OK, there’s gonna be a lot of pictures here.
Ephesus: home of the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote that letter, capital of Roman Asia Minor, longtime residence of John the Apostle and allegedly the Virgin Mary, site of Cleopatra & Mark Antony’s rendezvous before their final defeat at Augustus’s hands, and the location of the Temple of Artemis, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. According to the ancient Greek historian Strabo, at the time of Augustus Ephesus was second only to Rome in term of size and importance. And into the 5th and 6th century, Ephesus was the most important Asian city in the Byzantine Empire save for only Constantinople itself. There’s a lot here, and we have pictures of all of it.
It’s worth noting that this was my second visit to Ephesus. In February 1975 the ship I was on sailed to Izmir and a group of us did a day-trip to Ephesus. Nineteen-year-old Jim really didn’t know anything about anything at that time, and so over the last several years I’ve been eager to see it again so I could truly appreciate it. Mission accomplished – I really appreciated it this time. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back again in another 40 years, this time as hopefully spry 99-year-old.
We stayed two nights in Selçuk, a cute little town just a couple miles from the old ruins. Mostly the town serves as a stop for tourists like us who want to see the ruins at Ephesus on more than a day-tour basis, but we enjoyed the town on its own terms. Around the region, though, it’s known for the annual camel wrestling championships, which take place in January. (Seriously. They hold a female camel in heat nearby and male camels wrestle until one of them falls or flees. Strange but apparently true.)
The highlight of Selçuk itself is the remains of the Basilica of St. John, a 6th century church commissioned by the Emperor Justinian on what was believed to be the site of John the Apostle’s tomb. It is known historically that some point after the death of Christ, probably around 55 AD, John left Jerusalem to avoid persecution and came to Ephesus. While here he is believed to have written the Gospel According to John along with three Epistles. He may have been exiled at some point to the island of Patmos where he would have written Revelations, though many believe that was a different John. At any rate, he died in Ephesus (probably the last of the apostles to die) and as Christianity gained in popularity his tomb eventually warranted the Emperor Justinian’s attention.The basilica was massive and the ruins are impressive. What really amazed me, though, looking at the ruins, was the realization that the Basilica of St. John is actually a few years younger than the Hagia Sophia, the former Greek Orthodox cathedral that still stands in Istanbul, though is now a museum rather than a church or a mosque. These ruins stand in mute testimony to the phenomenal endurance of the nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia.
One more word about St. John and the historic sites here. One site that we didn’t go to was the purported house of the Virgin Mary. According to legend she accompanied John from Jerusalem to Ephesus and died here. Then in the early 19th century a crippled German nun claimed to have a mystical relationship with Mary; in visions, she saw where Mary had lived. A French priest followed her directions and – voila! – a shrine was discovered. Now, the only “evidence” that Mary was ever in Ephesus is that, while on the cross, Jesus told John to take care of his mother. That’s it. From that grew the legend that she must have lived in Ephesus near John and then a mystical nun “found” her house. Given the relative weakness of the case we decided to pass on her house. Oh, and besides that, I went there when I was in Ephesus in 1975, so I already have the picture.
The next morning we headed out to the ruins of Ephesus itself to be there when it opened at 8:30, hoping to miss the worst of the crowds and heat. It was a good move, as the crowds really picked up later in the morning and it got really hot. The chance to walk through the remains of the central city in the cool morning air, with manageable crowds, was really something. We’ve toured a lot of Roman and Greek ruins, but Ephesus might well be the most complete, the most alive, of any we’ve ever seen. You could really get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the place. And when you associate it with the people who walked on the same streets – Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Augustus, Hadrian, and on and on – it is genuinely awesome.
Part way down Curetes Way archeologists have been recovering what are called the Terraced Houses, homes of some of Ephesus’s richest and most prominent citizens. The work there is simply remarkable. They’ve built stairs snaking up and down and around the site so you get a great view of six or seven different houses. It includes some of the most intact ancient mosaics I’ve ever seen and great frescos. You get a real sense of how the houses were laid out and how impressive they were – grand halls, marble walls, even hot and cold baths. It’s a working site, so you can watch people doing their painstaking work to rebuild the ancient wonders. And to top it off (so to speak), the space is all covered by a somewhat translucent roof, making the space pleasantly cool on a day that was getting increasingly hot. They charge an extra few dollars to tour the area and we were very glad to have splurged.
Another highlight for me was the Church of Mary, an early 5th century church and supposedly the first church dedicated to Mary. Besides being cool ruins, the church played an important part in the early history of the Catholic Church. It was to this church in 431 AD that Emperor Theodosius summoned the church’s third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus. Over several weeks the leaders of the church debated the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, that Mary gave birth to the human Jesus but not the God Jesus. It’s hard for me to understand or really even believe how important this distinction was at the time, but apparently it was a very big deal. Ultimately the council confirmed the Nicene Creed and condemned Nestorius’s teachings. And it all happened here!
With all that, we’re till not done with all the great ruins in the area. The Temple of Artemis, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, stood in Ephesus, too. Stood, though, is really the relevant word. Though it once stood proudly with 127 60-foot columns. Today just one remains so, rather than being very wonderful at all it is, the the words of Lonely Planet, “just a 20-second photo opportunity.”
So that was Ephesus, a pretty great little stop. From here we’re heading north to Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, for a couple of days and then we’ll continue wandering around Turkey. Here are some more photos that I just couldn’t resist.