This final installment describes a day in the ancient city of Ephesus, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. It also, I hope, sticks a finger in the eye of the awful world situation.
As I write this, the U.S. State Department maintains its March 29, 2016 travel advisory for Turkey. Remember, though, that we live in a tremendous and infinitely fascinating world. We can’t hope to see every part of it, but every part is worth seeing. You might not want to – or be able to safely – visit one place or another, at one time or another. So pick a different destination, and come back to the first one later. Don’t let the world’s evils prevent you from experiencing its wonders.
For our excursion to Ephesus we did two things we’ve never done before: We flew in (from Istanbul) and back on the same day. And we booked a private tour, with Ephesus Tours, which wasn’t terribly expensive in the grand scheme of the whole trip.
A tour of the important sites in and around Ephesus takes only half a day or so. Given our limited number of vacation days, it made sense to do the trip in a single day, early rise and all. So we took a domestic flight from Istanbul to İzmir (the closest city) on Atlas Air, which went smoothly. From the airport we took a bus through rocky, rolling hills to the town of Selçuk, where our guide picked us up and drove us to our first destination, the Virgin Mary Home.
This building makes Ephesus a pilgrimage site for Catholics around the world. The site – though not the house, which isn’t quite that ancient – is where Jesus’ mother Mary is said to have lived out her days after fleeing the Holy Land with St. John following the crucifixion.
It’s traditional to attach a wish to the “wishing wall” outside. (We were told that this is a Turkish tradition, not specifically a Christian one.) And some pilgrims believe the water fountain has miraculous powers.
I was more taken with a humble dandelion growing inside a tree. A tiny miracle of nature, you could say.
Next, it was on to the main event: Ephesus itself, one of the world’s most spectacular ancient cities. This Greco-Roman-Byzantine town was once located on the coast, but over the centuries the harbor built up with silt, so the site is now a little ways inland. That, and malaria, led to its eventual abandonment.
Ionian Greeks settled here as far back as the 11th century B.C.E. Lysimachus, an officer and successor of Alexander the Great, ruled from 319-281 B.C.E., re-establishing the city at the location of the present ruin. Marc Antony and Cleopatra visited in 41 B.C.E. Ephesus was an important city for centuries.
Yet before planning this trip to Turkey, I had heard of Ephesus only because of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament. Paul – born Saul of Tarsus (Tarsus is in Turkey, too) – came here to proselytize in the year 52. According to the story, he had some success, but got into trouble with the local blacksmiths, whose trade in statues of Artemis/Diana would have suffered if too many people abandoned the pagan goddess for the Christian god. (See the Temple of Artemis at the end of this article.) Paul ended up imprisoned here, then had to leave town.
Much of ancient Ephesus remains underground. But so much has been excavated that you can get an amazingly full sense of the commercial, social, and domestic life of the once-wealthy city. It’s no wonder Ephesus is one of Turkey’s biggest tourist attractions.
A Greco-Roman city is nothing without an amphitheater.
The long, straight Marble Road that led from the harbor into the city is so long that today, even with enough tourists to fill an armada of buses, you may find a stretch that’s fairly clear.
In the above view of the great road you can see the intact paving stones. Shops lined the right side, where the arriving sailors could buy sandals, sundries, and supplies. Stone carvings indicated what kind of store, temple, fountain, or other establishment they were passing.
The “payoff” of the standard visit to Ephesus is the famous Library of Celsus, built in 117 C.E. as a grand tomb for the governor of the Roman Empire’s Asian province.
With room for more than 12,000 scrolls, it was the third largest library in the ancient world, after Alexandria and Pergamum. Double walls behind the cases helped shield the scrolls from the worst effects of temperature and humidity.
Archways beside the Library today lead to a large open field where parts of unreconstructed ancient structures lie strewn. The ancients used the space, we were told, as an open-air marketplace.
Seeing how the wealthy merchants of Ephesus lived may be the most interesting aspect of the ruin. Their homes, now known as the Terraced Houses, were built up the side of the hill, off the main road.
Today, modern walkways and stairways lead you over the interiors of several rows of these large homes, which had plumbing, mosaic floors, and wall paintings.
Though all this was abandoned long ago, much was preserved as the centuries piled up more and more hillside over the Roman houses.
Many more houses remain to be excavated under the hillside.
Before heading back to the van for our next destination, we had enough to time to explore a bit outside Ephesus proper.
The Basilica of St. John was erected during Emperor Justinian’s reign in the sixth century, on the site where the Apostle John is said to have spent his last years and been buried.
The Basilica was a popular pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. Its large cruciform shape is discernible in the layout of the ruins. But as Ephesus lost its importance, so did the Basilica, which gradually fell apart. The Seljuk Aydinoglu clan used it as a mosque in the 14th century. Tamerlane’s Mongol invaders destroyed it in 1402.
Sacred Destinations claims that if the Basilica of St. John were fully reconstructed, it would be the world’s seventh-largest cathedral. But it’s little visited now, except by tourists drifting over from Ephesus.
We entered still another culture with a short hike up Ayasuluk Hill to the Ayasuluk Fortress or Castle (Ayasuluk Tepesi in Turkish), also known as the Selçuk Castle.
The sixth-century castle had walls four meters thick, with 17 towers. In use for over a thousand years, it remained garrisoned until the 18th century.
After that it didn’t take long for ruin to overcome it. Today there’s not much left to see behind the still-impressive walls: Cisterns. A small mosque.
On the other hand, serious archeological work seems to have begun here only in the past decade. So surely there’s a lot more to be discovered.
The last major site on a typical tour of Ephesus is the Temple of Artemis (or the Artemision). There are temples to Greek and Roman gods all over the ancient world, of course, but this is the only one denoted one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The second Temple of Artemis on the site was built around 350 B.C.E. to replace an earlier one that had been destroyed through arson. The huge new structure contained a statue of Artemis and 60-foot marble columns – 127 of them. One column has been reconstructed from archeological remains. Birds nest on top. Other findings from the site can be found in the Ephesus Museum and in the British Museum in London.
Earthquakes, fires, and the muddy ground couldn’t permanently subdue this massive building. It took the Ostrogoths to destroy the Temple of Artemis for good in the third century C.E. Later the Byzantines took most of the masonry to other cities for re-use.
The swampy site site wasn’t ideal anyway, as you can imagine seeing what’s here today: lots of wetness.
Back in Selçuk, waiting for the bus back to the İzmir airport, we had time for a visit to the Ephesus Archeological Museum, which houses a statue of Artemis and other interesting items recovered from the Temple site and the city of Ephesus. And time for a fresh pomegranate juice.
That’s my account of our travels in Turkey. Thank you for riding along! I hope reading about fascinating places stirs your desire to see other parts of the world – undeterred by fear.