Ephesus, an ancient Greek city on the coast of Ionia, is one of the greatest archaeological treasures on Earth, with the entire city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The great city, which went through endless transformations over the years as a result of earthquakes, wars and conquests, was founded in the 10th century BC on the site of the former Arzawan capital by Attic and Ionian Greek colonists.
During the Classical Greek era, it was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League.
The city was famous in its day for the nearby Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Its many monumental buildings included the Library of Celsus and a theater capable of holding no less than 24,000 spectators.
Archaeologists estimate that the population of any ancient city was ten times that of the capacity of its largest theater; therefore, they believe the population of Ephesus was approximately 250,000.
Ephesus also had one of the “seven churches of Asia” referred to in the Book of Revelation. The Gospel of John may also have been written there, and it was the site of several 5th-century Christian Councils, including the Councils of Ephesus that took place in 431, 449 and 475 AD.
The city was destroyed by the Goths in their invasion in the year 263; although it was rebuilt, its great importance as a commercial center declined as its harbor was slowly silted up by the Meander River. In the year 614, it was partially destroyed by an earthquake.
Eventually abandoned, this might have been a blessing in disguise for Ephesus, as its ancient ruins lie in plain sight rather than being buried under centuries of buildings.
Today, the ancient city of Ephesus is a huge draw for international tourists and scholars because of its ancient provenance and its many historical treasures.
In 2015, the entire city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Neolithic Age settlement
The areas around Ephesus were settled as far back as the Neolithic Age (about 6000 BC), as evidenced by excavations at the nearby artificial mounds known as “tells” in Arvalya and Cukurici.
After being founded as an Attic-Ionian colony in the 10th century BC, the ruler Androklos drove away most of the native Carian and Lelegian inhabitants of the city and united his people with the remainder. He was a successful warrior, and, as a king, he was able to join the twelve cities of Ionia together into the Ionian League.
During his reign, the city began to prosper. Androklos and his dog are depicted on the Hadrian temple frieze created in the 2nd century.
A temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis, which was also rediscovered in the ancient Greek city, was built in the 2nd century A.D. as a symbol of devotion to the Egyptian god; it is considered the best preserved and largest temple in all of Anatolia. It was constructed in an area measuring an astounding 7,700 square meters (194,520,997 square feet) while the building alone measures over 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet).
Although it was shaken by the earthquake, almost all of the temple’s pieces are still intact. The Ephesus Foundation has undertaken the restoration project, following the restoration of the city’s illustrious Celsius Library.
The Greek goddess Artemis and the great Anatolian goddess Kybele were identified and worshipped together as “Artemis of Ephesus.” The many-breasted “Lady of Ephesus”, identified with Artemis, was venerated in the Temple of Artemis, which was the largest building in the ancient world, according to Pausanias.
The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood 418 feet by 239 feet with over 100 marble pillars each 56 feet high. The temple earned the city the title “Servant of the Goddess”.
Pliny tells us that the magnificent structure took 120 years to build but is now represented only by one lonely column, revealed during an archaeological excavation by the British Museum in the 1870s and still standing alone in the center of the ruins in a grassy field.
Some fragments of the frieze and other small finds were removed – some to London and some to the İstanbul Archaeology Museums.
The ancient Greek writer mentions that the temple was built before the arrival of the Ionians. Of this original structure, scarcely a trace remains.
About 650 BC, Ephesus was attacked by the Cimmerians, who razed the city, including the great Temple of Artemis.
About 560 BC, Ephesus was conquered by the Lydians under King Croesus, who treated the inhabitants with respect and even became the main contributor to the reconstruction of the temple of Artemis. His signature has been found on the base of one of the columns of the temple (now on display in the British Museum).
The city later fell to the Persian army commander Harpagos in 547 BC. The Persians then incorporated the Greek cities of Asia Minor into their Achaemenid Empire.
Ephesians participated in the Ionian Revolt against Persian rule in the Battle of Ephesus in 498 BC, which instigated the Greco-Persian wars. In 479 BC, the Ionians, together with Athens, were able to oust the Persians from the shores of Asia Minor. In 478 BC, the Ionian cities with Athens entered into the Delian League against the Persians.
Liberation of city during Hellenistic period, flourishing of Classical Roman times
When Alexander the Great defeated the Persian forces at the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC, the Greek cities of Asia Minor were liberated.
During the Classical Roman period, which lasted from 129 BC to 395 AD, Ephesus, as part of the kingdom of Pergamon, became a subject of the Roman Republic, coming under its yoke in 129 BC after the revolt of Eumenes III was suppressed.
Mark Antony was welcomed by Ephesus when he was proconsul of Rome; and again in 33 BC with Cleopatra ,when he gathered his fleet of 800 ships before the decisive Battle of Actium with Octavius.
When Augustus became emperor in 27 BC, he made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia. According to the geographer Strabo, it was second in importance and size only to Rome.
Ephesus also served as an important center for early Christianity beginning as early as the AD 50s. From 52–54, the apostle Paul lived in Ephesus, working with the congregation and apparently organizing missionary activity into the hinterlands of Asia Minor.
Initially, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul attended the Jewish synagogue in Ephesus, but, after three months, he became frustrated with the stubbornness of some of the Jews and moved his base to the school of Tyrannus. Later on, a silversmith named Demetrios stirred up a mob against Paul, saying that he was endangering the livelihood of those making silver Artemis shrines.
Destruction by Goths, rebuilding under Constantine, flourishing as a center of Christianity
Between 53 and 57 AD Paul wrote the letter known as 1 Corinthians from Ephesus—possibly from the “Paul tower” near the harbor, where he was imprisoned for a short time. Later, he wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians while he was in prison in Rome around 62 AD.
The Gospel of John might have been written in Ephesus a bit later, c. 90 to 100. Ephesus was one of the seven cities addressed in the Book of Revelation, indicating that the church of the city was already a major presence.
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Saint Timothy was the first bishop of Ephesus. A legend, which was first mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century, purported that the Virgin Mary may have spent the last years of her life in Ephesus. The Ephesians derived the argument from the apostle John’s presence in the city, and Jesus’ instructions to John to take care of his mother, Mary, after his death.
Epiphanius, however, pointed out that while the Bible says John was leaving for Asia, it does not say specifically that Mary went with him. He later stated that she was buried in Jerusalem.
Since the 19th century, The House of the Virgin Mary, about seven kilometers (4 miles) from Selçuk, has been considered to have been the last home of Mary. It is still a popular place of Catholic pilgrimage.
The city and temple were destroyed by the Goths in 263. This marked the first precipitous decline of the city’s ages of splendor. However, the emperor Constantine the Great rebuilt much of the city and even constructed new public baths.
The Church of Mary near the harbor of Ephesus was the setting for the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, which resulted in the condemnation of Nestorius. A Second Council of Ephesus was held in 449.
Ephesus remained the most important city of the Byzantine Empire in Asia, however, after Constantinople, in the 5th and 6th centuries. The basilica of St. John was built during the reign of emperor Justinian I in the 6th century.
Earthquake, sacking by Arabs, harbor silting in signaled final decline of city
The city was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 614.
The importance of the city as a commercial center declined as the harbor was slowly silted up by the river despite repeated dredging during the city’s history. The loss of its harbor caused Ephesus to lose its access to the Aegean Sea, which was important for trade. People started leaving the city for the surrounding hills.
Eventually, the ruins of its great temples were tragically used as building blocks for new homes. Precious marble sculptures from antiquity were ground to powder to make lime for plaster.
Sackings by the Arabs, first in the year 654–655 and later in 700 and 716, hastened the decline of the great city of Ephesus even further.
By the time the Seljuk Turks conquered Ephesus in 1090, it was just a small village.
The Byzantines resumed control in 1097 and changed the name of the town to Hagios Theologos. They kept control of the region until 1308, but by that time, the exquisite Temple of Artemis had been completely forgotten by the local population. It would have been lost to human memory completely if it were not for the excavation and restoration efforts of modern archaeologists.
The town surrendered, on October 24, 1304 to a Turkish warlord. Nevertheless, contrary to the terms of the surrender, the Turks pillaged the church of Saint John and deported most of the local population to Thyrea, Greece. During these events, many of the remaining inhabitants were cruelly massacred.
The once-shining city of Ephesus with its sweeping public spaces, temples, and library was completely abandoned by the 15th century.
But the city is still beloved by those who walk its broad, stone-paved central street and take in the breathtaking ruins of days gone by. Moreover, the ancient Greek city is set to once again have a harbor on the Aegean coast, as the result of an ambitious new project.
In the ancient era, Ephesus, which is today one of Turkey’s top tourist attractions, was connected to a harbor on the Aegean Sea with a spacious canal, but the port and the canal became silted up by the river in the years since.
The area around Ephesus is now filled in with soil, and, currently, the city is six kilometers from the sea.
An ambitious canal project proposed by Turkey in 2018 pledged to uncover the canal and eventually link the ancient harbor city to the sea once again after a 6,130-meter length of the canal became covered with alluvial deposits over the centuries. So far, however, nothing has been done to make this project a reality.
The ruins of the once-glorious city still stand, however, and welcome visitors today from all over the world, continuing to tell the stories of its many illustrious inhabitants over the millennia.