Part XXV: Ephesus, Turkey
Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey
Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Clouds drape the mountains when we awake. We've been told that there haven't been any clouds in Sirince since May; do we attract inclement weather like Douglas Adam's Rain God? In this case, no. Within an hour the Turkish sun is burning blue seams through the gray. By the end of breakfast, we are beneath faultless blue skies again.

Someone down the hill from us has the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings, and for the past two mornings, strains of middle earth have been wafting gently around our ears. It is beginning to grate, however. The owner of the CD has copied the last three tracks of the Fellowship of the Rings soundtrack and one Enya song (Sail Away) onto a CD. These four songs simply repeat, over and over and over and (well, you get the idea). It didn't bother me at first, but now that my attention has been drawn to it, it is beginning to rankle a bit. Finally I put some Mozart on our CD player and let the old master drown out the voices from the Shire.

Ephesus, Turkey
Ephesus, Turkey

Chapter 19 of the books of Acts tells us that during his missionary journey to Anatolia, the Apostle Paul spent two years teaching and preaching in the great city of Ephesus. The ruins of Ephesus, a mere 11 kilometers from Sirince, are one of the main attractions of this part of the country, and today we are heading over to have a look at the great city.

There were some practical considerations to consider. The first is that Ephesus is the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey, after the Sultanahmet quarter in Istanbul (where we had just been). The guidebook attempts to soften this blow somewhat by noting that in antiquity, Ephesus teemed with people from all around the world. The modern swarms of tourists simply add realism to the experience. Not a great comfort.

Ephesus, Turkey
Ephesus, Turkey

The second consideration was the heat. The stones of Ephesus lay beneath the Anatolian sun, and they tend to collect and radiate heat, turning the site into a great crock pot that slowly bastes visitors. Originally we planned to visit the site in the morning, avoiding the worst of the heat and the tourists, but in fact we had trouble getting the girls stirring this early. Plan two was to go near the end of the day, at 3:00 and stay until closing time (7:00). Perhaps the crowds would have dispersed and the day would be cooling. In any event, photographically speaking, the light would be improving as the sun declined in the west.

Our plan worked rather well. We took a little minibus down to Selcuk, swapped buses at the station for one heading toward Ephesus, and then took a taxi to the upper gate of the site. We arrived around 3:30, fresh and ready to begin our exploration. As we had hoped, most of the crowds had dispersed, and there were only five or six tour groups quick marching through the site (schedules, schedules ― have to leave time for the carpet shops in Selcuk). We positively dawdled through the city, moving at a leisurely pace, taking it all in.

There are good reasons that places become top tourist sites and I must say that in nearly every category, Ephesus did not disappoint. The city is vast, built around the base of a high hill, Mount Pion. At one time it was a seaport, but like Ostia in Italy, the coast silted up and now the water is about 15 kilometers from the ruins. The loss of its access to the sea led to a diminution of Ephesus' importance.

Temple, Ephesus, Turkey
Temple, Ephesus, Turkey

Christianity also played a part in the decline of Ephesus. In antiquity the city had been dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis. It boasted a great temple to the goddess and was well-known for its accomplished silversmiths who crafted her images. Paul was ultimately expelled from Ephesus because the local silversmiths realized that the faith he preached was deeply inimical to their livelihood. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” shouted the mob that had been stirred up by Demetrios the silversmith. Although Ephesus eventually became a Christian city under the Romans (and the Council of Ephesus, 431 was held here), the city lost what had given it preeminence ― Artemis ― and as the harbor silted up, people migrated away to a new town, built around the church where St John was interred, the future site of Selcuk.

Today, Ephesus' bleached bones bear witness to past glories, but as a working city, she is no more. Our route through the ruins took in some of the key sites, but vast areas are cordoned off. If one was free to roam over the entire city, it might take days to properly explore what is visible above ground. And that wouldn't even begin to account for what is undoubtedly concealed beneath the rocky soil.

Curetes Street, Ephesus, Turkey
Curetes Street, Ephesus, Turkey

The main path through the city is Curetes street. It runs, through an avenue of shattered columns, from the Gate of Hercules at the top of the hill down to the facade of the Library of Celsus. At one time these bases would have supported great white marble colonnades, a spectacular sight. Today only the bones remain, hinting at the great wealth of this metropolis.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey
Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

One of the most fascinating remnants is the Library of Celsus. Today it is only an ornate, stone facade, but at the height of the city, it was one of the great libraries of antiquity. Despite its appearance, the library is not Greek; it was built by the Romans. Its sponsor was Celsus Polemaenus, an ex-Roman consul and the proconsul of Ephesus in the early second century. The building functioned as both a library (which was able to hold 12,000 scrolls) and a tomb. Celsus' body was buried beneath its foundations.

The Library had a very short working life: completed in AD 117, it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 262, and its scrolls burned. Only the facade survived, although this collapsed in the tenth century. The building lay in ruins until the 1970s, when the facade was restored to its original splendor. There are, however, no scrolls available for borrowing.

Facade, Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey
Facade, Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

We turn right at Marble Street and pass the great theater, which is at the eastern end of the Arcadian Way, another wide street, lined with colonnades and leading to the old harbor. Again as often seems to be the case in Ephesus, access is forbidden to this area. According to the map, St Paul's tower, where the Apostle was imprisoned before he was driven from town, lies beyond the Arcadian Way. There is, however, no obvious way to reach it.

As a small consolation, we end our tour amidst the ruins of St Mary's church. Here, in a building that had been converted from a warehouse to a Christian basilica, bishops from the eastern Roman empire convened to judge between the competing positions on the nature of Christ championed by the archbishop of Constantinople (Nestorius) and the Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril. This was the famous Council of Ephesus (AD 431). It was a complicated theological controversy that I don't need to rehash here, but I found it a marvelous experience to place my hands on the walls where the bishops gathered and wrestled over the faith.

Baptismal Font, St Marys, Ephesus, Turkey
Baptismal Font, St Marys, Ephesus, Turkey

Ephesus truly demands days of looking and thinking. To breeze through its streets in a short afternoon was a grave injustice, but short of signing up to be a hand on an archaeological dig, I don't know how we would have found a way to spend more time in this ancient city. Our brief excursion was enough to stimulate our appetites. We shall have to return.

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