19) As a result of incidents like this, there was a pushback as workers, deciding they needed to make a stand, gathered in the theatre of Ephesus.
“About that time there arose no small stir concerning the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen, whom he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, “Sirs, you know that by this business we have our wealth. You see and hear, that not at Ephesus alone, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are no gods, that are made with hands.”
There was quite the riot and luckily for Paul, his disciples kept him outside the theatre or his journeys may have finished here
From the theatre, our next stop was the amazing façade of the Library of Celsus which is along the Marble Road on the other side of the lower market-place. The favourite photo of all visitors to Ephesus is from the top of Curetes Street looking back down the hill to the library. This library was built by the son of a former Roman Proconsul of Asia, Celsus Polemaeanus and was recognised as the third largest library in the ancient world. We were lucky enough to visit Pergamon later that week which once housed the second largest library of the ancient world, forever in competition with the doomed library of Alexandria. Just like the other libraries of the ancient world, the Library of Celsus was destroyed, possibly by invading Goths who apparently saw little value in collected wisdom or earthquakes that make no judgements on humanity’s collected wisdom, they merely bring their ‘house’ down around their ears. For visitors of the 21st century, we are lucky that the archaeologists rebuilt this façade from the rubble in the 1970s.
From the façade of the Library of Celsus, we began the stroll up hill to have a good look at the Temple of Hadrian on the left-hand side of Curetes Street.
The remains of Ephesus we see today generally belong to the period where the city was controlled by the Romans. This is exemplified by the case of the Temple of Hadrian which was built before 138 CE to commemorate the visit to the city by Hadrian ten years earlier. The attractive inner archway has a copy of a ‘relief’ of Tyche the goddess of victory, the original of which can be seen in the local archaeological museum. The four pedestals in front of the temple, which can be clearly seen in the image above left, once held the statues of Roman Emperors who ruled at the end of the third century CE, Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius I, and Galerius. These statues have either been purloined or remain hidden under the rubble of old Ephesus, yet to be cleared.
Just down a little and behind the Temple of Hadrian is to be found the Roman public toilets that are a communal model that only free-thinking hippies of the 1970s tried to bring back into toilet design for the modern era.
Across the road from the Temple of Hadrian is a section of the Ephesus area called the Terrace Houses. It is a section of the site that began being excavated in 1962 and revealed themselves to be the homes of wealthy Ephesus citizens who paid big money for real estate close to the centre of action in Roman Ephesus. The area has been covered with protective roofing and it is part the Ephesus site that you need to purchase an extra ticket for. It is an on-going project to uncover and preserve these beautiful apartments whose wall and floors are covered with marble and mosaics; financing this project is important for the archaeology to continue. There are six units that have been uncovered built into the hill and the oldest was begun at the start of the Common Era and these houses continued in use for around 7 centuries. With the regular earthquakes of the area, it is a wonder they lasted that long. One of the main issues for the archaeologists has been to clear the collapsed remains of the upper storeys from ground floor rooms and the courtyards of these ancient homes.
The site map of Ephesus below left shows a recreation of the original buildings of Roman Era Ephesus, starting from the location of the terrace Houses in the left-hand corner and then flowing up Curetes Street to the other formal buildings that existed on the slopes above. Of course by the time we finished our walk around inside the Terrace Houses, we were starting to slow down as well as running out of time for the next stops on our day-tour. There is too much to see and absorb in a morning visit to Ephesus but we wound our way to the top and had look at the Bouleuterion (Odeon or assembly hall) built in the second century CE by two wealthy citizens of Ephesus. It was the meeting place of the Senate of the town as well as a concert hall. Our earlier trip to Aphrodisias had introduced us to the concept of these smaller ‘odeons’ that the Roman towns of Asia Minor needed when the cities were functioning at the height of their commercial powers.
So it was time to wend our way back down the hill past Hercules gate, down to the Library of Celsus and turn right past the Great Theatre to the car park. Our afternoon tour covered the following sites around Selcuk and details can be found by clicking on the link below.
- Church of Mary
- Temple of Artemis
- Basilica of St John
- Seven Sleepers
- Selcuk Museum
- House of the Virgin Mary
APPENDIX 1: Site Map of Ephesus
Below is a larger site map of Ephesus (courtesy Mappery.com) that not only maps out the ancient buildings of Ephesus but also illustrates its geographical layout. It shows how close the harbour was to the centre of town as well as showing the sacred ways that led to the Artemesian or the Temple of Artemis. In the right hand top corner of the map is the Church of St John’s.