16 September 2023
Today, my visit is to a second world-renowned historical site in Turkey – Ephesus. As a novice traveler, I visited this site in 1981. Docking our ship Atlas in Kusadasi, our bus drove past a Disco and deposited us at this ancient site. All I remember from that tour is learning about the toilets. Today, EFES/Ephesus undoubtedly has the grandest ruins on the Aegean coast. Excavations during the past 40 years have unearthed much more of this settlement and exemplifies more than just how the early Greeks bathed.
In its beginning…
Ephesus, founded by Greek settlers in the 10th century BCE, spans several civilizations including Greeks, Romans, Persians, Phoenicians, Ottomans, Byzantines, and Seljuk Turks. A bunch of famous names slept here from Alexander the Great to Pliny the Elder, from King Ptolemy to Mark Antony with Cleopatra. Due to soil erosion and a shifting landscape, the harbor silted up. Today, Cleopatra would be forced to dock a couple miles away.
Ephesus grew to prominence under the rule of the Roman Empire, becoming one of the largest and most important cities in the region. It was famous for its stunning architecture, grand monuments, and cultural achievements. Most of what remains is from the Roman period.
Also, Ephesus held great religious significance. It was a center of worship for the goddess Artemis, attracting pilgrims to the city. The city appears in the New Testament’s Book of Acts as a place visited by Paul the Apostle, who wrote the famous “Letter to the Ephesians.”
Over time, Ephesus faced various challenges, including earthquakes and changing trade routes, leading to its gradual decline. It survived the Greek Dark Ages, was sacked by the Goths, and several earthquakes shook the region. Eventually during the 15th century, the city was abandoned. Its ruins lay hidden for centuries. It wasn’t until 1869 that British architect John Wood discovered the ruins. In 1895 German archeologist Otto Benndorf began excavations that would reveal the extraordinary history of Ephesus. In 2015, Ephesus was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Exploring ancient ruins
Many well-preserved ruins offer a window into the urban planning, architecture, and daily life of this once-thriving city. Ephesus was home to the Library of Celsus, a beautifully restored 2,000 sq. ft. library that once held thousands of scrolls. It was the third-largest library in the world (Alexandria and Pergamon being the other two). Its detailed and intricate facade is impressive. Also adorned with intricate reliefs and inscriptions is the Temple of Emperor Hadrian. Although Hadrian never lived here, he was considered one of the “five Good Emperors”.
Entertainment was at the Great Theatre, a massive amphitheater that could accommodate up to 25,000 spectators. The smaller Odeon Theater hosted musical performances and lectures.
Curetes Street is a wide marble-paved street lined with houses, shops, and public buildings. It also features those toilets I remember, offering a glimpse into daily life during ancient times. The Baths of Scholastica are elaborate with cold, warm and hot sections. The large Agora or central market features columns, statues, and monuments that depict the economic and social life of Ephesus.
Some people believe that the House of the Virgin Mary was the last residence for the mother of Jesus. Pope Leo XIII officially recognized it as a place of pilgrimage in 1896. In fact, both Ephesus and Jerusalem claim to have Mary buried in their cities.
However, the Church of Mary is partially restored and gives a good perspective as to its size. It is the first church to have been dedicated to Mary. Whether she lived or died her is speculation.
Temple of Artemis
However, the pièce de résistance of Ephesus is the iconic Temple of Artemis. Though only a few pillars remain, this temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (Only one of the original Ancient Wonders still stands, the Great Pyramid of Giza.) Dedicated to the goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus and twin to Apollo. The temple served as a significant religious and cultural center. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was closely identified with Diana, the Roman goddess, so the name of the temple relies on which mythology one follows, Roman or Greek.
The Temple of Artemis is an architectural wonder. Built around 550 BCE, the temple was some 350 feet long by 180 feet wide and filled with artworks and sculptures.
Alexander the Great did sleep here. When Alexander entered Ephesus in triumph, the people warmly greeted him. Upon seeing the unfinished Temple of Artemis, he proposed to finance it and have his name inscribed on the front. The locals demurred, claiming it was not fitting for one god to build a temple to another. Actually, the locals were smart to decline Alex’s generosity. Gods usually were pretty resentful about sharing.
The Temple of Artemis came in multiple versions known around the world and even appeared in Renaissance engravings of the 16th century. The first design, dating to sometime before the 7th century BCE, consisted of intricately carved marble. The original temple stood for about 194 years. Over the centuries, it underwent building and destruction several times, some constructions as a result of arson. Each reconstruction became more grandiose, with its final ruin occurring in 401 CE. Only foundations and fragments of columns remain.
An interesting side note about the Ancient Wonders of the World:
As mentioned, Alexander the Great got around as he conquered much of the western world in the 4th century BCE. He got to see a lot of great stuff. This ultimately alerted Hellenistic travelers to the other civilizations beyond Greece, like the Egyptians, Persians and Babylonians. Impressed and fascinated by the marvels they visited, like modern-day tourists, they began to make a list. Other citizens were encouraged to travel and witness these wonders. The first list of “wonders of the world” likely appeared as early as 100 BCE. The Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Boards have taken it from there.
The remaining stones, pillars fragments and temples collectively paint a vivid picture of Ephesus’ grandeur, architectural achievements, religious practices, and daily life across different historical eras. The ancient streets and intricate detailing of the ruins tell only part of the story. For more details, maps and drawings, I visit the wonderful exhibits at the Ephesus Archaeological Museum in Selçuk.
Ephesus Archaeological Museum
Much of what Wood and Benndorf uncovered are now in an Ephesus Museum in Vienna and the British Museum. Thankfully, there are wonderful artifacts that have remained and are now in the Selçuk Museum. It contains over 64,000 statues, friezes and artifacts unearthed at Ephesus and other excavations from this province.
A prized statue from the 1st century CE called The Lady of Ephesus or Ephesian Artemis. To Greeks the Ephesian Artemis is a distinctive form of their goddess Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo, a virgin goddess of the hunt, the wilderness and the moon. Traditionally, Artemis was a highly significant cult image and depicted as a multi-breasted goddess.
For more artifacts from Ephesus, one would have to travel to Vienna, Austria where Otto Benndorf packed off many of his finds in 1898. A sizable collection from Ephesus can also be found at the British Museum.
Ongoing Digs and Discoveries
The excavations of the expansive hillside residences of the elite continue. What has been unearthed since 1999 is spectacular. Hopefully, even more will be discovered and on display in the future.
In October 2016, Turkey halted the archeologists’ digs, which had been ongoing for more than 100 years, due to tensions between Austria and Turkey. By May 2018, Turkey allowed Austrian archeologists to resume their excavations. So, the chipping and dusting continues in efforts to tell the true story of Ephesus and its gods.
And a beautiful sunset and EFES beer….