Three thousand years ago, when men struggled to eke out an existence along the shores of what is now Turkey’s Aegean coast, the founding fathers of Ephesus planned their new city. These enlightened citizens assembled a legion of architects and stone masons, laborers and woodworkers on the banks of the Cayster River where it meets the sea.
At the height of its prosperity, in the Golden Age (2nd century AD), more than 300,000 people lived and worked in Ephesus. It monopolized the wealth of the Middle East and was one of the principal ports of the Mediterranean. As a commercial and financial power, it was also the seat of intellectual advancement.
Monuments were erected. Theaters were filled with spectators. Many temples were built for the worship of their gods and goddesses, including Artemis. She was the virgin daughter of Zeus and is known to us also as Diana. As the city’s protectress, Artemis’ temple was so spectacular it was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Ephesians, while at the pinnacle of their success, greeted camel caravans which brought them spices, silks, and treasures from the empires to the East. Ships dropped anchor in their protected harbor, also bringing with them goods from lands afar. However, other ships brought marauding forces. Thus the rule over Ephesus changed hands many times throughout history.
Two Citizens of Note
Alexander the Great and his forces governed Ephesus for 11 years until his death in 323 BC. The Romans followed, ruled for centuries, and left their unmistakable mark on Ephesus as well. Along with the Romans came St. Paul who established his headquarters here from 49 to AD 52. The citizens were not always pleased with St. Paul for he attempted to convert them, telling them to turn away from their goddess Artemis. For these actions, he was jailed in Ephesus for a period of time.
In the 3rd century AD, the Goths literally destroyed the city and all the temples. Unfortunately, the people never regained their former prosperity. The Turks attempted to revive Ephesus but their sights were mainly focused on Constantinople (Istanbul) to the north. Over time the Cayster River silted up and the city was no longer a viable seaport. As the years passed, Ephesus was all but abandoned. The cruel elements took their toll on the structures. Vandals looted the treasures and left nothing but a shell of the city’s former glory.
Then, in 1863, a gentleman by the name of J. T. Wood, employed by the British Museum, began to excavate the ruins of Ephesus unearthing the palaces and temples, theaters and marketplaces. And to this day, digs are still being conducted on these magnificent ruins.
The Virgin Mary’s Last Days
Legend tells us that Saint John escorted the Virgin Mary to the shores of Ephesus somewhere between AD 37 and 45 following the death of her son on the cross. At age 64, Mary passed away in a small home which was built near the sacred spring at Panayia Kapili, just beyond the city proper in a valley known as the Mount of the Nightingales. Her home, now totally restored, appears more as a small stone chapel than a private residence. There are some historians today who dispute this account of Mary’s burial in Ephesus for there is also a tomb in Jerusalem that is believed to be hers. However, both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have traveled to this small stone home in Ephesus to offer their holy blessings.
Some Important Sights
As you wander down the well-worn stone paths of Ephesus there are a number of important sights you should not miss. Surely you’ll stroll along the Arcadian Way, which was once paved in marble and lined with columns, for a look at the Harbor Thermal Baths and the Roman Forum. Pause to take in the view from the Theater, which many believe to be the ruins’ most remarkable structure. It was here that the citizens of Ephesus listened to St. Paul as he preached against the goddess Artemis. At times 25,000 people packed the theater to take in special performances.
To the right of the Marble Road is the huge esplanade of the lower agora (marketplace), the gigantic columns of the Temple of Serapis, and the front section of the now-restored Celsus Library. Of particular interest along the Couretes Road is the elegant facade of the Temple of Hadrian, the Trajan Fountain, a well-preserved odeon, the colonnaded upper agora, and the remains of the gymnasium.
Relax for a moment on a cool marble block and reflect upon the vision of this celebrated landscape, allowing it to sink deep into your soul. You have walked in the long shadow of history, along the paths of Ephesus worn smooth by centuries.
Karyn L. Planett