Ephesus is a time capsule, the best-preserved ancient city on earth. Most archaeological sites exercise your mind's-eye more than your vision. Not so at Ephesus, where the chief problem is which treasure to feast your eyes on first.
The sheer quality and quantity of ancient buildings, theaters, temples, streets and columns on display are mind-boggling. If you bring a camera, count on an extreme case of shutter-finger.
Ephesus boasts a rich past regardless of which era you examine, Ionian, Roman or Christian. Home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Second-largest city in antiquity. Final resting-place of the Virgin Mary.
But it's 2,000-year old Roman Ephesus that's on parade here now.
Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts at Ephesus dating well into the third millennium B.C, long before the Ionian colonists first arrived around 1,000 B.C. The Ionians were just the first of many subsequent rulers who enlarged, enriched and relocated the city over the ages.
Ephesus quickly developed into one of Ionia's richest cities, exploiting the trade routes from its location by the mouth of the River Cayster and the Aegean Sea. After 500 years of independence, Ephesus began changing hands like a precious stone.
King Croesus of Lydia conquered Ephesus in 560 B.C., augmenting his already legendary wealth until Lydia fell to the Persian Empire not 20 years later. Alexander the Great liberated Ephesus from the Persians in 334 B.C., and was hailed by the citizens as a god.
When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his general Lysimachus seized Ephesus. The Pergamon controlled the city for a few decades until its last ruler left his kingdom to Rome in his will. Ephesus passed into the hands of Rome in 133 B.C., under whose rule it reached its greatest glory.
Emperor Augustus made Ephesus the capital of the Roman province of Asia, and it experienced an explosion of commerce thanks to its role as middle-man between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire.
Immigrants seeking their fortune poured into Ephesus from all corners of the empire, swelling the city into a bustling, cosmopolitan entrepot, whose 250,000 inhabitants made it the largest city on earth after Alexandria.
St. Paul preached here, as did St. John, who moved to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion of Jesus. She lived the last years of her life in a small stone house on the outskirts of Ephesus, which eventually became a center of early Christianity.
The city survived numerous earthquakes and a sacking by Goths in 262 A.D., but by the 4th century A.D., the city began to fall victim to chronic silting from the River Cayster. The Romans dredged the harbor and diverted the course of the Cayster to no avail. Ephesus was slowly cut off from its lifebloodthe sea.
The Byzantines relocated Ephesus nearby, and it experienced a resurgence under Turkish rulers in the Middle Ages. But ancient Ephesus was no more.
A Wonder of the World
Ephesus always attracted visitors for two reasonsbusiness and worship. A sanctuary to the ancient Anatolian Mother-Goddess, Cybele, existed before the arrival of the Ionians, who associated her with the Greek goddess Artemis and adopted her as the city's protectress.
At the apogee of its Ionian period in the 6th century B.C., Ephesus erected a huge new temple to Artemis. The temple stood until 356 B.C., when it was burned to the ground by a madmanon the very night Alexander the Great was born in Macedon.
When Alexander arrived in Ephesus, reconstruction of the temple was well underway. Alexander offered to finance the entire project on the condition the temple be dedicated in his name.
The Ephesians declined, replying that it was inappropriate for one god to build a temple to another. The Artemision was completed in the middle of the third century B.C., surpassing all other temples in size and magnificence. It quickly gained immortality as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
During the first century A.D., the Roman writer Pliny the Elder visited the temple, which he said measured 430 feet long and 260 feet wide, with 127 Ionic columns 70 feet tall. In his Natural History, Pliny praised the Artemision as "a true testimony to the magnificence of Greece."
The Goths pillaged the temple in 262 A.D., and a fanatical mob of Christians finished the work of the barbarian hordes in the 5th century. Although just a single, stunted column stands on the temple site today, it's still worth visiting. Scan the enormous empty space and remind yourself that the most magnificent temple ever built once stood here.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication