Once one of the cultural centers of the Aegean (also known as Asia Minor or Anatolia), Ephesus is now amongst the most known tourist attractions of Turkey. (1) Given its idyllic setting, the ancient city of Ephesus surrounded by a beautiful landscape immediately catches the attention of the traveler – even more so if the person is interested in history, built environment, and heritage. The tourist attraction is strengthened by the fact that there are several other monuments nearby: the house of the Virgin Mary, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, and the ruins of the Saint John Basilica.
Those who are receptive to it can take wonderful photos in the ruins of Ephesus, which is truly like a ‘snapshot in time’. (2) It is no coincidence that we often encounter beautiful photos taken at the entrance of the Celsus Library on platforms that are used for sharing photos like Instagram.
This enthusiasm for the area and the city is not new though. In Ephesus, there had been gatherings at a pilgrimage site in connection with the overlapping cult of female deities in the ancient times. To understand this, we need to dig a little deeper into Ephesus’ past.
The first known inhabitants of the area are believed to be from the Neolithic era (10.000-4.500 BC); the earliest human settlement in the surrounding area dates back to the Chalcolithic period. Later, the territory was under the reign of Hittite, Minoan, Mycenaean and Lycian empires. (3, 4) The Greek city of Ephesus was established on the shores of the Aegean, and soon became one of the twelve cities joining the Ionian League. As it had a seaport, it quickly became a prosperous trading city that even had a slave market. (5) Ephesus (like Miletus and Halicarnassus) was a link between the Persian Empire and the Greeks, and also maintained relations with Southern Italy and Sicily. (6)
Though the city was famous for its Artemis cult and temple at a time that is considered ancient today, the cult of a particular female god dated to a time that is even earlier in the past. The indigenous people have worshipped Cybele, the Anatolian fertility goddess, who later was identified with Artemis by the Ionian settlers, maintaining the strong cult of the goddess in the territory. (7)
The Artemision, the great Temple of Artemis, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and a site for cults and pilgrimage, attracting ten thousands of people each year. (8) The temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times however, and it had been completely ruined by 401 AD. We still do not know the exact cause or date of the destruction. (9)
Ephesus’ leading role in cult activities gave a significant reputation to the city and made it well known to the whole ancient world. This outstanding role even saved the Ionian city from actual attacks – but not from the annexation. (10) Ephesus was initially annexed by the Lydian King Croesus who is historically famous for his wealth. After King Croesus was defeated by the Persian Empire, Ephesus came under Persian control. Alexander the Great visited the legendary city in 333 after the battle of Granicus. Given the outstanding role of the city and its temple at the time, both of the famous aforementioned rulers wished to contribute to the reconstruction of the Artemision; however, Alexander the Great's offer was rejected by the citizens. During the wars in Hellenistic era, the control of the city had switched between rulers several times causing a set back in terms of the development of the city. (11) Later, during the Roman era, the city became the capital of Asia province making it a prosperous commercial center again. (12) Most of the buildings that remain on the site today are from this era, thus they possess a very strong Roman character. (13)
It is clear that cities are imprints of culture and life. Their urban structure show the level of social and cultural development. One can access information about the inhabitants of a city as to how they lived their daily lives and what their needs were. For example, the presence of theatre, agora, library, sports field, and luxury houses built in the Roman era indicates a high standard of living as well as an educated population in Ephesus.
The city also appears in the New Testament as well as Herodotus’ The Persian Wars. The most famous inhabitant of the city is the philosopher Heraclitus who is best known for his doctrines on the constantly changing nature of things. According to an ancient rumor, he was forced to enter the temple of Artemis for political reasons. After that, he had not left the temple where he wrote and kept the only book attributed to him. (14, 15) Ephesus' appearance in the Bible is not surprising as the city had played an important role in the development of Christianity as well. St. Paul made the city his base for missions in Asia and Corinth. Besides this, many believe that the Virgin Mary had lived near the city towards the end of her life; and some of the synods of the early Christianity were also held in Ephesos. (16)
After the rupture of the Roman Empire, the control of the city passed on the Eastern part of the former Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. During this new and entirely Christian era, a massive building activity had taken place in the city, which gave the city a new façade with more and more additional buildings being built in the near Ayasuluk Hill. Ephesus came under the rule of the Seljuks in 1304. Since the city mainly existed on the Ayasuluk by that time, the ancient buildings were easily preserved. (17)
The site has been known for many centuries. However, the first excavations had started in the middle of the 19th century organized by the British Museum. Since the end of the 19th century, it has been researched by the Austrian Archaeological Institute, which plays a leading role as of today. The Institute has helped conservation and partial reconstruction of the city. (18) The city is listed amongst the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO as an Outstanding Universal Value in 2015. (19) The artifacts collected from the area during early British and Austrian excavations are currently displayed mostly in London at the British Museum and in Vienna at the Ephesus Museum. However, not far from the ruins, in the city of Selcuk, one can visit the Selçuk Archaeological Museum at which the Beautiful and the Great Artemis awaits their admirers today. The beautifully preserved city center is still hosting travelers – just as it did thousands of years ago during the celebrations of Artemis. One can walk between the original and partly reconstructed remains of this beautiful city, smelling the scent of the ancient world.
For more information on the growth of the ancient city, watch the reconstruction video prepared by the Information and Communications Technology in Architecture specialist department at Darmstadt University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XohYsFJOBLs (20)
1. Lee, Jess (2021): 15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Turkey. Planetware. https://www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions/turkey-tr.htm
2. Starkweather, Helen (2008): Exploring Ancient Ephesus. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/exploring-ancient-ephesus-11753958/
3., 7., 11., 13., 16. Matthews, Henry (2014). Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey. History, Archaeology, Architecture. Ege Yayinlari, Istanbul. pp. 207-253.
4., 18. Ephesus. Turkish Cultural Foundation. http://www.turkishculture.org/archaeology/ephesus-1021.htm
5. Herodotus. Greco-Persian Wars. VIII. Book. 105.
6. Straub, Eberhard (2018). Az élő város. Az urbánus életformák változásai. Typotex, Budapest.
8., 19. Ephesus. World Heritage List. UNESCOhttps://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1018/
9. Temple of Artemis. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Artemis#Cult_and_influence
10. Hegyi, Dolores – Kertész, István – Németh, György – Sarkady, János (2006): Görög történelem a kezdetektől Kr. e. 30-ig. Osiris Kiadó, Budapest. pp. 145.
12., 17. Ladstatter, Sabine (2013). Terrace House 2 in Ephesos. An archaeological guide. Homer Kitabevi, Istanbul. pp. 22.
14. Yilmaz, Yasar: Ancient Cities of Turkey. A Guide to the Ancient Cities of Turkey: From Anatolia to Thrace. 4th Edition. Anadolu Kültürel Girisimcilik. pp. 37.
15. Graham, Daniel W. (2019): Heraclitus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/
20. Ephesus. Ephesus Reconstruction Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XohYsFJOBLs