Ephesus, World Heritage Site and Mind-Boggling Time Travel

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with information about this old city. And when I say “old” I’m talking about almost nine thousand years of continuous habitation. It probably ranks right up there with other ancient cities like Aleppo (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), Xian (China), and Varanasi (India) to name a few.

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After visiting this World Heritage site today, and reading a few of the hotel’s guide books, a couple encyclopedia articles, and other reports online, I have a Top Ten list of notable facts.

1. an ancient city founded by the Arzawan civilization in the 10th c. BCE preceded the Greek and Ionian colonists who came in the 7th or 6th, and was on one of the main trading routes heading into Asia; there was formerly a fine bay that led to the Aegean Sea but which silted gradually, leaving Ephesus landlocked by the 14th century. By that time, its decline was significant.

2. a major temple to the goddess Artemis, one of the largest temples and one of the “seven wonders” of the ancient world, stood outside the city of Ephesus and drew patrons and pilgrims for centuries. Artemis was the goddess of hunting, wilderness, and wild animals, and the protectress of women and girls. This ancient mother goddess was portrayed in in sculpture as an open-armed figure with chest decorated with multiple egg-shaped breasts.

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3. when the Persian king Xerses failed in his invasion of Greece, upon returning he burned every Greek temple he came across but did not touch the giant temple to Artemis.

4. Alexander the Great captured Ephesus from the Persians in 334 B.C. and started some renovations. The city came under Roman control in 133 B.C. where it flourished as a major port and administrative center for this part of the empire, one of the cities of the Ionian League.

5. Heraclitus, (575-475 BCE) to whom is attributed “a man never steps into the same river twice,” was a native son but hated his fellow citizens for their wealth and prosperity, as well as their ignorance.

6. Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoë, is said to have been murdered here, with an octagon tomb erected in her honor. The history is quite interesting and involves two more notable personages: “After the Roman’s defeated Ptolemy’s Egyptian army, Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was then transported to Rome, where in 46 BC she was forced to appear in Caesar’s triumph. Despite the custom of strangling prominent prisoners in triumphs when the festivities were at an end, Caesar was pressured to spare Arsinoe and granted her sanctuary at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Arsinoe lived in the temple for a few years, always keeping a watchful eye on her sister Cleopatra, who perceived Arsinoe as a threat to her power.

In 41 BC, at Cleopatra’s instigation, Mark Antony ordered Arsinoë executed on the steps of the temple, a gross violation of the temple sanctuary and an act which scandalised Rome.The priest Megabyzus, who had welcomed Arsinoë on her arrival at the temple as Queen, was only pardoned when an embassy from Ephesus made a petition to Cleopatra.” (Wikipedia) There is no conclusive evidence that the female skeleton found in the octagon tomb is Arsinoe’s.

7. The temple of Hestia Boulaea held the city’s eternal flame and was tended by vestal virgins and was fronted by a giant Artemis statue.

8. German Goths sacked Ephesus in AD 263 and burned the Artemis temple. In fact, the Goths wrecked just about everything they encountered in this part of the world, including Athens and the Acropolis.

9. By the 4th century and like the rest of the Roman Empire after Constantine, Ephesus had become Christian. Due to alternate interpretations about the divinity of Jesus (or lack thereof), a 3rd church council of bishops was assembled in Ephesus at the Church of St. Mary in 431 CE. Here, they once and finally affirmed the Nicean Creed, which remains the statement of faith for most Christians. They also excommunicated the Nestorians, who believed that Jesus was not the equivalent of God because he was human.

Also, according to the book Paul, the Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson:
“When the region eventually adopted Christianity, it is unsurprising that the cult of the goddess (Artemis) transferred to that of Christ’s Mother. The temple eunuchs (priests of Artemis), now turned Christian celibates, had no shortage of folk-tales with which to interest the credulous — stories of St. John or Luke escorting the Blessed Virgin from Jerusalem to this city in Asia Minor.”

10. The city was in decline by time of the Crusades in the 12th century; European knights were “befuddled” to find a forlorn village rather than epic ancient city they had expected.

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The first part of the morning was rather dreary and cold, with intermittent rain keeping me moving. The upper part of the city went by undramatically, but when I approached the library, a bit of sun came through. There were three big tour groups that I tried to stay in front of, so I had to plan my moves strategically. From the famous library, built by a son to honor (and entomb) his father, one walks along a very wide marble road, marked by a gateway erected by two freed slaves who must have made it big in the Roman world.

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Then there is the Great Theater that is said to have been able to hold 26,000 people, or about two-thirds of the population of the entire city (slaves excluded, of course). The stage had three-stories and stood 18 meters high. In addition to concerts and plays, the theater was also used for religious, political and philosophical discussions and for gladiator and animal fights.

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You don’t really get a sense of the place until you are in the upper rows, where the bowl-shaped structure stands out and you can see down the wide road that led to the harbor and Aegean Sea beyond. I wanted some tourist to start singing an aria or recite a few lines of a Euripides play.

From these top-tier seats, I could see more clearly some ruins far out in a big field. To get there, the path went by the stones of St. Mary’s church, where the 3rd Church Council (mentioned above) was held. I listened to a Turkish tour guide gloss over this information to his group, and gently suggested that he add a few details later on. I mean, this is a very significant site for the foundation of Christianity, mostly because the various bishops from all over the Mediterranean world finally agreed on a statement of faith, and that Jesus was divine. The implications of that latter decision would reverberate for a couple thousand years!

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The ruins were of the Harbor Baths, built for the sailors who anchored in the bay. I loved the wildness of the area, left untended and ungroomed. Several columns or towers looked as if a strong gust of wind would topple them. The light was especially fine at this time of day, and a couple dramatic photos resulted. By the time I made it back to the lower entrance area to be picked up, I had been on site for 4 hours, and felt like it wasn’t enough!

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After a nap at the hotel, I wanted to take advantage of the fine weather and so walked across town to the hills on the other side. It was windy and brisk, but I came across a couple young men tending a few goats, as well as some boys flying kites. Everyone was happy to pose for a photo, and I felt very grateful for such a richly visual and compelling day

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