The Fuss About Ephesus

Ephesus stands about three miles outside the small town Selçuk in the Izmir district of Western Turkey on the Anatolian coast. Dominated by the grand fortress on the Ayosoluk Hill, it is one of the most popular tourist resorts in Turkey, housing historical monuments from many eras of history: the Classical, the Byzantine, the Seljuk and the Ottoman. These days the early traveller composing themselves will see in the quiet town centre above the streets and shops, storks nest on pillars drenched by the early morning sun as if it by historical right.

Of course, classicists are neither interested in such modernisms as the Ottoman nor the sedentary patterns of storks but instead head straight to the ruins with the intense focus of one of Caesar’s legions. The hardy traveller will eschew the Siren call of taxi cab and dolmus, preferring to walk. The skint traveller will also reject the conveniences of modern transportation and walk as well, pretending that he is both a seasoned traveller and wants to be seduced by the bucolic charm of orange groves and fields of sapphron trees that surround the road and whose scents waft in the mid-morning warm wind. It is a rather pleasant deception. The walk has two additional pleasures: the 5th century B.C. Temple of Artemis, once a wonder of the ancient world and three times the size of the Parthenon, now represented by a single remaining column sticking out of the flat dry earth. A massive construction of 127 columns, and over twenty metres high it must have been an intimidating sight: a symbol of abundance which fell to fire, earthquake and looting over the centuries. The second pleasure is the local farmers who sit on the dirt tracks. Like so many around the world they engage you in conversation, lull you into a sense of security then try to con you. Who can blame them? The scam is rather amusing: they claim to have dug up on their farm genuine coins from Classical times. Could that be the face of Alexander on that coin? Is that Augustus there? The trouble is these “genuine coins” look just like the ones that are sold in packs of six at every gift shop.

I am sure it is just a coincidence, but caveat emptor as the Roman said.

Ephesus and its inhabitants always seem to have had an eye to posterity. The famed widow of Ephesus locked herself away and made such demonstration over her grief. Why? Not because she was necessarily chaste but because she wanted a reputation for chastity. The Temple of Artemis was burnt down in 354 BC by a lunatic Herostratus. Why? Because he wanted to achieve fame. His plan worked better than he had expected. Despite the Ephesan authorities banning the very mention of his name, the historian Theopompos recorded his act and now a herostratic act is one committed for no other reason than the search for fame. Alexander, another seeker after immortality and glory, was liberator of the cities of Asia Minor city in 334 BC. His offer to rebuild the temple was refused: a god could not build a temple to another god.

The residents of Ephesus would not have shunned our celebrity, fame-driven culture. They would positively have embraced it. The Only Way Is Ephesus. 

After Alexander, Ephesus went from being a subject of Lysimachus (no shrinking violet he) who built the theatre which is the centrepiece of the Greek remains. Able to seat over 24,000, the skene would have been 18 metres high and the auditorium over 30 metres (there are many second century improvements). It is the largest structure in the city and still has wonderful acoustics. As the light dies at the end of the day it is possible to sit at the apex of the auditorium, and look down to imagine a performance of Euripides.

At the top of the city there is the gate of Heracles, whose reliefs of flying Nike are now found in Domitian Square further down the city. Two central columns show representations of Heracles clothed in the Nemean lion’s skin. In 27 BC Augustus made the city the proconsular capital of Asia. The temples of the Divine Caesar and Roma show the early spread of the imperial cult to Ephesus and Asia Minor. Later his successors continued this precedent: the Temple of Domitian which originally measured 50 by 100 metres at the edge of what is now Domitian square show the grow of Roman cults in what become a cosmopolitan society. However it is the Temple of Hadrian (early 2nd century AD) that is the attraction on Curetes Street. Like the whole city so remarkably well-preserved the arch which curves down from the central pediment shows a bust of Tyche, the city’s goddess. To me Roman architecture is so often about power but that is not the case here. There is a subtlety here that defies our conventional views of Rome.

And in what is now the centre of the town is, of course, the famous Celsus Library built between AD 110 - 135 as heroon for Tiberius Julius Celsus, the former consul and proconsul of Asia Minor. One of the largest libraries of the ancient world, it is a typically extravagant building of its time. The architecture is designed to deceive: narrow central column create a monumental impression. The statues which decorate the portal symbolise Sophia, Episteme, Ennoia and Arete. The style is balanced, inherently classical but with detailed grace that reflect the period’s Greek influences. In truth I am staggered by the fine and fragile beauty of the building. I could look at it for hours lost in awe.

But why should anyone go to Ephesus? There is lavishness to the edifices, a range of inscriptions whose detail have interested academics since excavation. That is not why Ephesus is so remarkable. We often see the classical world as the world of Athens and Rome but the whole Classical world can be caught in one city in Turkey: theatre, track, library, houses, baths, forum, civic centres. Just when you think that the city can be understood, you turn a corner and see something unexpected and different; there is beauty here but also human interest and even humour.

I went to Ephesus on one dry, sultry day and what will I tell people in years to come? That I stood on a rich marble street and looked upon the tombs of gladiators. That I sat at the bottom of a theatre and was belittled by its scale. That I leaned over the railings to laugh at a mosaic of a determined duck striding forward, captured in such a brilliance of detail. I will tell them that I sat in a theatre, looked out at Eastern mountains and imagined spectacles performed to teeming rows of glad citizens thousands of years ago. And I will tell them that I stood before the library, was awed not just by its imposing beauty but also by its elegance and delicacy. I will tell them the camera does not lie but it can never capture the truth. I will tell them that, set within the sweet beauty of green mountains, Ephesus shows that beauty built by man can on occasions surpass that which nature with all her powers creates.