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Volume 22, Number 1January/February 1971

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Hostess to History

Written by Louise Purwin Zobel
Photographed by William Tracy

Minoans came first and after them Trojans, fleeing from fallen Troy. Later came Androcles of Athens, Croesus, Xerxes, Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, St. Paul and the Virgin Mary. They came to Ephesus, hostess to history.

It is hard to imagine Ephesus in this role today. Hidden away in the rural quiet of western Turkey, her gracious ruins now play hostess only to colonies of storks nesting on marble columns that patrol her rusty brown hills and look down on a purple swamp that was once a harbor.

That harbor—a perfect crescent facing directly toward Athens—was one of numerous geographical blessings that would insure Ephesian growth and prosperity later: the congenial climate, the fortuitous accessibility to the nearby mountain passes from which one day caravans from the Asian hinterland would come; gentle foothills; soil rich in loam; and three rivers—the Maeander, Little Maeander and Hermos—watering a fertile valley.

If recent excavations are reliable, these advantages were not lost on such early peoples as the Minoans, Amazons, and Carians. But it was a Greek named Androcles who in 1100 B.C. led a boatload of colonizers to the coast of Asia Minor and became the founding father.

Androcles, son of Codrus, the last Athenian king, did not choose the site of Ephesus rashly. He postponed decision on the precise spot for his colony until messengers, sent to consult the Delphic Oracle, returned to say that "a boar and a fish" would indicate the right place. He then waited a few more days until, as they cooked fish over a fire, sparks ignited nearby brush and flushed a boar. When they killed him near Mount Coressus, Androcles decided that was the ordained site to build a city.

It was a beautiful city. Beside the deep bay he constructed wharves and warehouses, but conveniently close he built an agora, with market stalls and counting houses. Above, on the slopes, he put the homes of wealthy merchants, and his acropolis, vestiges of which can still be found. He also built three temples, one to Athena, one to Apollo and one to Artemis, formerly "Cybele."

From the beginning Ephesus was an important center of religion and although fire, war and earthquakes demolished many temples the Ephesians always rebuilt them, each time more elaborately. Their most ambitious undertaking was a magnificent new temple to Artemis which was under construction when, in the sixth century B.C., King Croesus arrived at the Ephesian gates as Lydian conqueror. Ephesians, recalling that temple precincts traditionally remained unmolested, searched every house for scraps of rope and knotted a single cord that stretched a mile, from the temple sanctuary to the city walls. They sacrificed as usual at the temple altar and then declared the whole town part of the temple precinct.

Crafty Croesus was not deterred from occupying the town, but he proved a gentle, generous conqueror, who placated Artemis with such marvelous golden calves and marble columns that even the Persian Xerxes, on his bitter, scorched earth march back to Susa (after the Persian defeat at Salamis), declined to destroy it. It stood, in fact, for two centuries until, in 356 B.C., a madman named Herostrates burned it down.'

During this period, Ephesus served as a political pawn among Persians, Athenians, Spartans, Milesians, and others, each invader leaving such destruction behind that debris still covers those Hellenic milestones. Although American, British, Austrian, Italian, and Turkish archeologists have explored her various sites for over 100 years, only about 25 per cent of the ruins have been excavated. This was partly because some of the ruins endured to serve different purposes in different eras. Stones from older layers of Ephesian civilization were often utilized in construction of newer buildings. Houses of religion were converted to living quarters, animal shelters, cisterns, or shrines to different religions.

Whatever happened, the Ephesians rebuilt. When Alexander the Great marched through Asia Minor on his fourth-century empire-building route he found Ephesians doggedly beginning still another new sanctuary and offered to finance the project. If they would inscribe his name on the architrave as donor of the temple. The Ephesians tactfully told him that, "It is not fitting for one god to dedicate a temple to another."

Perhaps later they regretted their refusal as building costs soared and the ladies of Ephesus had to pawn their jewels to pay for such famous artists as Praxiteles, Phidias and Scopas to come and decorate it. But when it was finished it was larger than four Parthenons, was visible for miles from land or sea, and became the Seventh Wonder of the World.

In the third century, however, invading Goths destroyed this wonder and its ruins gradually disappeared under 20 feet of silt. When the 19th-century English architect John T. Wood finally found its sculptured Ionic columns and lion-headed gargoyles, he sent them to the British Museum and, although an abortive attempt at further excavation was made last year, the only traces of the great structure are a few marble fragments among the fig trees now covering the temple site.

In the meantime there had been a serious change in the Ephesians' harbor. The Little Maeander River (which gave a verb to our dictionary) had changed course and, as it capriciously dug new gorges across the plains, began to deposit mud in the harbor. Soon the perfect harbor silted up and large commercial and war vessels could no longer enter it. In time the silted harbor turned into a swamp which provided a breeding ground for malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

General Lysimacus, heir to Alexander, solved the dual problem by dredging the harbor and moving the town up the slopes of Mount Pion. He laid out a new city, with grids of streets intersecting at right angles, central squares occupied by beautiful, marble-pillared public buildings. He enclosed the city with five miles of ten-foot thick unmortared walls. He cut giant cisterns and put up a central market place designed to serve a city of half a million people, an enormous water clock, now back in place, and the Ephesian Great Theater, its 25,000 seats making it one of the largest in Asia Minor. Carved into the side of Mount Pion, the Great Theater remains an acoustically perfect shell.

Despite the beauty of the new city, the sentimental Ephesians showed no inclination to leave their homes on the plain and move up to it, so Lysimacus, to encourage the move, cut off drainage canals in the old town. After the first heavy rain, the people had no choice but to evacuate the flooded lowlands.

This period, the Hellenistic period, was probably the richest era in the city's history. Drawn by the Seventh Wonder of the World—as well as an astute advertising program—pilgrims from Europe and Asia, anxious to share in Artemis's obviously generous blessings, overflowed hotels and caravanseries. They joined Ephesians at the coffee houses, reveled in games and races at the stadium, laughed and wept at comedies and tragedies at the theater. They picnicked beside cool streams, where elegant statues decorated the sacred groves. They thronged the shops, drinking in the smell of exotic spices, buying quantities of Egyptian ivory and Chinese silk, Indian cotton and British tin. They concentrated on the more pleasurable aspects of their religion.

As time went by, Ephesus extended her hospitality to many major figures: Hannibal, after escaping Carthage a few hours ahead of the Romans; Lucullus, whose name is now synonymous with gastronomic luxury, and who in Ephesus arranged gourmet banquets and presented the first gladiatorial combat in Asia Minor; Julius Caesar, who promised tax reform and relief from looting armies which never quite materialized; and Marc Antony twice, the second time to spend a winter's carnival with Cleopatra before the Battle of Actium.

After Octavianus Augustus defeated Antony at Actium, Ephesus, as capital of the Roman Province of Asia, reached its zenith. Though still fighting the meandering river and silting of the harbor the Ephesians in this period enjoyed a reduction in tax burdens, invigorated commerce and industry and new construction along the valley and lower slopes of Mount Pion and Mount Coressus.

By this time Artemis had become Diana, but, still ensconced in the Seventh Wonder sanctuary, continued to draw such wealth into the city that it became a crucial part of the growing contest between Christianity and paganism. When St. Paul arrived at Ephesus to confront Diana's adherents at the Ephesian Great Theater, he was assaulted by thousands of pagan voices reverberating among the olive trees. "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" they called insultingly.

Although Paul was disheartened by the outburst, he was not discouraged. Heat Ephesus for three years, making many converts and establishing it as a center of Christianity.

Diana was not Christianity's only rival. The Ephesians had also created a magnificent temple to the Egyptian deity Serapis. There was an enormous temple to Domitian, elegantly terraced and surrounded by shops, a two-storied fountain house dedicated to Trajan, and a finely-chiseled, round-arched temple to Hadrian. This temple was part of the Scolastikia Baths, named for a fourth-century Christian woman who installed complicated piping systems and rooms for thousands of bathers.

Other public gathering places were the library and the agora with a huge gate between. Built about the time of Jesus' birth by two former slaves, the gate is a status symbol. While its inscriptions thanked the emperor for freedom, those liberated slaves also proudly indicated their success as free merchants in the marketplace.

While the agora provided a central market, other mercantile establishments lined the streets of Ephesus: wine shops, medical clinics, commercial bakeries and brothels. On Arcadian Avenue, where sailors from all over the world sauntered from the harbor up to town, artisans hammered silver into perfume bottles and molded ox bones into kitchen cutlery. At night the flicker from oil burning lanterns was reflected in the bay's black stillness, for this was the first street in the world to have regular street lighting.

At one end of Arcadian Avenue, was the Great Theater and around the corner was the Odeon, a smaller theater, used for intimate recitals.

Near the Odeon, in a 20th-century tobacco field, archeologists found the main waterline to ancient Ephesus, with pipes of varying sizes, branching off in different directions. Sewage systems have been discovered too. An intricate drainage arrangement served apartment houses in the main part of town.

Those apartments were possibly the first multi-family dwellings in the world. They sparkled with opulence, from ceilings glittering with gold leaf to floors paved in mosaic designs. In terraced courtyards where families relaxed on summer days, fountains played and flowering vines climbed up the walls. Paintings and frescoes by famous artists, whitewashed over by later Christian tenants, are being rescued from the ruins piece by piece. Careful scraping of the whitewash reveals the original brilliance of the red and yellow paintings.

Down near the harbor stands another historically significant building: the first church in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the site, in 421, of an Ecumenical Council at which far-reaching decisions were made and Mary's divine maternity was first proclaimed. In 1967 Pope Paul visited "Haghia Maria" (also called "The Double Church") during his trip to Turkey, and 2,000 villagers listened to him read St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.

Other Christian shrines at Ephesus fringe Ayasuluk Hill, north of the Seventh Wonder temple and the Graeco-Roman town. St. John is known to have lived there and it is believed that he wrote his Gospel on the spot where he is buried.

It was not until 300 years after St. John's death that Ephesians finally abandoned their goddess Diana. Bowing to the fourth century edict of Theodosius prohibiting pagan cults, they ceremoniously buried Diana's statues. Several of these statues, finely-carved, larger than life-size, were recently discovered under ruins of the Roman Prytaneum.

By the Christian era, earthquakes and erosion were ruining the gentle slopes and fertile valleys of Ephesus. The people were fighting back but the harbor was silting rapidly and the site of Ephesus had begun to shrink. New walls, using old ruins, enclosed a much smaller town, including only part of the Roman city. As the seat of a large Christian diocese, however, it retained its importance and in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian built a lavish brick and marble basilica over St. John's tomb. One of the largest churches in Christendom, it had six soaring domes, a multi-colored marble courtyard, frescoed walls, mosaic floors and monograms of Justinian and his Empress, Theodora on top of the columns.

Between the sixth and twelfth centuries, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world climbed Ayasuluk Hill to visit this shrine. Celebrations, attracting large crowds, were held annually on the anniversary of John's death with special processions and illuminations of the city.

The Ephesians, meanwhile, had left the unhealthy swamps to build a new town on the hill around John's Basilica, and by the eighth century when the Arabs occupied the Byzantine-built citadel, the lowland city had begun to disappear. By the time the Crusaders came through it was completely deserted, its name almost forgotten. Although still a commercial trading center, by the 13th century earthquakes, erosion, silt in the harbor and malarial mosquitoes had reduced Ephesus to a relatively obscure village.

In the early 14th century, there was a revival of Ephesus when the rulers of nearby Aydin took over, repaired the Citadel, built new baths, civic buildings and mosques—one, the magnificent Isa Bey Mosque, also on Ayasuluk Hill, now a museum.

The Ottoman Turks ended the revival when they captured the city in the late 14th century, lost it to Tamerlane, storming out of Asia, and then reconquered it 24 years later. By then, unfortunately, St. John's Basilica, which had been turned into a mosque, had been destroyed and the harbor was irretrievably silted. For the next five centuries, Ephesus, now five miles from the sea, was an unkempt little village known as "Ayasuluk." In an attempt to modernize Ephesus, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built paved roads, brought in power and put up buildings. But the impact was slight. Camels and bullocks still linger on the right-of-way, straw shacks with tin roofs hug the hillside, and women work alongside their men, hoeing cotton and tobacco. And the nesting storks still patrol the hills and the purple swamp where, in a strange, aloof isolation, the hostess to history awaits the return of her faded glory.

Louise Purwin Zobel is a Californian-based travel writer. She also teaches writing at Foothill Community College and is vice-president of California Writers.

This article appeared on pages 26-30 of the January/February 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1971 images.