Time travelling with the ancients

29 January 2016

Diana Bentley explores the spectacular ruins at Ephesus

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Ancient theatre: the site of St Paul’s altercation with the silversmiths

Ancient theatre: the site of St Paul’s altercation with the silversmiths

IT IS early morning, and the sun blazes down as I make my way through the Magnesia Gate and enter the site of ancient Ephesus, the legendary capital of Rome’s Asian empire.

On the Aegean coast of Turkey, near the bustling tourist hub of Kusadasi, it is one of the archaeological stars of the Mediterranean. But my visit soon seems not so much like a trot through history as an experience in time travel.

The Greeks founded Ephesus, and worshipped the goddess Artemis here; but what remains today is all the ostentation of imperial Rome. If you want to journey back to the days of toga-clad patricians, soldier-filled streets, crowds cheering at gladiatorial games, and early Christians braving it out in hostile conditions, this is the place.

From the start, the scale of the city — once home to some 250,000 people — is transfixing. I am immediately immersed in acres of stone: a huge gymnasium gives way to an array of baths; a large theatre — which turns out to be the small one — rises up a hillside; and on the other side there is a vast agora where the locals once gathered for markets and meetings.

But it is when I pass through the Hercules Gate and make my way down Kouretes Street that I really begin to feel like one of the swirl of overawed visitors who ventured into Rome’s dazzling Asian metropolis in its heyday.

Broad, marble-paced, and once lined by a colonnade and a bevy of statues, Kouretes Street is flanked by truly impressive sights, from the Fountain of Trajan, with its elegant pediment, to the magnificent Temple of Hadrian, with its ornate stone work.

 

DESPITE the grandeur, however, the mundane aspects of ancient Ephesian life are in evidence, too. There are the latrines, which are extraordinarily well-preserved and disconcertingly public, and here is a brothel.

At the end of the street, the city’s biggest treat lies in store. Built around 135 AD to honour the Roman governor of the Asian province, the Library of Celsus remains the emblematic face of Ephesus, and for good reason. Rising up two storeys, it is a visual knockout — an elegant confection of intricately carved arches and columns and an array of statues. In its time, it was one of the great libraries of the world.

Sitting on its steps in the shade, I pause to look about. Once, the city would have been filled with the great and the good of the ancient world. Antony and Cleopatra dallied here, and famously did away with Cleopatra’s younger sister, who sought shelter in the renowned Temple of Artemis. Later, Roman emperors regularly made appearances here.

For some, Ephesus provided a life of ease. Beside the library lie the remains of several Roman terraced houses, which reveal the luxury enjoyed by some. Inside, archaeologists have uncovered large, airy rooms, decorated with frescoes and mosaics, and baths, all with running water and central heating.

 

THROUGH the Gate of Mazaeus and Mithridates — built by two slaves freed by the Emperor Augustus — a broad road leads to the theatre. Gold and silversmiths once had workshops in the large agora on the left, which also served as a slave-trading market.

At the end of the street, the Great Theatre, completed in the time of Trajan, fans out over the hillside. A vast, three-tiered affair, it is the best preserved monument in Ephesus. It was here that the silversmiths rioted after St Paul preached that their images of the goddess Artemis were sacrilegious.

Ahead of the theatre lies the marble-paved Harbour Street. Only a few columns remain from the time when it was lined by colonnades and shops; but, if you look carefully, you can still see evidence of the playing boards the Romans carved into the street.

Once upon a time, the sea lay just beyond the gate, but silting turned the area into a marsh, which forced the people away. Indeed, after the Goths rampaged through Ephesus in 262 AD, its days of glory waned. For Christians, however, it remained a special place. To the right, in the distance, stands the Council’s church, the basilica where the Third Ecumenical Council was held in 431 AD.

And there is much more to see in the vicinity. At the nearby town of Selcuk, a crooked, broken column is all that remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and now a place of pilgrimage.

Not far from here is the basilica of St John, built by the Emperor Justinian on what is believed to be the burial spot of the apostle, and one of the seven churches of Asia Minor. Eight kilometres away lies the House of Mary, where Christ’s mother is said to have spent her final days.

The list of historical treasures goes on and on. It is hardly a wonder that people have been flocking to Ephesus for thousands of years.

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