Situated on the western coast of Asia Minor (currently in Turkey), Ephesus is an ancient city inhabited and controlled by Greeks, Romans, and early Christians over a period of 2000 years. Most people know Ephesus from its mention in the Bible, especially in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but Ephesus was famous well before that. Because of its wealth and the strategic position in the Aegean Sea, it was a coveted city by the major powers of the Mediterranean, including Greeks, Persians, and Romans, and they often fought to take control of the city.
At its peak during Roman times, Ephesus had a population of more than 200,000 people. It is huge compared to the cities of ancient times. Ephesus was an important port city linked to many major ports in the Mediterranean. During Roman times, it exported spices from Asia Minor and Central Asia, and it imported rice, silk, and finished goods, including glass products and textiles from major Roman ports and the port of Alexandria, Egypt.
A look at the ruins in Ephesus suggests that ancient structures were a mix of Greek and Roman architecture and construction. When the Romans conquered Ephesus, they used Greek columns and other materials to build their temples and buildings. The Christians continued this trend by building churches using materials from the Roman and Greek buildings.
Quoting Hittite sources, some scholars suggest that Ephesus was the capital of Arzawa, an independent kingdom in Asia Minor, and used to be called Apasa, which eventually became Ephesus.
According to a legend, Ephesus was founded by Amazons, a famed tribe of women warriors. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Bronze Age people lived in this area. The migration from Greece started in 1200 BCE and eventually became a Greek city.
Around the 7th century BCE, Ephesus started emerging as a prominent city under the rule of Lydian kings. It became prosperous and a great center of learning in which women enjoyed equal rights as men. The Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, was built during this period by a Lydian king called Croesus. Later, Persians invaded Ephesus and defeated Lydians and took control of the city until Alexander the Great retook it from the Persians in 334 BCE.
As the Greek influence faded, the Roman Empire took control of this city and became an important center of trade and commerce, while still maintaining its superiority in learning and intellectual pursuits. The Celsus Library is a testament to its leading role in learning during that era.
As Christianity started spreading, early Christians visited Ephesus in the first century in an effort to convert the inhabitants. St. Paul said to have preached in the amphitheater. St. John and Virgin Marry believed to have lived in this city and were buried there. St. Paul wrote the Book of Ephesians, which is an Epistle, addressing the Christians of Ephesus.
The rise of Christianity sealed the fate of the city. As Christianity took root in the Roman Empire, worshiping of pagan gods was forbidden resulting in the closure of temples, which lead to their eventual destruction. The magnificent Temple of Artemis was believed to have been destroyed by a Christian mob. Women, who enjoyed equal rights and were prominent citizens until then, were relegated to insignificant roles. Ephesus never regained its former glory or prominence.
The final death knell came when the harbor was pushed slowly a few miles away from the city due to the gathering silt from the river. Eventually, Ephesus lost access to the Aegean Sea and stopped being a port resulting in a huge loss of population. In the 14 century, the Ottoman Empire took control of Ephesus. It was completely abandoned in the 15th century.
Monuments Near State Agora
Agora in Greek means meeting place, and it is similar to a town square or plaza of our times. As you enter Ephesus, you will see the ruins of several monuments in and around State Agora. These include Baths of Varius, Bouleterion (Odeon) and Prytaneion.
Baths of Varius
The Baths of Varius is located at the main entrance of Ephesus because when people entered the city, they wanted to freshen up and rest. It is a typical Roman bath with hot and cold rooms. This is one of the four baths that existed in Ephesus.
In a typical Greek city-state, a Bouleterion was where the members of the Senate got together to discuss the matters of the state.
Built in the shape of a theater, the Bouleterion was also used as a concert hall where music performances and contests were held.
A Prytaneion is an assembly of buildings and structures that were used to house the executive branch of the Greek Government. It is current equivalent of a city hall. The officials who administered the city met in these buildings. These buildings were typically constructed near the Agora. Prytaneion contained a hearth to hold the perpetual fire, which is a symbol of Goddess Hastia.
The Domitian Square had a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). Known to be a tyrant, Emperor Domitian was the one who banished Apostle St. John to the island of Patmos. After he was assassinated by one of his servants, this temple was rededicated to his father, Emperor Vespasian.
A beautifully carved sculpture of Nike, the goddess of victory in Greek mythology, is located at the Domitian Square. The carving portrays her as if she is flying with wings and multi-folded dress with a “swoosh.” The inspiration for the logo of Nike, the sportswear company, seems to have come from the folds of her dress.
In ancient times, Ephesus was well-known for its medical school and expertise in medicine. The image below shows the stone found in the ruins of Asclepeion, a healing temple dedicated to the Greek god of medicine Asclepius. It carved with a snake coiled around a staff known as the Rod of Asclepius. A similar symbol with two snakes coiled around a staff known as the caduceus is widely-used in modern times as the universal symbol to represent medicine and healthcare.
Ephesus is the birthplace of Soranus, a Greek physician who is famous for his work on gynecology and obstetrics. He lived in the 2nd century and practiced in Alexandria and Rome. Another Greek physician Rufus (80 -150 CE) practiced in Ephesus and wrote treatises on anatomy, pathology and, dietetics.
Built between 50 and 30 BCE, this monument was dedicated to Caius Memmius. He was the grandson of Sulla, a Roman dictator who sacked Ephesus in 84 CE.
Fountain of Pollio
In ancient times, Ephesus had one of the best aqueducts in the world. Built in 97 CE, the Pollio Fountain was dedicated to C. Sextilius Pollio, the builder of one of the aqueducts.
The Pollio Fountain was a two-story structure with an imposing arch that was visible from many parts of the city. The fountain provided free water to the citizens and visitors.
Lined with rows of shops, inns, religious and civic buildings, the Curetes Street, which is 2010 meter long, was Ephesus’ main boulevard. Both sides of the street had sidewalks with the mosaic pavement. Horses, chariots, and carts used this street, and just like in modern times, a sewer channel ran under the street.
Trajan Fountain (The Nympheum)
As the name suggests, this fountain was dedicated to the Emperor Trajan (97-117 CE) and situated on the right side of the Curetes Street.
Named after Christiane Scholastikia, who restored them in 400 CE, the Scholastikia Baths were typical Roman baths consisting of hot and cold water rooms.
The ruins of these baths are famous for their toilets or latrines. Built along the walls of this structure are the rows of seats made of marble. The flushing system ran the used water from baths through the canals under the seats. This structure also had a pool at the center.
The Hadrian Temple was built to honor Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138), who visited Ephesus in 128 CE. At the center of the arch that is in the front of the temple is the carving of the head of Tyche, the goddess of fortune. Above the door at the back of the temple is the carving of Medusa standing with acanthus leaves. On both sides of this door, the friezes portray the story of the foundation of Ephesus.
Roman Terrace Houses
Owned by rich Romans, the terrace houses are on a hill in front of the Hadrian Temple. The restoration of these houses is currently underway. The three terraces that are in the restored area housed six residential units.
Even though the facades of the houses were ordinary compared to the other buildings in Ephesus, the interior decoration was exquisite. The walls were covered with paintings and frescoes and floors paved with mosaic. The images below show the interiors of the Roman Terrace Houses.
Roman Terrace Houses
The terrace houses had excellent heating systems and plumbing. By using the same system as in the Roman baths, these houses were provided with hot and cold water.
This magnificent building is located at the end of Curetes Street. To its left is the Mazeus Gate, one of the entrances to the Commercial Agora.
The Celsus Library building was also the mausoleum of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, who was the Roman Proconsul of the Asian province of Rome between 105 and 107 CE. He was buried in a crypt under the library. The building was commissioned by his son Gaius in 114 CE and completed in 117 CE.
Celsus was a Greek who rose to become a Roman Senator and in the process accumulated a lot of wealth, which was used his to build this library. At its peak, the Celsus Library was home to 12,000 scrolls and manuscripts and was one of the biggest libraries of ancient times.
In 262 CE, an earthquake destroyed the building except for the facade. Many centuries later (most likely in the 10th century), another earthquake destroyed the facade.
What we see now is the two-story facade restored in the 1970s. The restoration made use of the fragments of the original structure found in the site as well as the copies of the related artifacts available in various museums.
The carving of a menorah was found on the steps of the Celsus Library. When St Paul visited Ephesus in 53 CE, he found a sizable Jewish community there. However, no ruins of a synagogue have even been found in Ephesus.
The Commercial Agora Ephesus was the marketplace where the residents and visitors came to buy things. The shape of the Commercial Agora was square and lined up with shops along each side. It had existed since the third century BCE and had the following three gates:
- Gate of Mazeus Mithridates next to the Celsus Library
- Front of Amphitheater
- Arcadian street gate from the harbor side
Only the gate from the Celsus Library side has been restored. It was built by two freed slaves Mazeus and Mithridate and was dedicated to Emperor Augustus whom they served.
The Great Theater of Ephesus was one of the biggest structures in Ephesus. The Greeks constructed the original theater in the 3rd century CE. The Romans later expanded and remodeled it to suit their amphitheater style of construction.
The structure we see today has the capacity of 25,000 people. In ancient times, it was used for political and religious gatherings, and sometimes for sports, such as gladiator fights. St. Paul believed to have preached in this theater. Recently, this was the location for many musical concerts. Such events are not allowed anymore for fear of causing damage to the structure.
Located in front of the Amphitheater, the Arcadiane Street leads the way to the harbor. It was built to honor Eastern Emperor Arcadius (395-408 CE), who restored it. The Arcadiane Street is also known as the Harbor Street because it leads to the Ephesus Harbor. The original Arcadiane Street was built sometime in the 1st century CE. After an earthquake destroyed it in 267 CE, it was rebuilt again.
The street is about 2000 feet long and 40 feet wide and was paved with marble slabs. The visitors who arrived by the harbor entered Ephesus through this street. It was an impressive sight with beautifully decorated shops and colonnades lined on both sides of the street.