JOHN’S JOURNEYS: A Classical Tour: The ruins of Ephesus
The most extensive ruins around the Mediterranean are those of Asia Minor’s
onetime metropolis that became the second city of the Roman empire. No site is
better preserved along the eastern littoral, so that Ephesus is a magnet for tourists
and also piligrims, because this was also a key centre in the spread of Christianity.
Both types of visitor will have much the same experience because upright remains
are largely from the first four centuries AD before silt and strife ruined what had been
the region’s leading commercial centre and communications hub. Four-fifths of
Έφες await excavating below the mud, but the city based on the cult of Artemis, the
goddess of fertility, is known to date from at least 1000 BC.
The cradle of Greek philosophy and Ionian architecture
It was the cradle of Greek philosophy and Ionian architecture, but the Persians
invaded after six centuries, and although Ephesus was liberated by Alexander the
Great in 334 BC, the Romans gained total control by 133. Nero upgraded one of the
largest of Hellenic amphitheatres (not to be confused with the smaller, later Odeon)
whose seating for 24,000 suggests that Ephesus had a quarter of a million
Harbour Street © JOHN BURKE
There was also an influx of seafarers and investors, sightseers and idolaters, so that
Ephesus was as renowned for banks and brothels as for shops and shelter. Even an
earthquake in AD 17 hardly interrupted the great port’s prosperity, but much of what
is seen today was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian.
This includes his own small temple whose remaining façade displays proof, in the
form of a sculpted globe that the Ancients knew the world was round. It stands on
Curetes Street that goes downhill to the two-storey Library of Celsius which was built
about AD 150 at the same time as Vedius’ gymnasium, one of four.
Celsius Library © JOHN BURKE
At this junction with a marble road – all part of the Sacred Way – there also stands a
wall of the Greeks’ marketplace (agora) as opposed to the state forum, and the
route continues to the old harbour where directions to ladies for hire are chiselled
into the pavement. Public baths and toilets are also among some 50 identified ruins.
One is known as St Paul’s Prison, but the Bible (which mentions Ephesus 15 times)
does not confirm any detention in the city. He first came in AD 53, and returned for a
couple of years in AD 55, writing from there to the Corinthians and Philippians before
leaving St Timothy in charge.
Paul had tried to preach in the amphitheatre whose acoustics remain good enough
for Elton John. The apostle, however, was warned off due to a riot led by
silversmiths, because conversions to Christianity were ruining trade in statuettes of
the multi-breasted Greek goddess whom the Romans called Diana.
Temple of Domitian © JOHN BURKE
Unlike other temples such as Domitian’s, only the outlines of her edifice, 370 feet
long, are visible, because it was destroyed three times, including arson by an
Ephesian seeking immortal fame. I omit his name lest he can read this in Hades.
Among the Seven Wonders of the World was this enormous Artemision, but it is
eclipsed by a Catholic chapel.
Built on a hill just outside Ephesus, it may be a unique example of archaeological
deduction based on the supernatural. Known as the House of Mary (Meryem Ana
Evi), it is regarded by popes since Pius IX as the site of the Virgin’s last home on
Earth. Although the Orthodox still guard a tomb in Jerusalem, the New Testament
has Mary in the care of St John who definitely went to Ephesus as did St Luke whose
Gospel relies on her memories.
Two centuries ago, Catherine Emmerich, a bedridden mystic in Westphalia,
described the house down to its unusual stonework as well as its stream and
seaview. In 1891, two French missionaries from Smyrna (now Izmir) went searching
in a temperature of 27º, but desperate for water, were directed by peasants to a
hilltop spring … and nearby were some identical stones. The house had overlooked
the Aegean before alluvial mud accumulated.
House of Mary © JOHN BURKE
Folklore and church law concurred. Since time immemorial, local Greeks had made
a pilgrimage to the derelict “monastery” in August, the very month by tradition of the
Assumption into Heaven. Then, the third of six oecumenical councils at Ephesus was
held in AD 431 inside the purpose-built Church of Mary (Meryem Kilisesi). In that
era, churches were named only after local saints.
The foundations of this church can be seen, and even the pillars remain from that
built over the supposed tomb of St John. The latter is up near the mediaeval citadel
looming above the village Seljuk whose museum contains statues, mosaics and other
artefacts from Ephesus.
Getting to Ephesus
There are tours and buses to Efes via Seljuk from the popular resort of Altinkum
which is 59 miles away and also from the port of Izmir that is a slightly shorter
distance further north. Beware of thieves, scams and faked luxurious goods,
although during one visit I paid a Turkish boy a dollar for two Roman coins that the
British Museum said were genuine small change.