My Return to Ephesus, Turkey

by Silke Elzner

Turkey’s most significant archeological site is arguably the city of Ephesus. Conveniently located and in easy reach of the beachside resort of Kusadasi, this world heritage site is probably the most visited ancient site in the country next to Istanbul.

Let me assure you that a visit to the ancient city of Ephesus is full of wonder. It is one of these places that will enchant you with its beauty and detail.

It may not be as complete as Pompeii. But it has just enough left standing to give you a pretty good idea about how people in this region used to live some two thousand years ago.

Plumbing in Ephesus

Ephesus revisited

When I first visited Ephesus it was many years ago as skinny teenager.

I was in my second painful year of Latin studies in high school. Visiting Ephesus back then was a great way to bring some life to my dry studies of the Latin language. They were a constant source of anguish and terror (I wrote about this earlier, check out my post on the Pantheon in Rome to learn more about my love-hate relationship with the Latin language).

I was keen to see how much the place had changed over the course of almost two decades. Since excavations and studies are ongoing on the site I was curious to know if Ephesus could still ‘wow’ me today.

So I have revisited Ephesus in summer last year. And now, with my perspective as an adult, I am an even bigger fan.

Street in Ephesus

A walk through the ancient streets of Ephesus

To be honest, I am not able to recall enough detail from my first visit to give you a step-by-step comparison between the 1990’s and today. I’m afraid I will not be able to give you a list about how things have changed over time.

However, Ephesus does now appear to me bigger than I remember it.  So maybe more things are now on display than there were before. The Hillside Houses were definitely an addition that wasn’t there in the 1990’s.

Follow me as we walk through Ephesus together on a hot summer’s day. We start our walk at the ‘second entrance’, not the main entrance. This has the massive advantage that we are going downhill and not uphill.

It’s a minor detail but when you are visiting in mid-summer heat this can make a tremendous difference to your enjoyment of the city. You can find a good map of Ephesus here.

Curetes Street

The walk is this ancient Greek city pretty straightforward and encompasses the most important parts of the site and the biggest monuments. You follow Curetes Street until you arrive at the Celsus library, then you take a turn down Marble Street, past the theatre.

Here you take another turn onto Harbour Street. Harbour Street will lead you to the main entrance which would then be your exit. This street is also known as Arcadian Street.

It is almost unbearably hot on the day we visit. If you are planning on visiting in summer, do make sure you have sun protection with you and a hat as there is very little shade on the wide open roads.

Hadrian's Temple

The wonders of Curetes Street

I know I only named three streets as I explained the walking tour to you, but you will soon notice that there is a lot to see along this route.

Curetes Street is a broad boulevard with a length of around one kilometre. It is flanked by columns, half completed houses and stone blocks to both sides. It is an elegant boulevard with original large white marble pavers.

As you find your way down towards the Celsus library you walk past a small open theatre. This is the former city chambers. Some metres further down the road there is a fountain which is more like a small building. You also walk through a gate, the Hercules Gate, and past the ornate statue of a doctor.

The stone blocks that you encounter along this route are covered in inscriptions. They describe functions of buildings, name important figures of the city or state the city regulations for the citizens of Ephesus. I remember that as a teenager I was keen to decipher some of the writings but it proved too difficult.

But there is one way how we modern people can still understand some of the messages. Sometimes pictures help understand the message even after all these years.

One boulder, for example, shows a snake which is winding around a staff. It is a stone that still shows a universal symbol of healing, and consequently this stone used to inform the citizens of Ephesus about the location of the hospital.

Inscriptions on stone

Ephesus: The splendour of a capital city

For quite some time Ephesus used to be the capital of Asia Minor. The importance and the wealth is evident even to the layman’s eye. As we walk down Curetes Street we can clearly make out the beautiful mosaics that line the street and cover the sidewalks.

The detail of their intertwining geometrical design and the great state they are still in are astounding.

Lining the mosaic sidewalk are the two-storey Hillside Houses. They are open in the front so that we can see the vaulted ceilings and some details like nooks, doorways and thresholds. These used to be shops, and for a small fee you can see some of the better preserved houses complete with remains of plumbing and more.

We don’t enter the museum and instead go with the flow to the end of the street until we stand in front of one of the most impressing building front of the ancient world: the Celsus library.

Marvelling at the well-preserved terrace houses in Ephesus. Look at how complete the floor mosaics still are!

Marvelling at the well-preserved terrace houses in Ephesus. Look at how complete the floor mosaics still are!

The Celsus library

It is not difficult to see that this library once was the third biggest in the world after Alexandria and Pergamum. This was a Roman building, not Greek, as you can deduct from the classical architecture. It definitely leaves an impression on anyone visiting.

You cannot go inside, there is no building left behind the facade. Earthquakes, raids and a fire destroyed pretty much everything of this building almost two thousand years ago, but in the 1970s archeologists managed to piece together the front of the library and re-erected this for the public.

The beauty of the Celsus library is in the detail. It makes sense to rest your feet in one of the rare shady spots as you admire the artistry applied to the front. The statues of the virtues, the marble columns, the bas-reliefs with the beautiful floral designs are just outstanding.

It is as I remembered it from my first visit. The library of Celsus is the beating heart of the ancient Ephesus site, the reason most visitors will come and visit. A Roman masterpiece that doesn’t fail to impress.

The facade of the Celsus Library of Ephesus is among the best known relicts of the city's ancient past.

The facade of the Celsus Library of Ephesus is among the best known relicts of the city’s ancient past.

The importance of Ephesus in the ancient world

The library of Celsus surely is the main attraction in Ephesus but as we walk through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates and into the commercial agora we still continue to be excited by the state of the site.

At the agora you can easily make out the squared layout of the place. As you walk on the timber sidewalk you come past the ruins of stores and shops. Inscriptions everywhere offer information to the ancient inhabitants of the city. There are the rule of trade, merchant laws, opening times.

From here it’s just a few steps to the imposing theatre which towers over the excavation site. The theatre of Ephesus has been restored to a level that is can now host modern concerts once again, hence it is in pretty good shape and has a seating capacity of 24,000.

In ancient times, it is said that St Paul used to preach the gospel in this very theatre. He stayed in the city for more than three years. Ephesus was to become the third most important Christian centre after Jerusalem and Antioch.

A cross

Leading up to the crescent shaped theatre is the Harbour Street. It’s funny that it’s called this way as the sea is around six miles away. However, if you remember from our visit in nearby Miletus, the coastline in Turkey used to look very differently back in the day, and Ephesus indeed used to have access to a harbour once upon a time.

Another name of this street, once again more a stately boulevard than a street, is Arcadian Way or Arcadian Street.

Cleopatra and Marc Anthony once rode in procession here, while the people of Ephesus cheered them on. It was probably a welcome interruption of their daywork as they struggled to get a glimpse of the royal celebrities.

Theatre and Arcadian Way

The Temple of Artemis and other hidden treasures

There is so much more you could see in Ephesus. However, I don’t want to bore you to death with the details. It is of course also home to one of the seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis.

An impressive structure with 30 metres high columns. Visitors today will find the temple quite disappointing because not much is left of this grand temple, just foundations and lots and lots of rubble.

As a teenager I was also smitten with the brothel which used to be an important institution in ancient times. The small phallic statue that was found here with the oversized penis is now housed in the Ephesus museum. You will also encounter it on many cheeky postcards in Kusadasi and surrounds.

The latrines are also quite a fun thing to check out. You can clearly see that the citizens of Ephesus didn’t care for privacy when using the toilet. And here’s something you probably didn’t know: It was one of the jobs of a slave to warm up the marble seat of the toilet before the master would use it.

The future of Ephesus

Scientists think that 90% of Ephesus still remain underground. Much, much more than what I just showed you is still waiting for their discovery. One can only assume that a site like Ephesus still has many secrets to reveal that would teach us more about the ancient people of Asia Minor.

Trajan's Fountain

You may wonder when all of this will be dug up and shown to the public? The truth is that archeology done properly costs a lot of money.

Scientists working in Ephesus are only going to work if there are funds available. And they will only do so if there is enough interest by the public. It’s a matter of economy.

This is not necessarily bad. What has been resting under layers of dirt and rock may actually be in a good place to stay that way for many more years. Anything that is being brought to the surface is vulnerable to climate change, politics and vandalism. A slow development of Ephesus is certainly the best way to go about excavating the site if we want to secure it for future generations.

Commercial Agora

Revisiting my childhood explorations

Coming back to Ephesus to revisit the site was definitely the right decision for me. I think I was an unusual child. I was more keen to check out sites like this than flirting with boys by the pool.

But I was not able to comprehend fully the significance of what I was looking at. I had also forgotten a lot of details. And I was not just able to make connections because I simply lacked the general knowledge that I have today as an adult.

Ephesus is a fantastic place to visit if you are holidaying in Turkey. I think everyone can take something from it, even if you are not interested in going into all the historic details. It certainly offered me enough to enjoy it a second time around.

What about you? Have you revisited a place that you had seen as a child and been able to enjoy it in an entirely different way?

Remains of a buildingRuins everywhereCarved figure of Goddess Nike in stoneMosaic on sidewalkHillside HousesBeautifully carved stone archStone in front of libraryGate of Mazeus and MithridatesStatue in the frontCelsius library detailMarble columns