Ephesus is the grandest of the ruined ancient cities of modern Turkey’s antiquity. It was the most important city in the entire Roman province of Asia Minor. It is located on Turkey’s southwestern coast, a little east of the bustling commercial city of Izmir formerly known as Smyrna.
A Silting River Kills Ephesus
Ancient Ephesus was once a thriving port city but silting of the harbour from the deposits carried by the Cayster River caused the port to progressively move seaward. The retreating harbour presently six miles from the city ruins, meant that shipping was no longer tenable and as trade ships preferred Smyrna, so too did the Ephesians move out and eventually the magnificent city was fully abandoned.
Early History of the City
The modern ruins are particularly spectacular with the remains of what was an eleven metre wide paved road lined with fine marble columns running through the city, past the great theatre, the baths, the ornate library, and the agora.
However, before the Romans so beautifully built Ephesus, Ionian colonists around the 10th century BC augmented the original Anatolian settlement. Archaeologists have had great difficulty convincing Turkish authorities to permit the deep excavation of the site to obtain more data about this period. The ruins attract millions of visitors annually and there is a heightened fear that open excavation would destroy the tangible, visible, upper record and possibly devastate tourism.
Archaeological evidence concludes that the initial major settlements were established and continuously occupied from the 3rd Millennium BC. These Bronze Age settlers, at Ephesus, included the Mycenaean traders and later occupations built the Sanctuary of Artemis around 800 BC.
The Roman Period
Ephesus is best known for its archaeologically excavated Roman architecture. Archaeologists have discovered that during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, in 20 – 10 BC, a wholesale renovation was undertaken of the market area known in Latin as the Agora.
The old Hellenistic marketplace was raised 1.5 metres and a new quadrangular agora was constructed with sides exceeding 100 metres long. This open market was surrounded by two-storied, colonnaded stoa, 17 metres deep, bringing the total structure to more than 154 metres long.
Ephesian rulers curried the favour of Roman Emperors by constructing and dedicating temples and monuments to them. The remains of the temple dedicated to Julius Caesar was first erected in 29 BC. The deification of Rome’s elite birthed the reign of the Emperor Cults. In return for being so honoured the Emperors further beautified the city with funds collected from elsewhere in the Empire.
Coins excavated from the site are struck with the titles “First and Greatest Metropolis in Asia” and “First of All the Great Ones”. By this time, in Ephesian history, archaeologists believe the city was at its height with a population of around 250,000 permanent residents.
The agora was the commercial hub of Ephesian trade. The city’s chief industry was the supply of idols to pilgrim worshippers who travelled to Ephesus from all parts of the world to pay homage at the city’s great god temples such as Diana.
Hundreds of fertility god artefacts have been located in these areas. These miniature replicas of the gods were said to charm away evil spirits and provide protection to its devotee owners. Idols of this nature brought great profit to Ephesian artisans. Among other similar artefacts that have been archaeologically excavated are scrolls about magic, mysticism, and incantations. These writings are known as the ‘Ephesian Letters’ and contain magical remedies for illness, infertility, and ensured prosperity.
Burning the Scrolls
These magic letters should not be confused with the widely known ‘Epistle to the Ephesians’ written in the first century AD by the Hebrew evangelist, Sha’ul. However, another author makes reference to the mystical scrolls in the biblical book of Acts. In chapter 19 the apostle, Luka, tells of the public burning of the scrolls used in sorcery. The value of the loss is calculated at 50,000 drachmas.
As one drachma equalled a man’s daily wage this would make the equivalent value today around four million pounds. Such a sizable deliberate loss would not be acceptable had something not deeply influenced and altered the pagan culture of Roman Ephesus.
The Circle of Seven
Ephesus, being the major port access, was the first on a list of seven cities that formed a circle clockwise into inland Asia Minor. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the ancient Roman Road that stretched from Ephesus to Laodicea, the last of the seven cities. Starting at the great city, the roads form a geographic semi-circle connecting all seven cities on what functioned as an ancient postal route.
A letter, written in the first century AD, to the Christians of wealthy, pampered, and pagan Ephesus, rebukes them for forsaking their first love and mixing the Ephesian cult worship with the truth that they had first received. Papyrus fragments, found at Oxyrhynchus, of copies of 3rd and 4th century manuscripts are held in the Papyrology Rooms, of the Sackler Library in Oxford, England.
Archaeologists have not uncovered any Christian places of gathering at Ephesus earlier than the third century AD. It appears that early believers in the Jewish Messiah met in private homes or in public places. Their magnificent, opulent surroundings and the ingrained pagan cult culture was an ever-present temptation to their simple lives that eventually overcame them.