Before I had even heard of the concept of a bucket list, Ephesus definitely would have been on it. Years of going to mass and listening to the readings of St. Paul to the Ephesians installed the name into my gray matter, but it wasn’t until I started traveling to these ancient areas that biblical locations became significant to me. Ephesus is considered the fourth major city of the Roman civilization, after Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Efes, in Turkish, is also the name of the national beer, making it twice as awesome!
In Ephesus there are several major ruins to visit. The first and possibly most holy is called Maryem Ana Evi, or the Virgin/Mother Mary’s House, and is thought to be the her last home. After the crucifixion as the apostles were being prosecuted, St. John took Mary with him to Asia Minor, his designated area for spreading the gospel. There are several stories about how it was found, but they all include a nun in Germany who had visions of it’s location on a hill close to the sea and a large city. It was found at the end of the 1800s. A very old village, thought to be descended from the original Christians of Ephesus, had been making annual pilgrimages to the ruins every August 14/15, which is generally considered Mary’s Assumption. This led some credibility to the site.
The only original remains are the foundation of the current house. The rest was built up as a chapel in 1951. It’s considered a very holy place and many people come to pray, drink the water from the natural springs, and leave prayers on a wishing wall. I didn’t get the same peaceful feeling of other holy places I’ve visited, but it definitely seemed like it was working for others.
The next site I went to was a seriously impressive pile of ruins – the third city of Ephesus. In this area, artifacts dating all the way to the late 7th millennium have been found. I won’t bore you with the the history, but here’s a quick and incomplete list of the civilizations that have lived and fought for this land: Luwian, Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Hellenist, Pergamene, and then finally, Roman and Byzantine for its nearly 14 century heyday. If you’ve never heard of half of these, you’re not alone. I’m still learning the very complex history of the region.
The city was built up from a harbor that provided easy access to the sea, but during Roman times it was silted over so many times that the city eventually came to front a marsh, rendering it insignificant as a trading hub. With the loss of the harbor and a series of devastating earthquakes over the years, the city slowly denigrated into a group of settlements and was easily taken over in the mid-13th century A.D. by the Selcuks, who later became the Ottomans.
Although the site is huge, only about 17% has been uncovered so far, to include some of the major parts: the Odeon, where the city council met, the Grand Theater, the Celsus library, the Stadium, the Gymnasium, three baths, and the main shopping roads. With the exception of the theater and stadium, all of these areas were covered by wooden roofs. Somehow I had never realized this before – I actually imagined everybody just being much more comfortable being exposed to the elements and wandering what everybody did when it rained.
My favorite part was the toilets, which are essentially a bunch of marble slabs with holes carved in them. It was a custom for rich men to send their slaves in first to warm up their seats, then they’d essentially hang out on their seat for a few hours and catch up with the day’s news and gossip while doing their business. Nobody is sure what the women did.
I also really like the mosaics in front of some of the shops on the Harbor Road. It’s just amazing that these still exist! Think of all the people who have walked on them, and how much weather has attacked. The area in the picture was thought to have been homes of the upper middle class with shops below. The road was actually lit by lanterns at night, and under the stones ran the water and sewage systems. Some of the marble blocks still have iron hooks in them, which were used to raise the road and check/repair the systems below.
After being overwhelmed at the vastness of Ephesus, I went up the hill to the Church of St. John. This was planned as a huge church, and although it became a major site of the pilgrimage for new Christians it was never finished. Instead, the focus shifted to building Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Still, the church focused mostly on welcoming newcomers to the faith and was a major center of baptism. The baptism chamber is a sunken pool in the shape of the cross, and it’s believed that as you took each step you verbally accepted tenets of the faith until you came out the other side a new person.
From the Church, you can see where the temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, sat, but not much remains. Scholars think a lot of the pillars and columns were used to build some of the mosques in the current town of Selcuk.
The Selcuk Museum has several statues of Artemis so you can get the idea of her cult (she had 19 breasts, shaped like eggs, represent fertility, although like all ancient things, there are several ideas of what these shapes actually were and signified). The museums also houses some of the world’s original coins. For me the best part of the museum was a collection of statues from the temples and buildings at Ephesus. Although small, it’s definitely worth checking out to complete the picture of the old city.
In the late afternoon, I finally headed back to my hotel and the modern world for a relaxing dip in the pool and an Efes beer celebration. Although I’m still worried about grad school, I’m happy to report that my Turkish was good enough to play with the innkeeper’s three year-old daughter for a few hours while he prepared an organic dinner from the property’s farm. Another perfect day in Turkey was finished off with too much raki but great conversation with my new friend Mustafa, the innkeeper.