Magnificent terrace houses with muraled walls trickled down the hillside to marbled streets lined with sophisticated shops, cafés and temples counted among the most elaborate in the Roman world. Statues of curvy women in clingy togas were strategically stationed near the civic area, designed to raise the spirits of men on their way to work. Athletes exercised naked in the public stadium contributing, it is said, to a sexually charged atmosphere.
In its day, Ephesus was the grandest and busiest hub of Asia Minor, where traders from Africa, Asia and Europe flocked to trade their wares, pay homage to the goddess Artemis and kick back in a chic city of 250,000.
Its day was nearly 2000 years ago. And though the Romans, Macedonians and Alexandrians have been gone for millennia, it takes no more than a squint on a relentlessly sunny day to imagine the teeming harbour city that drew the apostle Paul and other early Christians determined to convert the populace.
The throngs still come by the millions, on cruise ships and tours or wandering on their own, to see the most complete ruins of any Roman Empire site. When friends who have visited here regale you with florid descriptions and gush, You must visit. It’s incredible”, they aren’t overselling the place.
Christopher Ratte, an associate professor of classics at New York University and co-director of an archaeological dig at nearby Aphrodisias, says Ephesus owes its current fame to its past status.
“Ephesus was important in antiquity, the capital of the Roman province of Asia,” says Ratte. “In many ways, it was the most refined, civilised and prosperous part of the empire.”
Archaeologists have been working at the site for more than a century, unearthing ruins and re-assembling monuments so that today’s visitors have plenty to see. The site is enough to make your eyes pop. The one-time civic area – a sprawl of columns, foundation and an amphitheatre as impressive as many ancient cities – is only a prologue. From here, a wide thoroughfare leads nearly a mile between two small mountains, past hot-and-cold baths and an upscale public latrine (men only), beyond elaborate fountains and luxurious terrace houses, to the awe-inspiring, 50ft-high facade of the marbled Library of Celsus.
The road turns, leading past the main marketplace, past the grand theatre where 24,000 people might have come to see gladiators in battle, and on to the stadium and gymnasium. Around every bend stands a delicate statue, graceful column or sweeping arch, intricately carved with a human figure, the head of a cow or a flourish of flowers and leaves. Only 15% of the site has been excavated by the joint efforts of Turks and Austrians, says guide Hursit Celikkaptan.
As remarkable as the ruins are, it’s the stories of life here that really mark Ephesus as a must-see on a visitors’ itinerary. A word of caution: Don’t believe everything you hear, or even read; a city this famed was sure to give rise to hyperbole, and texts about the site don’t always agree.
This much seems sure: By the 6th century BC, Ephesus had become an important city in what today is western Turkey, and for the next 1000 years it played a crucial role as the nexus of trade in the Western world. The list of rulers, influentials and visitors reads like a who’s who of the ancient world, including the wealthy 6th century BC Lydian ruler Croesus; the Persian King Xerxes; the famed fourth Century BC Macedonian Alexander the Great; the 2nd century BC Carthaginian general Hannibal (who crossed the Alps on elephant); first century BC visitors Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra; and such early Christians as Paul, Luke, John and the Mother Mary.
Because of its importance, Ephesus was also home to the Artemision, or Temple of Artemis, the mother goddess – so splendid that it is counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This 60ft-tall edifice – measuring four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens – was destroyed and rebuilt as many as nine times.
Little remains of the renowned temple. Today, the chief ruins visible at Ephesus are those of the third of four cities in this region to bear the name. According to one legend, the first city was founded by the female warriors known as the Amazons; another credits Androclus, son of the king of Athens. Subsequent shifts were precipitated by politics – Alexander the Great, it is said, forced the residents to move by clogging the sewage system – and silting that altered the physical location of the harbour. (Today, the coast lies about four miles away).
Around 130BC, the Romans came to power and, in the bargain, imposed heavy taxes. The locals revolted; the Romans fought back with a massacre in 88BC that reportedly left the city’s streets literally red with blood.
But the reign of Augustus in the mid-first century BC brought calm, prosperity and a building boom that resulted in most of the structures seen today. Ephesus became the New York of the era. The financial district stood at one end of town, separated from the rest by a statue of the goddess Nike. Modern conveniences abounded – for instance, heat circulated through earthen pipes beneath the floors of the vast public bath with the help of bellows pumped by slaves, sequestered because they were unable to pay their debts.
Philosophers, artists and intellects were welcome guests. But the early Christians earmarked this important metro-polis for religious conversion. The Apostle Paul is said to have come here briefly on his second journey to Asia Minor and again, for almost three years, during his third journey. Though many Ephesians initially were attracted to Christianity, local merchants railed against the new religion, fearing it would lead to the destruction of their prosperous businesses.
Christian precepts eventually took hold, and in the 4th century AD, it was declared the official religion of the empire. Although Christianity flourished in the modern era, the town did not. Earthquakes, silting of the harbour, political change and malaria led to Ephesus’ decline and, by the early Middle Ages, the city was a memory.
The town closest to the ruins is Selcuk and the closest airport is an hour away at Izmir. Ships call at Kusadasi, a modern resort about 12 miles away. The private terrace houses inside the main ruins can be visited if you first get permission from the Ephesus Museum and pay an additional fee of about US$6.