Last Updated on August 4, 2021 by Natasha Amar
I’m not big on ruins or museums- you have to admit that ruins hardly leave you feeling happy and cheerful. But historical sights in Turkey (and everything else really- have you seen Cappadocia?) are seriously impressive and I’d never seen Roman ruins before. So, my curiosity found its way to the ancient city of Ephesus or Efes on our first day in Selcuk, a quiet town almost completely devoid of any tourists (remember, this was December) that was our base to explore the area on the Aegean coast.
One of the most famous historical sites in Turkey, Ephesus attracts millions of tourists each year and for good reason. As we walked around the ruins, for the first time, I didn’t see empty streets, abandoned low-roofed stone buildings and broken marble sculptures. Instead I saw stories, market scenes and processions along the wide main street, where the residents of Ephesus met to partake in the social and community events of the day.
In the Grand Theatre, I imagined the unfolding of a grand gladiatorial affair to the enthusiastic cheering of crowds. I saw the sculptors at work obsessing with the fine details of the sculptures and intricate carvings on the arches of doorways. I looked at the details of the grand façade of the Library of Celsus and wondered: How on earth was all of this sculpted to such perfection in the absence of modern-day tools? As we explored the nooks and crannies of the Terrace Houses, I couldn’t help but feel sad, we were all outsiders walking around, scrutinizing details in a space that was once someone’s home.
To say that the city is completely abandoned would not be true; for everywhere we were under the watchful gaze of the feline keepers of Ephesus. The ruins are home to a huge population of cats, perhaps the descendants of the original feline inhabitants of the city. They are everywhere, sunning themselves and watching as you scramble on top of rocks. My guess is that if they could talk, we’d hear a far more interesting account of what happened in and to Ephesus than any historical records could provide. They look well fed and are not intimated by people, making no attempt to scatter away as you whip out your camera to photograph them. For me, they were a welcome distraction from thinking about the downfall of Ephesus.
A Brief History of Ephesus
The great city of Ephesus was ruled by various forces that shaped Turkey’s vibrant history; from the Greeks and Romans to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Home to 300,000 people during the second century A.D., it was an important port city on trading routes between Asia and Europe. Perhaps the biggest jewel in its crown was the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The city is extensively referenced in the Bible and also hosted personalities such as Antony and Cleopatra.
One of the main streets of ancient Ephesus, the Curetes Way was flanked by sculptures, columns, fountains and shops.
The basilica was used for commercial affairs and legal matters and suffered extensive damage during an earthquake in the fourth century A.D. The columns here feature bulls’ heads from the first century A.D.
The Varius Baths
Built in the second century A.D., the Varius Baths were constructed from marble blocks.
Constructed in second century A.D. with a seating capacity of 1500, the Odeon is a small theater with a central stage area and was used both for Senate meetings and as a concert venue.
The monument was built in the first century A.D. during the rule of Augustus. The figures on the façade represent the father and grandfather of Memmius who built the structure in memory of the Roman victory commandeered by his grandfather Sulla over Mithridates in 87BC.
Relic of Hermes
This relic at the corner of Domitian Square depicts Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia. He was responsible for the rather depressing task of guiding the souls of the dead to the underworld. Notice the winged sandals that are characteristic of depictions of Hermes. As he was the patron of borders, pillars featuring his face were used to mark borders and outside houses for protection from evil forces.
Relic of Nike
I thought this relic of Nike, the goddess of victory was beautiful. The only other one I’ve seen so far is at the Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Fountain of Trajan
Constructed in honor of Emperor Trajan, the monument featured a sculpture of Trajan overlooking the pool surrounded by sculptures of Dionysus, Satyr, and Aphrodite.
Temple of Hadrian
Built in honor of Emperor Hadrian, the temple is one of the most well preserved structures in Ephesus. Particularly striking are the relics of Tyche, goddess of victory on the curved arch over the entrance and Medusa above the door.
Library of Celsus
The beautiful details on the façade of the Library of Celsus made it my favorite part of Ephesus. Other than the Terraced Houses, I spent the most time here admiring the sculptures and photographing them.
Built in 117A.D., the library was built in honor of Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus by his son and he was later laid to rest here. Over 12000 scrolls were placed in cupboards in niches on the double-layered walls to protect them from the effects of weather and humidity. The architecture results in an optical illusion of the façade appearing bigger than it actually is. It’s believed that the library was also a show of pomp and splendor to earn a reputation far and wide.
The statues by the three entrances are seriously impressive but I was surprised to learn that they are actually copies of the originals! The originals were placed in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna in 1910 during restoration work that was carried out on the library in cooperation with the Austrian Archaeological Institute.
Roman Terrace Houses
The Roman Terrace Houses require a separate entry ticket but the extra cost is totally worth it. There are six houses on three terraces of a hill right opposite the Temple of Hadrian. The oldest of these structures was built as early as the first century B.C. Not all units are open to the public to walk through as restoration work continues.
Owned by affluent families, the houses have floors covered in elaborate mosaics and impressive frescoes that are still being restored. By modern day standards, these houses were very spacious and the affluence meant that they had luxuries such as hot and cold water and heating pipes underneath the floors. The airy central courtyard is surrounded by dining and living areas on the ground floor and bedrooms on the first floor.
With a seating capacity of 25,000 the huge theatre was one of the few quiet spots in Ephesus when I visited. The size made it possible to find a solitary spot in an attraction where you’re surrounded by at least over a dozen other tourists at any point in time. Once the setting for gory gladiatorial fights, the theatre continues to be used as a venue for concerts and has hosted the likes of Pavarotti and Elton John. If you’re interested to know more about the Grand Theatre, read this post that recounts important historical events that took place there.
Know Before You Go
- You can visit Ephesus independently or with a tour. In either case, it’s a good idea to visit with a licensed guide (you can hire one there). If you don’t want to do that, simply rent an audio guide.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes and carry a hat and a bottle of water.
- It’s recommended to visit as early as possible in the day (entry begins at 8.00am) to avoid the mid-day crowds of tour groups.
- To visit Ephesus, you can base yourself in either of the neighboring towns of Selcuk or Kusadasi. I stayed in Selcuk and found it to be more atmospheric and less touristy than Kusadasi.
- If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s not too far from Ephesus, read my review of Cella Hotel (one of my most memorable stays anywhere) in Selcuk.
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Have you been to the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey, or other ancient cities in the world? I’d love to hear more about it, so please share your experience in the comments below.