The highlight of our time in Turkey was a trip to Selçuk to visit the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus is remarkable for it’s size and condition. At it’s peak, the estimated population was 250,000. It hosted wealthy Romans and stories say that St. Paul and Mary (Jesus’s mother) came here together and later that Mary retired near Ephesus. 18% of the walled city has been excavated so far and we spent a day exploring it; it’s huge! In its day, Ephesus was second only to Rome in size. Unlike many other old cities, Ephesus was pretty much abandoned in the 7th century so archaeologists don’t have newer buildings to sort through, just a lot of rubble and earth.
One thing the Greeks and Romans knew about was city planning. Ephesus was laid out on a geometric grid around 300 BC and the lines are based upon the nearby Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of Ancient World). The core area had gates and stairs designed to exclude wheeled traffic; they were preserved as pedestrian malls. Under roads, pipes transported both clean water and sewage. Fountains were common and allowed all access to clean drinking water. The city had multiple public baths and toilets. The main roads are even said to have had street lamps lining them at night! One of the most glorious buildings is the Celsus library. It was designed to hold 12,000 scrolls. Building construction minimized the effect of climate to protect the fragility of these early books. Today the facade stands nearly complete, thanks to restoration. The enormous amphitheater could hold 10% of the population and gave us an indication of just how large a space it takes to fit 25,000 people.
The first settlement at Ephesus was 8000 years ago. Ephesus became most prominent and wealthy under the Romans between the first and third centuries AD. Mass exodus began not long after and only a couple centuries later the area was abandoned. Two significant factors were at play. First, multiple large earthquakes toppled buildings and the Romans were not interested in rebuilding yet again. It’s also likely that the earthquakes may have been interpreted as displeasure from the gods. Second, the original city was built with a small walled harbor in the edge of a large bay. The Meander River (yes, that is where the name comes from) poured silt into the bay at an alarming rate and the harbor become disconnected from the sea. Without the possibility of trade or sea transport, Ephesus became extraneous. Today the sea is five miles from the original harbor.
One of the most remarkable bits of restoration is what they call the Terrace Houses. Houses like these lined the core streets and were where the very wealthy lived. They were richly decorated with marble, mosaic, and frescos. Raised walkways allow tourists today to peer into rooms and courtyards without interrupting or damaging the ongoing restoration work. Because these houses were abandoned after being severely damaged by an earthquake, they have been a rich source for archaeologists. In the Ephesus Museum we saw many of the smaller pieces of art that were found in these houses as well as some of the larger statues from monuments in the town. Like everywhere we have been, all the real gems from these ancient places are far away in museums in Europe or America.
My favorite story we learned has to do with the strength of the goddess Artemis. Around Ephesus was a sacred area long before the Greeks arrived and it appears the indigenous people worshiped a matron goddess. For many centuries, people were in process of constructing a temple to Artemis. Construction stretched on again and again as the temple was destroyed three times. In the sixth century BC, the people of Ephesus heard that the King of Lydia was coming to attack. They tied a rope to a completion portion of the Temple of Artemis and stretched it several kilometers to their settlement, believing that Artemis would not allow the army to cross that line and her protection would travel along the rope to their homes. In one sense, it worked. The story goes that the king was so touched by their faith that he only conquered the people but didn’t destroy their temple. In fact, he donated to the construction effort!
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