Unlike other great Hellenistic/Roman cities—Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople—Ephesus was abandoned in antiquity. These other cities continue to thrive today, which, unfortunately for archaeologists, means that they cannot be excavated, at least not completely. The principal remains we have from ancient Alexandria, for example, are catacombs and debris from the harbor floor; archaeologists digging at Antioch in the 1930s discovered that most of that splendid ancient city is buried under the sprawling modern 028one.a We can view these sites only in the imagination, with the help of literary sources. Not so Ephesus.
For more than a century, the Austrian Archaeological Institute, of which I am a member, has been uncovering this ancient city on modern Turkey’s Aegean coast. Ephesus’s main road, once lined with shops and agoras, winds for a mile along a valley between two hills (Panayir Dag and Bülbül Dag), eventually leading to the site of its ancient harbor—which, because of silting, has now receded about 6 miles to the west. All around is a densely crowded marble city, with court buildings, temples, baths, gymnasia and dwellings. Elegant statues of Nike, Artemis, Apollo and other gods are scattered throughout the city. At the bottom of the valley, where the road bends north, is the renowned Celsus Library, preserved to its full two stories. Two hundred yards farther along the road is Ephesus’s theater, which once seated 25,000 spectators and commanded a breathtaking view of the harbor.
Visiting Ephesus, in other words, does not mean scrambling over disarticulated 029columns and grassy walls. Rather, one becomes immersed in this gleaming city, once the largest commercial center in Asia Minor and a center of high civilization.1
Ancient Ephesus overlooked a large bay where the Cayster River emptied into the Aegean. Our earliest evidence of Greek occupation is a Mycenaean grave dating to the 14th century B.C. Tablets inscribed in Hittite hieroglyphics from the Hittite capital of Hattusha (modern Boghazköy, in central Turkey) tell of Hittite skirmishes with the Arzawa, a people who occupied the Aegean coast. A tablet of the Hittite king Mursilis II (1321–1295 B.C.) recounts a victorious campaign in the west:
I pursued [the Arzawan armies] again and went across into the Land of Arzawa, and went into Apasa, the city of [King] Uhhaziti. Uhhaziti offered me no resistance, but fled before me and went across the sea to the islands, and there he remained.2
The Arzawans almost certainly occupied the area around Ephesus, and the place-name “Ephesus” may well derive from the name of the Arzawan capital, “Apasa.”
According to legend, the Greek city of Ephesus was founded in the ninth century B.C. by Androclus, son of the Athenian king Codrus. Little is known of this early period. The Greek settlers forced the local people to abandon their fortress on Ayasoluk (one of three hills, along with Panayir Dag and Bülbül Dag, making up the area of ancient Ephesus).b However, the Greeks apparently showed great respect for the the local goddess, whom they identified with their own goddess Artemis (called Diana by the Romans) and renamed Artemis Ephesia.c
In the mid-sixth century B.C., Ephesus was invaded by the Lydian king Croesus (of “rich as Croesus” fame), who ruled from Sardis, about 100 miles to the northeast. Croesus built a huge marble temple to Artemis on the site of an earlier sanctuary. The Temple of Artemis (also called the Artemision) was 180 feet wide and 360 feet long—larger than a football field. (In 356 B.C., the night of Alexander the Great’s birth, the temple was destroyed in a fire—because, the Greeks said, Artemis was either away attending the birth or was distracted by the event. A few decades later it was rebuilt with a slightly larger podium but with essentially the same ground plan.) This temple was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Persians took Ephesus from the Lydians around 546 B.C., and then the Athenians took control of the city after defeating the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C. This history of political change, along with the fact that the actual location of the city periodically changed because of the silting up of the harbor, may have contributed to one of the world’s most famous ancient philosophies: that of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–460 B.C.). To Heraclitus, the world was characterized by constant flux; it consisted of opposites, such as good and bad, hot and cold, war and peace, which were in perpetual struggle against one another—a struggle reconciled only by the logic of the inner rhythms of the universe, which Heraclitus called the Logos. He described human experience as a condition of perpetual fire—and, changing the metaphor, as flowing water. “You cannot step twice into the same river,” Heraclitus wrote, “for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” Perhaps Heraclitus was even thinking of the silt-laden waters 030of the Cayster River, which kept pushing the harbor farther and farther west.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., Ephesus came under the influence of Hellenistic kingdoms. When the Romans conquered western Anatolia in the late second century B.C., Ephesus became the principal Roman harbor in Asia Minor. In 28 B.C. Octavian—who, a year later, would become the emperor Augustus—chose Ephesus as the residence of the governor of the province of Asia Minor.
This Hellenistic/Roman city, which thrived until the seventh century A.D., is what visitors see today as they stroll along the finely paved marble road between Panayir Dag and Bülbül Dag.
In the first century A.D., Ephesus underwent a building boom, receiving a new stadium, a rebuilt and enlarged commercial agora, and a new, and much larger, theater—the magnificent theater that we see today. One massive construction project was a political and religious center, called the State Agora by archaeologists. This agora housed the Temple of the Divine Caesar and the Goddess Roma, the city’s bouleuterion (town hall) and a sacred precinct for Artemis and Emperor Augustus. It also contained a three-aisled basilica stoa, which served as a monumental statue gallery of the imperial family.
This is the Ephesus the apostle Paul would have seen in the mid-first century A.D. According to the Book of Acts, Paul stayed in Ephesus for at least two years, visiting the local synagogue,d preaching to the Jewish community and warning the Ephesians not to worship pagan idols. One story in particular testifies to the religious diversity in this ancient cosmopolitan city, as well as to the tensions that sometimes rose to the surface. A silversmith named Demetrius, who sold silver shrines of Artemis, complained to a crowd that Paul was hurting his business and casting disrepute on the gods. The mob became angry, grabbed two of Paul’s traveling companions and dragged them to the theater, all the while yelling “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The riot was quelled, paradoxically, by the keeper of the great Temple of Artemis, who told the crowd that complaints must be settled in the normal manner—by bringing them before the assembly (Acts 19–20).
During the reign of Domitian (81–96 A.D.), the Ephesians built a temple to serve the cult of the divine emperors. This sanctuary was erected on a vaulted terrace overlooking the State Agora. The main streets from the State Agora down to the harbor were then furnished with columned halls, public houses, and bronze statues of the goddess Nike celebrating Domitian’s triumph over the Germanic tribes. Huge complexes for the Olympic games were built between the harbor and the theater.
In 262 an earthquake destroyed large parts of Ephesus. The city was not rebuilt on a large scale until the reign of the Christian emperor Theodosius I (379–395), who used building material from pagan temples and shrines to restore the city’s principal structures and to construct a number of churches. In 431 Ephesus hosted the Third Ecumenical Council, at which it was decided that the Virgin Mary could be called the Theotokos, or 031God-bearer.e (According to tradition, after Jesus’ crucifixion, the Virgin Mary was escorted by the apostle John to Ephesus, where she died. The Ephesians identified this John, who was one of Jesus’ disciples, as the author of the Fourth Gospel, the New Testament letters of John, and Revelation—though most scholars today believe that no two of these documents were written by the same person.)
In the second decade of the seventh century the whole city burned down, though we do not know what caused the conflagration. At this time people started to move east to Ayasoluk, where the history of Ephesus had begun more than two millennia earlier. In the ninth century the harbor silted up once again, and the once great Hellenistic/Roman city now became an uninhabited, swampy, malarial backwater.
Ephesus, however, was never forgotten. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land stopped in Ephesus to pray in the basilicas of St. John and the Virgin Mary. A plan of Ephesus was published by the British clergyman Richard Pococke in 1740, and in 1845 the British artist and classicist Edward Falkener made reconstruction drawings of the city—based partly on then-standing ruins and partly on fantasy.
The first serious exploration of the site was undertaken from 1863 to 1874 by a British railway engineer, John T. Wood, whose work was supported by the British Museum. Hoping to find the famous Temple of Artemis, Wood began digging around the theater, the commercial agora and the bouleuterion. He came upon an 032inscription that described the route of a second-century A.D. sacred procession (called the Via Sacra by modern scholars) that led from the Temple of Artemis to the theater, through the city, and back to the temple. (In Ephesus’s early stages, before the areas west and south of Panayir Dag were occupied, this route enclosed a burial ground connected to the sacred precinct.) Wood spent seven years excavating the temple, which was covered by 20 feet of topsoil. He sent his finds—mainly relief carvings from the bases of the temple’s columns—back to the British Museum, which in 1874 decided not to continue to finance the excavation.
In the 1890s the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Culture was looking to capitalize on the kind of glory that William Flinders Petrie’s excavations in Egypt showered on England and Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of “Priam’s Treasure” brought to Germany. The ministry instructed Otto Benndorf, professor of archaeology at the University of Vienna, to develop an archaeological project befitting the dignity of the empire.3 Benndorf chose Ephesus, partly because Austria-Hungary had friendly relations with the Ottoman Empire.
Following Wood’s lead, the first Austrian expedition (1895) started digging at the Temple of Artemis, where the archaeologists hoped to find the great sculptures described in the literary sources—especially works by Praxiteles and the famous Amazon statues of Phidias and Polycletus, all dating from the fourth century B.C.4 Benndorf uncovered part of a limestone platform (which the 1965 Austrian excavations, directed by Anton Bammer, identified as the foundation of the temple’s altar), but he found little else.
So he set his sights on the visible ruins near the harbor, where by 1899 he had uncovered several sections of a huge bath-gymnasium complex and adjacent athletic grounds (where the sacred games of the imperial cult were held). In a large hall-like room that once opened onto the courtyard of the gymnasium (a facility in which citizens met for exercise, instruction and discussion), the team found 234 pieces of a bronze statue and finely carved slabs of marble wall-facing, which had probably toppled in the 262 A.D. earthquake. From numerous inscriptions—including one mentioning a certain Tiberius Claudius Aristion, who served as prytanis (high priest) and grammateus (mayor) of Ephesus from 91 to 93 A.D. and who later supervised the completion of the Celsus Library—we know that the gymnasium was built in the time of the emperor Domitian (81–96 A.D.). In 1997, Austrian archaeologist Stefan Karwiese drew on numismatic evidence to show that the gymnasium had originally been called the Gymnasium of the Emperor Domitian. After Domitian was assassinated and publically condemned, the name was changed to the Imperial Gymnasium and later to 033the Gymnasium of the Emperors. In the 100 years since Benndorf’s excavations, no further research has been done on the harbor bath-gymnasium complex, and his results have remained largely unpublished.
Almost as soon as the Austrians began digging at Ephesus, the choicest finds were put on display in Vienna. The Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid allowed the Austrian ambassador in Constantinople to send whatever finds he wanted to Vienna in honor of Emperor Franz-Joseph. In 1899 the Ephesus finds—including bronze statues, marble sculptures from the harbor gymnasium and fine architectural pieces—were shown to an astonished Viennese public in the so-called Temple of Theseus (actually a reconstruction of the Athenian Temple of Hephaestos), near the official residence of the Hapsburg emperors in Vienna. The star attraction of the show was an intriguing bronze statue, found in the harbor gymnasium, depicting a young athlete cleaning himself off after a victorious fight in the ring—probably a Roman copy of a fourth-century B.C. Greek masterpiece.
The Austrian team uncovered ancient Ephesus piece by piece. Soon, one of the central parts of the Roman city—the structures along the broad, 500-yard-long boulevard that stretched between the theater and the harbor—emerged as a connected ensemble. The street had colonnades, rows of shops on both sides and 50 oil-burning chandeliers to illuminate the city’s vigorous night life. In late antiquity this lively section of the city, where merchants hawked their wares and citizens hobnobbed and window-shopped, was called the Arkadiane (or Street of Arcadius) in honor of the emperor Arcadius (395–408 A.D.).
From 1903 to 1907 the Austrian team explored the commercial agora, which was located immediately southwest of the theater, near the Arkadiane. The agora’s 350-foot-long rectangular courtyard is enclosed on all four sides by halls two stories high. These porticoes contained nearly 200 rooms, which served as shops, offices and 034fast-food restaurants. Three large gates—on the north, south and west sides—led into the agora, and at least four stairways led to the upper floor. The west gate, with its double row of eight columns, stood on a platform; 13 stairs descended from the gate to a grand 45-foot-wide boulevard, which led to the harbor. The north gate opened onto the Arkadiane, and the south gate allowed access to the agora from the upper part of the city, which held the State Agora. Nothing remains of the north or west gate, but the south gate was found preserved to about 6 feet, with most of its architectural blocks scattered in the immediate vicinity. (The facade of the triple-arched gate has been reconstructed.) A bilingual Greek-Latin inscription states that the gate was built in 4–3 B.C. by two freedmen—one serving Augustus and the other serving Augustus’s son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa.
Ephesus’s most impressive structure, after its huge theater, is the famous Celsus Library, which was excavated in 1903 and 1904. It was built in the second decade of the second century A.D., as ordained by the will left by Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. Celsus was a close friend of Emperor Trajan, chief of staff for the imperial building programs in Rome, and consul and governor of the province of Asia in 105 and 106 A.D.
The building is extremely well preserved, with about 80 percent of the marble blocks of its magnificent facade having survived. In the 1970s, with the financial support of a Viennese builder, the Austrian team re-erected the two-story structure, working from drawings by another of Benndorf’s colleagues, George Niemann.
The first story of the facade is divided into four pavilions, each dedicated to one of Celsus’s virtues: Sophia (Wisdom), Arete (Character), Ennoia (Judgment) and Episteme (Skill). At one time there were two marble sculptures of Celsus mounted on a horse, one on each side of the library, flanking the grand central staircase; the bases of the statues were inscribed with his cursus honorum, or list of duties as a Roman civil servant. (These statue bases have been preserved, and the inscriptions can still be read.) Inside, the library had 036only one large hall, with galleries lining the walls. At the back of the hall is a niche in which one can still see the elaborate sarcophagus of the library’s founder.
Celsus seems to have been interested in the philosophy of Aristotle, and he likely joined the circle of the wealthy Tiberius Claudius Aristion, who took responsibility for the completion of the library after Celsus’s only son and heir died. This magnificent testament to Celsus shows not only that he was an important Roman official but that his intellectual interests leaned toward classical Greece. The inscriptions detailing his virtues on the library’s facade, for example, are written in Greek.
Very likely Celsus conceived of his library as part of a larger enterprise—as the research library of a Museion (literally, Temple of the Muses). For the Greeks, a Museion was the center of a peripatetic school of philosophy, which was a philosophical school founded by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. Unlike other schools, the peripatetics were open not only to initiates but to earnest laypeople, such as Celsus. For example, the Museion in Alexandria, where Alexander the Great was buried as the heros ktistes (founder-hero), provided the model for Trajan’s creation of the Greek and Latin libraries in his forum. As Trajan’s friend and executive deputy, Celsus probably had a similar idea—to take part in the creation of a Museion in Ephesus, a kind of university where people of all kinds studied philosophy, medicine and the natural sciences.
Civilized, cultured Ephesus was an ideal place for a man like Celsus. There he could associate with poets and philosophers, attend performances of the Greek plays in the great theater and decide matters of state in the elegant bouleuterion. Our excavations at Ephesus have provided a glimpse of the living arrangements of the city’s wealthy, educated classes. From 1960 to 1990 the Austrian team uncovered the so-called terrace houses, situated near the library 037on a slope beside the city’s main road. We discovered that a number of the houses contained private libraries and studies decorated with frescoes of philosophers and the nine Muses.
Such a lifestyle seems perfectly suited to Ephesus, with its grand theater and smaller, cozier odeons (small theaters); its elegant baths and luxurious villas; and its sober public buildings and monumental gates. Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, whose tastes leaned toward the intellectual, probably preferred those arrangements, too.
Unlike other great Hellenistic/Roman cities—Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople—Ephesus was abandoned in antiquity. These other cities continue to thrive today, which, unfortunately for archaeologists, means that they cannot be excavated, at least not completely. The principal remains we have from ancient Alexandria, for example, are catacombs and debris from the harbor floor; archaeologists digging at Antioch in the 1930s discovered that most of that splendid ancient city is buried under the sprawling modern 028one.a We can view these sites only in the imagination, with the help of literary sources. Not so Ephesus. For more than a century, the Austrian Archaeological […]