Ephesus: A journey back in time

Someone once said: “Travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer.” I hope that this bit of wisdom is on the mark because over the years I have invested heavily in my effort to see the world. During my 50 years of overseas travel I have had the opportunity to visit each site included on the Smithsonian Institute’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” Fourteen months ago I initiated a 28-part series based on this lis,t and today, the 28th and final entry, the ancient city of Ephesus, will be the focus.
Ancient ruins have always fascinated me because visiting them has improved and enriched my appreciation for the importance of history and helped me to better understand my tiny place in the grand scheme of things. Having toured the ancient temples at Angkor Wat and Bagan (Burma), having walked among the Mayan ruins at Tikal and Chichen Itza, having ridden a donkey through the narrow passageway to the treasury at Petra, having followed the lamas around the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, and having marveled at the terracotta warriors at Xi’an, it is my non-professional opinion that Ephesus is the very best ancient site among all of those that I have visited. My three visits to Ephesus have emblazoned my mind with indelible memories.


My contention that Ephesus belongs at the top of the list of ancient sites rests upon these observations: (1) Its antiquity: founded over 3,000 years ago. (2) Its importance on the world stage: served as the capital city of Asia Minor on at least two occasions and entertained such notables as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra. (3) Its state of preservation: Ephesus has the best preserved ruins of any ancient site, and, in many instances, these ruins have been re-erected so that a visitor gets a genuine “feel” of how the city used to look. You get to experience at least parts of most of the state and social buildings and even the interiors of the houses of its wealthiest citizens. (4) Its role in ancient religions: the Temple of Artemis was located here and the city became a “home away from home” for Saint Paul, Saint John, and the Virgin Mary.
Ephesus is located along the shores of the Aegean Sea in modern-day Turkey. These spectacular ruins lie about 50 miles south of Izmir. According to one legend, Ephesus was founded by a tribe of great female warriors–the Amazons–and the city was named after their queen, Ephesia.
This ancient city has been inhabited from the end of the Bronze Age (3000-1200 B.C.) onwards, but the its exact location was often changed by a few kilometers because of floods and the whimsical desires of various rulers. Ephesus is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Ephesus was one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean world and a center of learning. Women enjoyed rights and privileges equal to men, and there are records of female artists, sculptors, painters, and teachers. At night the streets of the city were brightly lit with oil lamps, a luxury not many other cities could afford.


The Temple of the Goddess Artemis once stood at Ephesus. It was destroyed by fire, for the first time, in 356 B.C. After the city was liberated from Persian control by Alexander the Great, this great leader visited the city and saw the reconstruction of the Temple in progress, but not yet completed. As the story goes, he offered to provide the funds to complete the project but the Ephesians refused, claiming it was not proper for one “god” to help build a temple to another. When the reconstruction was completed, the Temple of Artemis was larger than its previous iteration. Some estimates suggest that this reconstructed temple was considerably larger than the Parthenon in Athens. The Temple became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
After Alexander’s death, Ephesus fell under Egyptian control until when, in 129 B.C., the city was bequeathed to the Roman Empire. It soon became the seat of the regional Roman governor. The reforms of Caesar Augustus ushered in a prosperous time for the city. This period endured until the third century A.D. The Ephesian ruins you visit today, such as the enormous amphitheater, the Library of Celsus, the public space (sometimes called the “agora”), the temple of Hadrian, and the aqueducts, were all built or rebuilt during the reign of Augustus.
This modernization by the Romans, however, came at a great cost, which the Ephesians felt almost at once as taxes rose rapidly. Before long, the treasures of the city were being systematically plundered as well. These burdens led to the rebellion of 88 B.C. As a consequence of this unrest, a sacking of the city was ordered, followed by the massacre of all the Latin-speaking inhabitants. These atrocities were carried out by the Roman army, then the city suffered severe damage in an earthquake in 17 B.C. Despite these considerable setbacks, the city persisted, and even flourished in subsequent centuries.


Seeing the great theater alone is well worth the expense and effort required to travel to Ephesus. This theater is easily the most magnificent structure among the city’s ruins. Located on the slope of a hill, opposite Harbor Street, this theater was first constructed in the Hellenistic Period in the third century B.C. Then during the Roman period, it was enlarged and given the style that is seen today. It is the largest theater in all of Anatolia and has a seating capacity of 25,000. In the upper section there were 66 rows of seats, divided into three groups. The seats in the lower section were reserved for VIPs, including the Emperor. The structure that sits on the stage had three-stories and measured about 20 feet in height. Its facade, which faced the audience, was heavily decorated with various carvings, columns, niches, windows, and statues. These details gave the entire stage area a monumental look. The theater was used not only for concerts and plays, but also for religious, political, and philosophical discussions and for gladiator and animal fights.
During the second century the Romans also constructed the Celsus Library. The building was commissioned by Gaius Julius Aquila, as a funerary monument for his father, the former proconsul of Asia [his name was Celsus Polemaeanus]. Celsus is buried in a crypt beneath the library. The library remains an architectural marvel and is one of the only remaining examples of a library from the days of the Roman Empire. The Celsus Library stood in state of ruins for centuries until its facade was re-erected during the 1970s. With a capacity of 12-15,000 scrolls, this library was the third-largest library in the Roman world behind only Alexandria and Pergamum.
Due to the travels and writings of Saint Paul, Ephesus was an important city for Christians and played a vital role in the spread of Christianity. Notable Christians such as Saint Paul and Saint John visited Ephesus and rebuked the many cults associated with Artemis, winning many Christian converts in the process. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is thought to have spent her last years in Ephesus. Her house can be visited today. One prominent legend suggests that Saint John is buried here as well in a church that bears his name.
Ephesus is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, and the biblical book of Ephesians, written around 60 A.D., is almost universally held to be a letter from Paul to the Ephesian Christians. The Book of Acts suggests Paul preached the Gospel in the great theater here but further indicates that not every Ephesian was receptive to his presentation of the Christian message. Chapter 19 in the Book of Acts tells of a riot started by a silversmith who made coins and trinkets featuring the likeness of Artemis. He apparently felt that his trade was threatened by Paul’s mighty pronouncements against the worship of idols. Paul was subsequently forced to flee the city.
A visit to Ephesus usually begins by flying to Istanbul–an interesting and rewarding destination in its own right. Flights there from the U.S. are much less expensive than to Europe. In fact, Turkey is one of the few places left where the US dollar still goes a long way. Tours to ancient Ephesus from Istanbul are many and varied. So what are you waiting for? Why not take the plunge?

Next time: “Stonehenge: A Place of Mystery”

Dr. Watson Mills says, “When you walk along the marble streets of Ephesus, it feels like you have traveled back in time. I found it difficult not to imagine Alexander the Great strolling along the very same marble stones beneath my feet. Wandering among these ruins will, without doubt, compel your imagination to new heights. Important sites like the great theater, the harbor road, the library of Celsus, the terraced houses, and the temple of Hadrian will inform and clarify your sense of the importance of history. I departed these magnificent and awe-inspiring ruins definitely agreeing with one Roman writer who called Ephesus ‘The Light of Asia.’”

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