Ephesus – Visiting Turkey’s Most Impressive Ruins
Chances are if you’ve never been to Turkey you will have three major tourism sites on your agenda – Hagia Sophia, which we’ve already visited, Cappadocia which is coming up and Ephesus which we are visiting today. These are far and away the most visited places by foreign tourists and this tour of western Turkey by Adventures Abroad is no exception. Before Covid Ephesus received almost 2 million visitors a year or roughly 10,000 a day. It was a veritable zoo with most of the people coming off cruise ships and not having a clue what they were looking at. The Library of Celsus would have so many people crawling over it that from a distance it looked like an anthill.
Our visit today will be under entirely different circumstances. Entry to the site was limited to 650 at one time starting in June 2020 and while that is being relaxed there is still a window of opportunity to visit this great wonder before the masses return. Here’s why you should grab that opportunity while you can.
History of Ephesus
Ephesus has a history that goes back to the Neolithic period, but for practical purposes it was the founding of a Greek settlement by Athenians around 1,000 BCE that really got things going. The most interesting aspect of the place is that there were actually three distinct sites upon which the city of Ephesus was located. The oldest settlement was located on the hill where the Byzantine castle we saw earlier looming over modern day Selçuk now stands. The principal Greek settlement was somewhere near where we saw the remains of the Temple of Artemis. When Ephesus was founded it was a coastal port, but over the centuries the harbour silted up and today archaeologists are not even sure where exactly that second Ephesus was located. It was during this period that Ephesus gained fame as an important pilgrimage site.
In around 460 BCE King Croesus of the Lydian empire which was then at its zenith, conquered Ephesus and was a principal benefactor of the Temple of Artemis. He was considered the richest man in history at the time, but he wasn’t the smartest. He wanted even more than the wealth created by his invention of gold coinage and the only place to get that was to conquer the neighbouring Persian Empire. Croesus asked the Oracle at Delphi what would happen if he attacked the Persians and got the answer, “A mighty empire will fall.” And it did. His own, as the Persians thrashed Croesus’ army and proceeded to invade not only the Greek colonies in Anatolia, but Greece as well. Although they failed to conquer Greece the Persians did control their Turkish possessions including Ephesus until Alexander the Great came to their rescue a couple of centuries later.
After Alexander’s death, one his generals, Lysimachus took over control of Ephesus which by now was almost completely cut off from the sea. He ordered the creation of a brand new Ephesus on the side of a hill about two kms. (1.2 miles) away from the Greek city. It is this city that we will be visiting shortly and it is primarily a Roman era site. In my post on Pergamon I noted that when the last of the Attalid kings died without an heir, he bequeathed the kingdom which included Ephesus to the then Roman Republic.
Ephesus eventually supplanted Pergamon as capital of the Roman province of Asia and just about anyone who was anybody in the Roman era visited the city including Mark Antony along with Cleopatra. Some ancient historians like Strabo considered it to be the second most important city in the Roman Empire. Later on it played an important role in early Christianity as we saw in the last post. In addition to its connection with S. John the Divine and maybe the Virgin Mary it was also one of the principal cities visited by St. Paul and his sermons to the Ephesians now comprise the 10th book of the New Testament. It remained an important city under the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of more years. There was even a major battle fought nearby between the Crusaders and the Turks in 1147.
However, eventually Ephesus’ time was up and it fell under Ottoman control in the late 14th century. The three cities of Ephesus faded from memory until the 19th century when British, German and Austrian archaeologists with the blessing of the Turkish government, began a series of excavations that continues to this day. Significant portions of the Roman city have been recreated from the ruins and today it is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. In 2015 Ephesus was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visiting Ephesus Today
Fortunately Ephesus, like Pergamon, is one of the easiest archaeological sites to get a sense of what life was really like for the people who lived here in its heyday. It has all the accoutrements of a Roman city including a grand theatre, baths, fountains and temples, but it also has one of the best preserved collection of private houses you’ll find anywhere. And of course it has that famous library which is unique.
This is a map of what the city looked like in Roman times and it’s very easy to see almost everything by starting from the upper agora which is on the lower right hand side. This is where our guide Yasemin has our driver let us out and we will follow the streets on a downward slope all the way to the car park where we will finish our visit.
What follows is a description of everything you will want to see in Ephesus in the order that you will see it.
As you enter the ruins of Ephesus the first thing you see are the remains of the upper agora which was one of two in the city. Most people associate the word agora with market place, but that is not strictly accurate. This agora was was not a market place, but rather the administrative centre of Ephesus. Yasemin referred to it as the state agora. It was the centre of a complex that included the law courts and the bouleuterion. The gaping holes you see are the entrances to the upper gymnasium.
As you can see the state agora is in quite a state, but don’t worry we’ll be seeing a lot better as we make our way down the hill. The terra cotta pipes were part of the city’s water system that was among the most advanced in the ancient world.
At the Basilica of St. John we saw that early Christians would often cannibalize older Roman and Greek materials for reuse in their structures, often adding a Christian symbol to them. That was the case at Ephesus as well as evidenced by this Maltese cross.
Things start to look up as you get to the Basilica Stoa which runs along the north side of the upper agora. Originally this would have had a wooden or tiled roof and there would have been stoas on all four sides of the agora. The statues of Augustus and Livia that we saw in the Ephesus museum were once on display here.
This is the Bouleuterion of Ephesus which could hold up to 1,400 people. We saw a much smaller one at Troy. The principal function of the bouleuterion was to provide a meeting place for the council of citizens or boulea to meet and discuss city affairs. Their use arose in Greek cities like Athens which are recognized as the world’s first democracies, albeit limited to a very small number of citizens entitled to participate. In Rome the role was played by the Senate under the Republic. I am not really able to determine if Ephesus ever had anything resembling a democracy similar to those other Greek cities, but at least it had the trappings of one.
When not in use for civic affairs the building would be used for entertainments including plays, musical performances and poetry competitions which were the ancient world’s version of a rap off. When put to these uses the bouleuterion would be called the Odeon from which we get the name of countless modern theatres.
At the far end of the Basilica Stoa is the Prytaneum which was the Greek version of the town hall, but with religious overtones. It doesn’t look like much, but this is where those famous statues of Artemis that we saw in the Ephesus Museum were found indicating the importance of the site.
The entire upper part of Ephesus that we have been visiting was off limits to the hoi polloi. We are now descending Curates Street or Street of the Priests towards the public part of Ephesus.
Curates Street was lined with fountains, shops and small monuments.
Continuing down Curates Street we come to the Fountain of Pollio another wealthy Roman benefactor of Ephesus. The city was well supplied with water from three different rivers and delivered via aqueducts from as far away as 42 kms.(26 miles). These were built by one Sextillious Pollio an ancestor of C.S.Pollio who paid for this fountain in his honour. You can see there’s a thing going on here about honouring the accomplishments of your forebears by building public monuments to them.
It’s hard to imagine how beautiful these monuments would have been when in their prime. These are all that is left of the frieze that was over the fountain. We saw it at the Ephesus Museum and it told the story of Ulysses and the cyclops Polyphemus.
This is the Memmius Monument, named for the man who built it. He was a grandson of the Roman general and later dictator Sulla who was considered a saviour by the Roman Ephesians, not so much by non-Roman Ephesians who made up the majority of the population. The latter had revolted over high taxes and cooperated with Mithridates, king of Pontus who hated Romans and fought three wars against them using the slogan ‘Asia for the Asians’, in a precursor of modern demagoguery. Ultimately he dispatched over 80,000 Roman citizens living in Anatolia in an act of genocide referred to as the Asiatic Vespers, but was finally stopped by the arrival of Sulla’s forces in 87 BCE . The two figures on the monument are Sulla and Memmius.
Now for a break from ruins I present Kitty on a column. Ephesus is full of feral cats and they spend most of their time sleeping and looking cute. I swear more people in our group took pictures of this cat than anything else in Ephesus, myself included.
Next on the other side of the Memmius Monument is the Hydreion which you can guess from the name was another fountain.
At this point Curates Street narrows and you come to the Gate of Heracles which was specifically designed to prevent any further entry to the upper part of Ephesus of horse drawn carts. According to Yasemin, this was as far as ordinary citizens were permitted to go up Curates Street.
You can always tell when a statute is of Heracles because he is invariably draped with the pelt of the Nemean lion which he killed on the first of his twelve labours.
Not far from this spot the view changes dramatically as the Library of Celsus first comes into view. People visibly quicken their steps at this point and not just because the grade on the street gets steeper. No matter how many times you visit Ephesus this sight will always fill you with a sense of awe, but there is a lot more to see before we get to the library.
Next is the grandest of Ephesus many fountains, the Nymphareum of Trajan. It was built by a private citizen Tiberius Aristion and dedicated to the Emperor Trajan and Artemis of Ephesus. This was one of the primary sources of water for the general population who did not have indoor plumbing.
This reconstruction by Adam Nemeth shows just how magnificent the Nymphareum was when it was in daily use.
Our group now comes to the Scholastica Baths one of the many Roman baths in Ephesus. This one dates from the first century, but was restored in the fourth century by a rich Christian woman. Yasemin explains to our group the basics of these baths that always had three separate places to get wet – the warm water tepiderium, the hot water caldarium and the cold water frigidarium. In the tepidarium the bather could have a massage and skin cleansing much as Alison and I experienced at the Turkish bath at the Sura Hagia Sophia hotel in Istanbul.
Just outside the baths I found a terrace from where I got this great shot of the Library of Celsus.
It was also a great place to get that ‘It could only be Ephesus’ photo that everyone wants. Remember to look for this spot once you get to the baths.
Walking further down Curetes Street towards the library you come to the Temple of Hadrian. Like most other Roman monuments in Ephesus it was built by a private citizen, P. Quintillius and dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian who had visited the city in the decade before it was constructed.
Adam Nemeth has provided a reconstruction of this building as well and looking at it you can readily see why it was considered one of the most beautiful structures in the ancient world.
Next on the agenda are the Roman latrines and you don’t need a reconstruction to imagine what went on here. Romans were very sociable people and if you didn’t get together in the agora or at the baths, the latrines were an acceptable alternative. Unlike outhouses, these latrines had running water that washed the sewage away and were apparently not as unpleasant smelling as you might think.
We now arrived at one of the most amazing places in Ephesus, the Terrace Houses.
The first time I was here they had not been restored or at least were not open to the public. Some such as this one have still not been restored.
There were six of these residences on the side of a small hill that faces Hadrian’s Temple. Some of them were occupied as late as the 7th century.
Terrace House 2 is now open although it does require a separate entry fee. Actually to call this place a house is a complete misnomer; it was really more of a palatial residence the likes of which could only be afforded by a few Ephesians, the 1% of the 1%. Let’s go inside.
This is a private basilica and would have been decorated in frescoes which are now gone, but they do remain in places such as this painted ceiling.
The weird thing about these residences is that they had no windows and must have been perpetually gloomy.
This is probably as good an approximation as you are going to get anywhere other than Pompeii as to what the home of a rich Roman looked like.
The home has two stories which allows for good looks at the floor mosaics which are outstanding considering they are up to 2,000 years old. What condition do you think your floors will be in in the year 4,000?
It’s also a good place to keep an eye on the rest of the group.
Emerging from Terrace House 2 we come at last to the most famous edifice in Ephesus, the facade of the Library of Celsus. Not exactly crowded is it?
This is yet another building in Ephesus built by a private citizen and not the state. It was built in 117 CE by one Galius Julius Aquila as a tomb for his father Gaius Julius Celsus who was a senator and consul. The library which is above Celsus’ tomb was the third largest in the ancient world after Alexandria and Pergamon, but the only one of the three still reasonably intact or at least reconstructed.
This is what it would have looked like for the hundreds of years it was in use.
The Library of Celsus definitely falls into the category of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ and is something every world traveller should see at least once in a lifetime. If you visit before the cruise ship crowds return you might even get a chance to get a photo like this.
While the Library of Celsus is definitely the highlight of any visit to Ephesus there is still more to see as we arrive at the south or Commercial Agora which is where most of the commerce took place in the city. Here goods from around the Roman Empire and beyond would be sold or bartered for.
Next up is another of Ephesus’ most important structures, the Theatre of Ephesus which was one of the first things that Lysimachus had built when he moved the city to its current location. It was expanded by the Romans and with a capacity of 25,000 was the largest ancient theatre in Anatolia. Not many people here for today’s performance.
Lastly our group, more than sated with archaeological wonders, leaves the theatre and progresses down column lined Arcadian Street which once led all the way to Ephesus harbour, but we go only as far as the parking lot where our bus awaits us.
Out stay in the Ephesus area is over, but man what a stay it was. Some world famous places do not live up to the hype surrounding them (Las Vegas I’m thinking of you), but Ephesus definitely does.
We will continue our Adventures Abroad journey as we enter the ancient kingdom of Caria and visit the second most important oracle in the ancient world at the massive Temple of Didyma. I hope you can join us.