Rocks, Saints, Rivers- A Visit to Ephesus

Present day Ephesus lies stranded inland, about 5 kilometres away from the coast. As with many ancient sites, one could hardly notice its presence if it wasn’t for the road signs. The closest settlement is Selçuk, a sleepy provincial town on the road from Izmir to the seaside resort of Kușadası. Most visitors also come from one these two directions- by car, Izmir is about an hour’s drive away, whereas the trip from Kușadası lasts only a little longer than twenty minutes. In its heyday, though, Ephesus was a port, the shape of its harbour still clearly distinguishable, and if you stand at the top of the amphiteatre, you’ll catch glimpses of sparkly blue, the sea is still not too far away. The harbour was, however, never strictly on the sea, but on the estuary of the Cayster river (today the Küçük Menderes). It was perhaps while standing in the Cayster that local boy Heraclitus concluded that ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice’, which led to his famous concept of pantha rhei- everything flows. Until it doesn’t, that is- around the 3rd Century AD, when the city was anyway plagued by invading Goths, the harbour completely silted up, and Ephesus lost its strategic importance.

The settlement was founded as an Attic-Ionian colony in the 10th Century BC, according to one legend, as per the advice of the oracle of Delphi, while another links it to the Amazon queen, Ephos. It was located on the site of what had been the capital of the Hittite state of Arzawa- much of the ancient history of what is now Aegean Turkey gravitates around the meeting of these two cultures, one fading away from history, the other entering it The goddess worshiped at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus is considered to be, herself, a composite of the Greek Artemis and the Anatolian goddess Kybele. The remains of the temple, once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, now lie a few kilometres away from the main visitor site, and are fairly unspectacular, recommended only if you have some extra time on your hands and a very vivid imagination. All that is left are a few stones, from the last iteration of the temple, which was completely rebuilt twice: once after having been destroyed by a flood and a second time after having been set on fire by Herostratus, who wanted to go down in history as a result of the arson. Although a damnatio memoriae law was passed to keep his name out of all historical records, he has been, evidently, not forgotten- one can only imagine the horror of ancient lawmakers at the thought of the Internet, where every useless little blogger can freely disseminate the vile man’s name. The temple was seemingly rebuilt one last time, but after the worship of Artemis was forbidden during the rise of Christianity, it was gradually dismantled, and its stones used in other buildings, some columns eventually ending up in the Hagia Sophia.

The site of Ephesus proper, or more correctly, the area to which the city shifted in later times, is in much better shape, and as such, a magnet for the barbarian hordes of organized tourism. Upon arrival you’ll therefore need to execute complicated ballet moves with your car, strictly as instructed by a stern gentleman (the parking lot flow manager seems to be an absolutely legitimate and necessary occupation in Turkey), who will navigate you to your designated spot. Once out of your car, you will be assaulted by a group of humanoid vultures who will insist that you need to walk a varying number of kilometres to reach the actual site, therefore you’d be much better off with their offer of a horse drawn carriage. This is however not true- the ruins can be approached from two sides, and the carts simply take you all the way to the second entrance, from where you can then trudge back to the first. Strictly speaking this operation does save you the toils of going round and seeing most sights twice, but if you do not want to see the Library of Celsus at least twice you have no soul.

Right at the entrance you will again be assaulted with some questionable intel, namely that you should stockpile water as there isn’t much shade inside (correct) and no water can be bought (incorrect, there is one stand which sells snacks and refreshments). The ticket costs 72 liras (approximately 11 euros) and you’ll need to dish out an extra 36 to see the terrace houses, which are covered with protective roofing. My advice is to do it by all means; I often find it quite difficult to picture how the original of a ruined building could have looked, but these multi storied houses, once the living quarters of the city’s richer inhabitants, have enough detail to be thoroughly evocative, with many mosaics and decorative elements still visible, alongside the city’s famous aqueduct system, which brought both hot and cold water to the dwellings.

The theatre, estimated to have had a seating capacity of about 25 000, is currently being reinforced, so a pesky giant crane ruins daydreams of plays being staged in front of a raucous crowd. While mainly meant for dramas, the structure was later used for gladiator fights as well. (Whenever I see well preserved amphitheatres, I cannot help but think that they would have been perfect for staging this).

My absolute favourite is however the Library of Celsus, though I was a bit saddened to find out that Celsus himself could enjoy only one of its services, that of serving as his mausoleum. The Library was built at the order of his son in 110 AD, and could hold 12 000 scrolls, which made it the third biggest library in the world, after the ones in Alexandria and Pergamon. It was destroyed either by fire, or the Goths, or an unfortunate combination of both in 262 AD. The current façade is an anastylosis, which besides being one of those words that Winnie the Pooh would qualify as a sneeze while you speak, is the archaeological procedure of restoring a building from its original elements to the greatest degree possible. The statues of the façade -the four virtues, wisdom (Sophia), knowledge (Episteme), intelligence (Ennoia) and virtue (Arete)- are however copies, with the originals having been hoarded off to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Which is a pity, I now realize I have most probably seen them, but since my brain shuts down at roughly the twelfth out of context Greek statue in a row, I remember nothing of them, whereas standing by the columns of the Library’s entrance is one of those feelings of joy and awe Mastercard cannot buy. To be a bit fairer to the Austrians though, they have sponsored the preservation of Ephesus extensively, the protective roofing of the terrace houses, for example, was funded by several Austrian organisations and companies.

The first time I heard of Ephesus, though, was probably in church. Our congregation’s pastor had a penchant both for the Acts and Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Paul lived in Ephesus around 55 AD, and became, among others, embroiled in a dispute over the Temple of Artemis, or Diana as it was called at the time, an incident described extensively in acts 19:23-41. Saint John might have written some parts of the Book of Revelations in Ephesus, before being exiled to Patmos, though there is no clear evidence for that, but its church was included among the seven cities cited in the book. He might have also been buried in Ephesus, the Basilica of Saint John, built over what is believed to be his tomb, lies about 3.5 kilometres off the main site, just below the fortress of Selçuk- it’s in better shape than the temple of Artemis, so those envisaging a day of historical explorations might consider adding it to the menu. Another nearby location with questionable veracity is the House of the Virgin Mary. While most evidence points to her having died in Jerusalem, a legend, first mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis, claims that she spent her last years in Ephesus. The story has gained traction due to, obviously, the visions of a 19th Century German saint and the house can be visited being, again, just a few kilometres off Ephesus proper.

Trying to take in all the wealth of information about Ephesus in one go (or even in several) is nigh impossible. Here, literally every rock tells a story- or hides one, about people long gone and their lives, but also about us, and what we’ve become. I therefore took the peripatetic approach and just walked around, telling myself this would be what an Ephesian on her way to the library would do. Well, mostly likely on his way, though there is some evidence that Ephesians were generally rather open minded, welcoming foreigners and allowing certain freedoms to women as well. This imaginary Ephesian would probably be shocked and appalled to see an Asian gentleman slip while taking a selfie and nearly bring down half a column, finishing the work the Goths started almost two millennia ago. Or she’d simply laugh, as I did (gentleman, column and mobile phone were all fine)- places like these are best for making you understand that we are all part of a much bigger story, and we’re in it together. Things one takes for granted, even the mightiest, disappear and are replaced, seas move away, tongues die out or bleed into each other. As I stare at the horizon, a flickering shape could be a traveler on horseback bringing news from Rome. It’s just a car turning towards a petrol station. Everything changes, everything flows.

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