The Library of Celsus ... built between 110 and 135 AD by the Consul Gaius Julius Aquilus in honour of his father, Julius Celsus Polemaenanus, it is a magnificent and imposing two-storey building with a finely-crafted façade (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)
By Patrick Comerford
Strolling down the paved Priests’ Way or Curetes Street in Ephesus at the height of the summer, our guide happily pointed out the vista ahead of us, including – in his own words – the “Library of Celsius.” Well, it was a scorching hot day. And – given the decadent reputation of Ephesus at the height of its prosperity – I have no doubt the library shelves once held some hot topics.
Pompeii aside, Ephesus is the largest and best-preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean, and after Istanbul it is the most popular tourist site in Turkey. From early morning, the site is packed with tourists, who are often rushed through the streets in an hour or less. Yet, despite the commercialisation of the site, visitors never fail to be overawed by the dramatic impact of Ephesus, with its well-preserved and restored buildings, temples, baths, lavatories, fountains, streets, agorae, monuments and theatres.
Ephesus owed its early growth and prosperity to its proximity to the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World – according to Pausanias, it was the largest building of the ancient world – where the Greek goddess Artemis and the Anatolian goddess Cybele were worshipped as Artemis of Ephesus.
The temple was burnt down by Herostratus, a lunatic, one night in 356 BC. By coincidence, this was the night that Alexander the Great was born. Restoration began at once, with plans for a larger and grander temple. When Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, he was greeted warmly in Ephesus with a triumphal entry into Ephesus. He saw that the Temple of Artemis had not yet been completed, and proposed financing the work with his name inscribed on the temple. But the people of Ephesus refused, arguing that it was not fitting for one god to build a temple for another.
Gateway to the East
Ephesus is mentioned over 500 times in Greek literature alone, and was home to many important historical figures, including the poet Callinus, the satirist Hipponax, the philosopher Heraclitus, the painter Parrhasius, the grammarian Zenodotos and the physicians Soranus and Rufus. As the gateway to Asia and the East, it was at the heart of trade between Rome and India, and was once the capital of the richest province in the Roman world and the largest port city in the civilised world. When the port silted up in the sixth century, the prosperity of Ephesus began to fade, but even the port of London did not reach the size or importance of Ephesus at its height until the Tudor era.
Walking through Ephesus today, it is impossible not to be taken by the beauty of the Temple of Hadrian, with its relief of Medusa, the Fountain of Trajan, the Baths of Scholastica, the Theatre that could seat 25,000 to 40,000 people, or the Arcadian Way, leading from the port to the Theatre and along which Cleopatra made her triumphal entrance to Ephesus.
The Library of Celsus was built between 110 and 135 AD by the Consul Gaius Julius Aquilus in honour of his father, Julius Celsus Polemaenanus. It is a truly magnificent and imposing two-storey building with a finely-crafted façade, four niches for statues personifying Virtue, Wisdom, Fate and Genius – long removed to Vienna – a spacious paved courtyard, and reading rooms withy cavities to keep over 12,000 papyrus scrolls. The library faced east so that the reading rooms could make the best use of the morning light.
Early seat of Christianity
Ephesus is of particular interest to Christians because of its associations with the Apostle Paul, later with Saint John the Evangelist, and as the location for two Councils of the Church in the fifth century.
The Apostle Paul spent two or three years here between 52 and 54, and his letters from Ephesus make this time the best documented period of his career. Ephesus was equidistant from his churches in Achaia, Macedonia and Galatia, and from Ephesus he wrote his Epistles to the Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, his First Letter to the Corinthians, and a lost Letter to Laodicea. Some were written from his jail in a tower near the western end of the city walls.
Paul’s preaching in Ephesus posed a real threat to the cult of Artemis. The city’s silversmiths began to fret about their future, worried that religious tourism might start to drop off or that the sales of souvenir statues of Artemis and votive offerings might dwindle. Demetrius called the silversmiths together in the theatre, where they howled: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”
The crowd was calmed, but Paul was eventually forced to leave for Macedonia, where he would preach to the church in Thessaloniki and Philippi (Acts 19: 23 – 20: 1). Paul found it emotionally draining to leave Ephesus, and so said his farewell to the elders of Ephesus in the neighbouring port of Miletus (Acts 20: 17), leaving Timothy in charge of the Church in Ephesus (I Timothy 1: 3). But Paul never forgot the church in Ephesus and wrote his Epistle to the Ephesians from his prison in Rome before his martyrdom.
One of seven Churches
By the end of the first century, Ephesus was an important centre of Christianity and was one of the Seven Churches addressed in the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Evangelist from his exile on the neighbouring island of Patmos.
After Domitian’s death, John is said to have moved from Patmos to Ephesus, where he wrote his Gospel. John, who is known in the Greek Church as Saint John the Theologian, is said to have died in Ephesus in the year 100. He was buried on the nearby hill of Ayasoluk, whose name is a corruption of the Greek Aghios Theologos – the Holy or Saintly Theologian.
Saint John’s disciples in Ephesus included Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr in the Colosseum in Rome on 19 December 107. Before his death, Ignatius wrote his Letter to the Church at Ephesus, in which he refers to Onesimus, the Bishop of Ephesus. Few writers have resisted the temptation to identify this Onesimus with the ex-slave who was converted by Paul in Ephesus and who is the subject of Paul’s Letter to Philemon.
The persecution of the Christians of Ephesus under the Emperor Decius in the second century gave rise to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who slept in a cave for two centuries until the persecutions came to an end. The story is popular among Christians and Muslims, but the site of the cave is now closed off to tourists.
The Temple of Artemis was sacked by the Goths in the year 263, and the cult of Artemis went into decline after the legalisation of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine. In 406, John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered the final destruction of the temple.
From Byzantines to Turks
By the early fifth century, Ephesus was such an important centre of Christianity that the third Ecumenical Council of the Church met here in the year 431. The council was called by the Emperor Theodosius II and met inside the Double Church, one of the largest in Christianity at the time, and the first church ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At the council, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was condemned and deposed for heresy and the Nicaean Creed was affirmed. A second council met at Ephesus in 449, but its decrees were overturned two years later at Chalcedon and the second council has been known ever since as the Robber Council.
A century later, the Emperor Justinian replaced two small churches at the tomb of Saint John on the top of the hill of Ayasoluk. The new Basilica of Saint John became one of the largest and most ornate Byzantine churches. It was 110 metres long and 40 metres wide, with one large dome and ten smaller ones, supported by columns, and looked down on the ruins of the former Temple of Artemis. What remained of the temple was finally razed to the ground by the Byzantines, who carted most of the remaining masonry up to Ayasoluk or away to Constantinople.
The town was severely damaged by an earthquake in 614. The decline of Ephesus was hastened with sackings by the Arabs in 654-655, 700 and 716. When the Seljuk took Ephesus in 1071-1100, it was a small village. The Byzantines returned in 1100, changed the name of Ephesus to Aghios Theologos, and remained here until 1304, when the region was conquered by Sasa Bey.
Ephesus flourished again for a short period under the Seljuk Turks, and in 1375 the Isa Bey Camii or Prophet Jesus Mosque was built below the slopes of Ayasoluk, using some remaining Roman columns to support the gabled room. The Basilica of Saint John was finally destroyed in 1402 by Tamerlane’s Mongols, and in 1425 the region became part of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II. Ephesus was completely abandoned later in the 15th century, but a new town grow up around the hill of Ayasoluk or Ayasluğ and was renamed Selçuk in 1914.
Some of the colonnades and walls of Saint John’s Basilica have been re-erected in recent years, giving a glimpse of its former grandeur. The tomb of Saint John is pointed out in the apse, there is a Baptistery in the shape of a cross, and a marble plaque marks the visit of Pope Paul VI to the basilica in 1967.
During his visit to Ephesus, Paul VI also prayed in the ruins of Double Church or the Basilica of Saint Mary, where the Councils of Ephesus met. Although the ruins are only a few metres west of the main car park at Ephesus, they are seldom included in the guided tours, and are often off-limits for tourists. Instead, tourists in popular resorts such as Kusadasi are often bussed to Meryemana, the so-called “House of Mary,” paying exorbitant fees to attend Sunday Mass at a site marketed as the place where the Virgin Mary lived out her last days.
The Early Church originally held that Mary lived and died in Jerusalem. A later myth said that in her final years she lived under the protection of Saint John. It was a further step to suggest that she had lived with him in Ephesus. But the tradition surrounding the House of Mary is built on an incredible set of presumptions resting solely on the dreams of a German nun and seer, Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), and on the curious interpretations placed on those dreams by French Lazarist priests living in Smyrna (Izmir) in 1891.
Instead, it’s worth spending more time in Ephesus before moving on to neighbouring Priene, Miletus and Didmya, three more breathtaking classical sites on the Anatolian coast.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the November editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe)