Ephesus is one of the great ruined cities of the world, a truly breathtaking pile of marble that makes you wonder at the artistic aspirations, as well as the organisational skills, of the ancients. Marble is ideal for the climate in this part of Aegean Turkey, close to the tourist resort of Kusadasi, and in the suffocating heat of the place pressing your cheek against a marble slab or even just looking at one seems to cool you down.
What Ephesus must have been like to live in is anybody’s guess, and you have to imagine so much of which these shining remnants are only the bare bones. It’s the difference between the skeleton of a dinosaur in a museum and the living, breathing animal. I suppose that if you could manage to scrape off the colours, smells, noises and sheer commotion of Istanbul on a busy day and superimpose them onto the bare marble monuments you’d have an approximation of it.
I remember one attempt at resuscitation of the distant past which worked remarkably well for me. In the film ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ with Burton and Taylor, the transition between major scenes began with a faded picture on plaster or a worn mosaic such as you’d commonly see in an archaeology museum, difficult to work out and hardly worthy of notice. However, by cinematic wizardry this would then take on deeper colour and stronger outline until it became a moving image, part of the film, such as a marching column of soldiers or a scene on market day in the harbour area. I have never looked at a seemingly dull scene from the past since then in the same way; instead, any image faded by time becomes a window onto a still living world. Just to dumb down for a moment, Mel Gibson’s film ‘Apocalypto’ did a decent job of adding colourful cultural elements to the bare bones of a now ruined city and helped me to see by transference the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt in a new and enthralling light. So even second-rate contemporary pop culture can help to add a little life to your perception of antiquity if you’re willing to use it, within limits of course.
Anyway, you don’t need that much imagination for Ephesus, as so much of it is still wonderfully intact. The first settlement here was founded in about 1000 BC and it quickly grew into the main city in Anatolia for the worship of Cybele, the great Mother Goddess. Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals, founded the city as we see it today, but Ephesus had to wait until the Romans took over this, their new province of Asia, to become the major port of the Aegean. What did the Romans do for us? Plenty, if you were a citizen of Ephesus.
As the centuries rolled by and the harbour silted up, Ephesus declined in importance, though for many people even today it took on a new theological lease of life in later years because of its importance in the spread of Christianity. St Paul cultivated a small Christian community here and addressed his Letter to the Ephesians to them; the Virgin Mary, according to tradition, spent her last days here and St John came to take care of her as Jesus had asked him to do from the Cross. Later, the early and still struggling Church held two major Councils in Ephesus in 431 AD and 449 AD.
Highlights for me included of course the iconic Library of Celsus, which adorns so many popular book covers, and the huge theatre. The magnificent and exquisite Temple of Hadrian was built to honour a visit by the emperor in 123 AD. All the comforts of a cosmopolitan city of what, to me at least, was the most civilised period of man’s history are in evidence, including a fine library, lovely theatre, thermal baths, market and a very decent brothel – what more could you ask for?