To see Ephesus’ ancient city ruins in Turkey is to see one of the world’s largest Roman archaeological sites. The colourful timeline of Turkey’s history means the country is awash with historical sites dating from many civilizations. But Ephesus is the most well-known on the western shores of the Aegean coast, attracting thousands of visitors daily. Ephesus ancient city is to Turkey what the pyramids are to Egypt or the Colosseum to Rome, and every year, an average of 3 million people walk through its gates.
As a pinnacle point of the early Christian Church, Ephesus was one of many ancient Greek cities and home to the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the world’s seven ancient wonders. Saint John, the apostle Paul and the Virgin Mary also spent time in Ephesus. Indeed, this marvellous open-air Museum showcases the extensive excavation work on Ephesus. From the rise and fall of one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, there are many reasons to put Ephesus on your bucket list.
About Ephesus Ancient Ruins in Turkey
How Old is Ephesus?
Ephesus City has an exciting and highly diverse timeline. Still, historians have dated the first construction and signs of habitation from the 10th century BC. The Ionian Greeks established Ephesus as a coastal settlement. The Ionia region covered the western coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), inhabited by various Greek city-states. Like many other Ionian cities, Ephesus grew in importance and prosperity over time. The city excelled in trade, culture, and intellectual activity. The Ionian Greeks made significant contributions to Ephesus and its architectural achievements. However, Ephesus later came under the control of various powers, including Persian rule and the Romans in 129BC.
Ephesus and the Glory Days of the Roman Empire
Ephesus, an important city during Roman rule, served as the capital of Roman Asia and prospered in the eastern Mediterranean region. Renowned for architectural wonders, bustling trade, and cultural significance, Ephesus experienced significant growth and development during this era by attracting merchants, traders, and visitors from various parts of Roman Asia. The strategic location on the Aegean Sea made Ephesus an important port city, facilitating trade with other regions.
Ephesus was also home to early Christian communities. The apostle Paul visited the city and wrote the “Letter to the Ephesians,” included in the Bible’s New Testament. The city played significant roles in early Christian history, and the Virgin Mary lived her final years in a house near Ephesus.
Over time, however, Ephesus’s importance waned thanks to the Aegean Sea channel ebbing away, and the city gradually declined. The silting of the harbour and the shift of trade routes contributed to its decline. Eventually, the city was abandoned, and ruins were buried under layers of soil and sediment until excavations began in the 19th century, revealing the ancient splendours of Ephesus.
My Visit to Ancient Ephesus City Ruins
Sitting on the Aegean coast of Turkey in Asia Minor, near Kusadasi and Selcuk in the Izmir region, this was my third time seeing the ancient city. I first visited Ephesus’ ancient ruins 13 years earlier. I was a newbie ex-pat in Turkey and more preoccupied with adapting to daily life here than concentrating on the history of a Greco-Roman old city that had fallen nearly roughly 12 centuries before. Even though Ephesus was one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, that did not faze me either since I had long given up on religion and Bible studies. 4 years later, I went to Ephesus again. While I felt more appreciation, it was not until the third visit that I felt intense admiration.
The downside of walking through the ancient ruins of Ephesus is crowding. Large cruise liners dock in nearby Kusadasi to take passengers to Ephesus. Combined with 42-seater tour buses from all surrounding holiday resorts, people wander about in awe, paying no attention to where they are going or who they bump into. The urges to photobomb are too great, but if you don’t like crowds or hundreds of people in your holiday photos, go to ancient Ephesus early morning as soon as they open at 08.00 am.
The other downside is independent travellers must walk Ephesus twice, a strenuous stroll in the midday heat. Moreover, the walking route begins at the upper gymnasium bath. It ends at Marble Street, or vice versa, so it poses a problem. Alternatively, hook up with an Ephesus guide (which I strongly recommend). In that case, they will arrange for the transport to meet you at the other end of the city.
Notable Landmarks, Temples and Statues
Signposts briefly describe all archaeological sites, relevant dates, and impressive landmarks, including….
Public Latrines: The Roman public latrines at Ephesus sit on three sides of a small courtyard. Hence, doing business became a social affair. Guides say wealthy Romans instructed their slaves to sit down and warm up the seat for them! Visitors could sit down on them at one stage, but they have now been cordoned off.
Nike Greek Goddess Statue: The small monument amuses those of us who grew up thinking Nike was a brand of sports shoes! It turns out Nike was the Roman winged goddess of victory, and these are the remains Ephesus citizens worshipped.
The Footprint: Another quirky novelty of the great site of Ephesus because this is not just any old engraved footprint. The footprint showed the way to the whorehouse, or as the Romans said, “the bordello”, meaning the “love house.” Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised since it is the world’s oldest profession.
Marble Street and Commercial Agora: From this view, go to Roman Terraced houses’ exit to see the Marble Street of Ephesus. The road led to the grand theatre and was also the primary path for ceremonial and religious purposes. While walking down, look left and right to see the temple and statue remains. If you turn right from the terrace houses, you will also arrive at the commercial agora.
Bouleuterion or Odeon: When I first visited Ephesus City, I was told the great Grand Theatre, seating 24,000 people, would be the highlight. Unfortunately, my knowledge of history and Roman living was nothing, so I expressed disgust at the small, half-circle collection of stones sitting next to the Royal Walk. It turns out I was looking at the Odeon, used by the wealthy and political citizens to discuss the future of Ephesus.
Hadrian Temple: Constructed in roughly 138AD, the murals on the temple of Hadrian tell the story of Ephesus city, including how Androklos, son of Athenian king Kadros, founded the temple after receiving messages from the Greek Delphi oracle.
I originally planned to write about the UNESCO Ephesus Museum in one article, but this did not do the city justice. I have taken the most prominent and magnificent structures and dedicated an article to each at the following links.
The Ancient Library of Celsius
The library held 12,000 scrolls and was the ancient world’s most extensive Roman-Greek collection of cultural literature. The great library was built in 135 AD by Roman emperor Gaius Julius Aquila who wanted to honour his father, a general Roman Empire governor for the province of Asia Minor and aptly called Celsius, hence the library name. His sarcophagus beneath the library is closed to the public. More here.
Ruins of the Great Theatre of Ephesus City
Continue walking the harbour street to arrive at this building, where gladiators fought and died, and social functions were the highlight of culture in Ephesus. Estimations are the great theatre could seat 24,000 Roman Empire citizens, roughly half the amount of today’s modern football stadiums. This seems unbelievable since Romans didn’t have the current technology we do but look down on the theatre from the top steps, and the size becomes more prominent. The Bible also says in early Christianity, this was where the famous Artemis riot took place. Read more here.
Roman City Houses on the Northern Slopes
At UNESCO Ephesus, pay the extra entrance fee to see six terrace houses with marvellously intact ancient mosaics. Affluent citizens constructed most 1st-century Roman terrace houses. Such was their significant wealth; they could afford luxuries such as underfloor heating, clean water, and lavatories, inventions that were not available to the public. Find out more.
The Famous Temple of Artemis
The Temple of Artemis, also called the Temple of Diana, was built by the ancient Greeks and dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of hunting, wild animals, and fertility. The temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, renowned for grandeur and architectural splendour.
The original temple was constructed around the 6th century BCE but was rebuilt and expanded several times over the centuries. The final temple, completed during the Hellenistic period around the 3rd century BCE, was an immense structure featuring 100 marble columns, each standing around 18 meters (60 feet) tall.
Artemis Temple and religious and cultural centre attracted worshippers, pilgrims, and visitors from far and wide. The temple housed a giant statue of Artemis, created by renowned Greek sculptor Praxiteles. The temple also held numerous treasures and offerings from devotees.
Emperor Augustus funded the Artemis Temple reconstruction after it was destroyed by fire in 356 BCE. Although the temple had been rebuilt several times before Augustus’s reign, he contributed to its restoration, emphasizing his reverence for the goddess Artemis and his desire to maintain the city’s prestige.
Alexander the Great offered to finance the temple’s reconstruction. Still, the Ephesians declined, stating it was inappropriate for one god to build a temple for another. However, other benefactors eventually rebuilt the temple on a grander scale. The final destruction occurred during the 5th century CE when it fell into disuse and was largely dismantled by Christian Byzantine authorities.
In those days, the temple was within the ancient city boundaries, but these days, it sits near the entrance to Seljuk town. You can see it by stopping off on your way to Ephesus.
Cats of Ephesus Turkey
Lastly, with its label as an ancient city, it would be easy to assume Ephesus has no citizens, but it does. Cats!. Sitting like kings and queens on old stones with Roman inscriptions, the feline creatures calmly spend the day sleeping while hundreds of people pass them by. I am unsure where they are getting their food sources from because Ephesus has no canteen, but something keeps them coming back.
Summary and Reasons to Visit Ephesus
- Historical Significance: Ephesus is an important archaeological site offering unique opportunities to step back in time and explore the ruins of an ancient city that excelled in commerce, culture, and religion.
- Well-Preserved Ruins: Ephesus boasts remarkably well-preserved ruins, including the iconic Library of Celsus, the Great Theatre, the Artemis Temple and Terrace Houses.
- Religious Significance: Ephesus was a centre of early Christianity, connecting to Saint Paul and the Virgin Mary. The Cave of the Seven Sleepers, the Virgin Mary’s House, and St. John’s Basilica are nearby attractions.
- Easy to Get There: Ephesus is on the western shores of Aegean Turkey. Many surrounding coastal resorts sell daytime trip tickets to head there. Alternatively, stay in nearby Kusadasi or Selcuk.
Should you go on a Guided Tour of Ephesus City?
The ancient city of Ephesus does not let unqualified guides in who talk crap. Licensed tour guides in Turkey have studied and sat exams; therefore, their knowledge is valuable. As you walk around Ephesus City with them, the information enhances your time. It makes it more interesting, especially if your knowledge of history is limited. If you don’t like guided tours, buy the audio guides sold at the entrance to Ephesus City or invest in good books. Do not go into Ephesus blind without knowing what life was like for Ephesus’ citizens.
See Artefacts in the British Museum
If you can’t make it to Turkey, to see Ephesus, the British Museum in London houses surviving architectural fragments from Ephesus. The Museum displays many objects reflecting Ephesus’s history, culture, and daily life during various periods, including the Roman Empire. Among the notable artefacts from Ephesus are
- Several architectural fragments from the Artemis temple.
- The Museum exhibits numerous sculptures and reliefs, showcasing artistry and craftsmanship. These include statues of emperors, gods, goddesses, mythological figures, and reliefs depicting scenes from daily life and religious ceremonies.
- The Museum has carefully reconstructed a house of Roman times from ancient Ephesus, called the Ephesus Room. The room displays architectural elements like decorative friezes, mosaics, and frescoes that offer glimpses into the interior of Ephesian houses.
- The Museum displays significant Ephesus pottery, including fine tableware, cooking vessels, and storage jars. These ceramics showcase artistic styles, techniques, and everyday material culture.
- The Museum also houses various inscriptions and coins from Ephesus. Inscriptions provide valuable information about the city’s civic and religious life. At the same time, coins shed light on its economic activities and trade connections.
Was Ephesus in Greece or Turkey?
Ephesus, a former Roman port city, was located in what is now modern-day Turkey. While Ephesus was initially one of many eastern Mediterranean Greek cities in the 10th century BCE and was an important Greek city, Ephesus became more prominent under Roman rule when the city served as the capital of the Roman province of Asia.
Also, Visit Nearby
Virgin Mary House: The Virgin Mary’s house near Selcuk is near Ephesus’s ancient city ruins in Turkey’s Izmir province. Although the Catholic Church never confirmed the house to be the place of her assumption, three popes have visited. The Catholic Church takes responsibility for running the house through donations and funding.
Saint John Basilica: Saint John’s tomb in Selcuk still intrigues me long after my visit. Historians proved Saint John spent much time here, and his story apparently ended at the grand age of nearly 100. John’s tomb was on Ayasuluk Hill. However, much mystery remains about the tomb of Saint John near the incredible ruins of Ephesus ancient city.