This once important, influential, and strategic Greek harbour city, and subsequently major Roman city near Selcuk in the Izmir province of Turkey, is a popular tourist destination. The amphitheatre and facades are in exceptionally good order and restoration work still continues. Famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world, the site lies just 3km from the town of Selcuk and close to Adnan Menderes Airport.
Ephesus is one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. It would have had a harbour in ancient times, but this has silted up and the site is now some 5 km inland. The same man who was commissioned to find the Temple of Artemis by the British Museum, a railway engineer by the name of John Turtle Wood, was also the first to explore Ephesus properly in 1863. In 1869 he found the pavement of the temple and in 1895 the Austrian archaeologist, Otto Benndorf continued the excavations. It was his Austrian Archaeological Institute that would play an important and leading role in the excavations at Ephesus right up until the present day.
The well photographed facade at Ephesus, known as the Library of Celsus, has been reconstructed with original material and was built as a memory to an ancient Greek governor in the Roman Empire. The library bears his name, Celsus, or Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaenus to be exact. As was often the case in those days it was actually paid for by Celsus himself who wanted to leave his mark and a legacy for all to see.
The library would have been around 2000 square feet in size and is known to have housed some 12000 scrolls. It would have had reading rooms and it was an important public space for the city. It was the third largest library in the Roman world, only those at Alexandria and Pergamum would have been bigger. Celsus is buried beneath the library in a marble sarcophagus. The library was destroyed by the Goths in 262 AD. The facade that you see today was reconstructed between 1970 and 1978 by German archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka.
The theatre at Ephesus is equally as impressive. With a seating capactiy of 25,000, it is one of, if not the largest, in the ancient world. There are two Agoras at Ephesus, an aqueduct that would have served the city with water, the ruins of which stretch for around 9 km but are not easy to reach by car and are not well advertised. There is an Odeon roofed theatre which would have been quite grand and evidence of many other structures yet to be reconstructed. There are also tombs and temples.
Whilst Ephesus is famous today for its size and scale, and is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, it would have been the nearby Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, that would have been more famous in ancient times. In 2015 the ruins became designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis, and the surrounding area around Selcuk, have seen settlements here dating back to the Bronze Age. The Hittites are reputed to have had their capital city here as part of the Arzawa Kingdom. Ephesus itself was built on the site of that city by Ionian Greeks. It was part of the Ionean League which came under the control of the Roman Empire in 129 BC.
Ephesus suffered the same fate as the Temple of Artemis in 650 BC when it was destroyed by the Cimmerians, an ancient tribe linked to the Celts and Thracians who are known to have lived around the Black Sea regions of Turkey and in Anatolia. After a period of prosperity, it was once again conquered, this time by the Lydian King Croesus who was later responsible for reconstructing the Temple of Artemis. It was the Ephesians who went on to rebuild the Temple of Artemis again in 356 BC when it was burned down by Herostratus.
Ephesus was under the Byzantine Roman influence between 395 and 1308 AD. It would grow to become the most influential city after Constantinople during the 5th and 6th centuries. The Basilica of St. John for example was constructed under the Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. Gradually the status and importance of Ephesus would decline as the harbour became silted up by the Küçük Menderes river.
By the time the Seljuks arrived in 1090, Ephesus was little more than a village. It fell under the control of the Byzantines and became known as a town by the name of Hagios Theologos. During the 14th century, the town prospered again under its Selcuk rulers. The local Isa Bey Mosque was constructed and although the ruins of the Temple of Artemis and Ephesus were all but forgotten, life became more settled.
Ephesus fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire in 1390. For a brief period it would fall back in to the control of the Anatolian Beyliks but by 1425 it was part of the Ottoman Empire. By the 15th century Ephesus had been completely abandoned and the population had moved to nearby Ayasoluk ( Selcuk ).
The well preserved ruins that you see at Ephesus today are are result of the painstakingly detailed work of a team of dedicated archaeologists. One of the most important Greek cities, an influential trading post, the survivor of many attacks and constantly changing rulers and conquerors that leave us with what we see at Ephesus today.
A walk through this amazing historical site will conjur up images of how it might have looked in its heyday. It was a focus of Christian pilgrimage and a hotbed of unrest under the Crusaders. What remains is mostly buried under silt. We see a small part of what once would have been a great city. With its legends and myths, trying to piece together a detailed history of its occupants over the ages is no easy task.
Before you visit Ephesus please go to the Ephesus Museum. You will appreciate your visit much more after this. There is ample car parking at the site of Ephesus, but try to get there early as it can get very crowded during the summer with hoards of tour buses arriving throughout the day. There are plenty of souvenir shops and refreshments although a bottle of water will cost you 5 times the normal price if you buy it from one of the shops here. You can also buy some very genuine fake watches!
When you visit Ephesus you are near to the village of Sirince, The Temple of Artemis, The House of the Virgin Mary and the Selcuk Castle and Basilica of St John. There is also the Isa Bey Mosque and many other archaelogical places of interest in the town and surrounding countryside.