Ephesus was our first introduction to Greek presence in Turkey, and it was mind blowing to imagine the whole city entirely covered and built out of marble, buzzing with shops and people!
Already inhabited around 6,000 BC and the Neolithic Age, the site was later the location of Apasa, the capital of the Kindgom of Arzawa around 2,000 BC, according to Hittite history.
Ephesus was built over these around the 10th century BC by Greek colonists, become one of the twelve cities of the Attic-Ionian colony of that era. Coming under control of the Roman Republic around 129 BC, the city further expanded to be the third largest Roman city in Asia Minor, with up to 56,000 people strong. A major port renown for its commerce, the city also diminished in importance as the port became silted-in. It’s difficult to picture Ephesus as a port once with the current sea port now located about six miles away.
Ancient popularity trickled down to modern attraction and Ephesus today gets around thousands of visitors, especially in the high season as it is also a popular day trip from cruise ships docked at Kusadasi.
Only 15% of the ruins have been supposedly excavated, Ephesus is one of Turkey’s biggest open-air museum, leaving to the imagination to picture the city’s beauty and largess. This was our feeling exactly as we strolled past the Bath of Varius and ruins of the ancient Basilica, both of Roman origin and the heart of commercial and legal matters.
We stepped into the main “street”, the Curetes Way, heading gently down the hill to the Library of Celcus. Walking by former shops siding the way, picturing Romans and Greeks alike shopping along for faraway exotic wine or precious food felt almost real.
The hilly portions of Ephesus was the residential area of the rich merchants and high society, as can be seen with the Terrace Houses. Equipped with heated clay pipes for comfort and bathing access, with floor mosaics and frescoes, these six residential houses attest of the luxury living of ancient Greek period.
Some of these floor mosaics are on display by the side of the road, depicting animals like ducks, intricate designs like crosses. I could have spent hours looking at them, colorful and vivid pictures of a time long gone.
Remains of walls and statues are lined up along, and details are still very striking. What a wonder it must have been, when all of these were standing tall and proud. Two remaining examples of such columns are the two columns of the Hercules Gate, dating from 2 AD, named after the head of Hercules topping both columns.
Other stones were showing ancient medicine scenes, a reminder that medicine was very important in Greek and Roman time. Not surprisingly, Ephesus had a rather important medical school for the time, which several physicians like Rufus and Soranus living in town and who made historical advance in anatomy studies and medicinal treatments.
Stepping aside, we discovered the ancient toilets, simple holes carved on not so simple marble slabs, all side by side, no privacy – it is said that much of Ephesus business was decided there, where merchants met senators and high representatives, discussing commercial details and latest gossips.
The Library of Celsus is the obvious main attraction in Ephesus and we were not disappointed.
Built originally around 125 AD during the Roman Empire, Governor Celsus paid himself for this library bearing his name, which also now serves as his burial ground. Holding up to 12,000 scrolls at its peak, the library was built facing east, in order for the reading rooms to get the best morning light.
I would have loved reading some scrolls back in the day, basking in the morning sun. In our modern time, I enjoy a good cup of hot tea while reading (preferably Earl Grey with a drop of milk) but water seemed to be the drink in favor under the Greek’s cult of frugality, or at best a water-down cup of Greek wine.
We carried on by the Marble Road, leading from the Library to the Great Theater. A beautiful road made of the same name material, you can still see some stones featuring gladiators, and other scenes picturing the ancient life. The Theater, located on the slope of the Panyair Dagi mountain, is a Roman reconstruction of around 41 to 117 AD and contains 25,000 seats. With amazing acoustic features, performances are still hosted in the ancient setting.
Moving along Harbor Street, also known as Arcadian Way, we could imagine ancient shops and busy patrons walking along the 0.3 miles long (530 meters) and 36 feet wide (11 meters) street, a testament of Ephesus as an important commercial hub.
We made our way to the Temple of Artemis but not much is left today of the temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A lone column standing in the middle of an abandoned field, with the remaining of a people where a couple of ducks wander freely – that’s basically it. Most of the few fragments discovered by the British Museum’s archaeological excavation of the 1870s are now in the London museum, or in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The oldest remain found dates around 550 BC, and showed that the temple was initially surrounded by 36 columns, before being burnt by a fire in 356 BC. Rebuilt and expanded in the 2nd century BC to include 127 columns. As for the earlier temple, this one was also destroyed by another fire and by an earthquake, the final strike came around 268 AD by raiding Goths. But the current swampy and unmaintained aspect of the area did not leave much place for the imagination unfortunately.
Our last stop of the day and of the area was House of Virgin Mary as a legend reported that Mary would have lived her last years in Ephesus in that house. Ephesus’ Christian importance carried on into the Christianity period, when Paul lived there around 54 AD. The Gospel of John as potentially written in Ephesus, and the city was listed in the Book of Revelation.
Overall an amazing day, where we discovered so much about the importance of Greek and Romans history. The Library of Celcus is an obvious draw but the area has more to offer. We had arrived quite late in the morning – visiting the site under the scorching sun was tough. we had some water but no enough and we should have taken at least two liters each. Make sure to wear good shoes because the ground is really uneven and if you are like me, where flip-flops are not natural extension of your feet, you will trip more often than not and I go on such trip to look at the ancient ruins, not to keep my noise on my feet all the time. Visiting with a guide is money-well spent as you will otherwise miss on hidden facts, old stories or the out-of-the-main-street artifact.
Want to read more about Turkey? Check our posts about Hot Air Balloon in Cappadocia, tasting traditional Turkish cuisine, hiking through the Cave Churches of the Rose Valley of Cappadocia, or watching the Whirling Dervishes Ceremony.