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Ancient Ephesus in Western Turkey

Ephesus, Turkey

The ancient Roman city of Ephesus is one of the world’s great classical sites (from fourth century BC). Its library is a highlight, and its main street impresses, despite the ruins. A Turkish guide helps sort out the rubble and sheds light on daily life in the city’s heyday.

Complete Video Script

Kuşadası is popular with travelers because it’s just a few miles from the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. While tour buses and taxis can get you there in a snap, as anywhere in Turkey, I like the excitement of hopping a local mini-bus, or dolmus.

A dolmus is kind of a cross between a taxi and a bus. You hop on one heading in your general direction, tell them where you’re going, then relax; they’ll tell you when to jump out.

The ancient home of the Ephesians is one of the world’s greatest classical sites. The west coast of what we now call Turkey was once a cultural heartland of ancient Greece. Ephesus blossomed as a Greek city in about the fourth century BC. It was later consumed by the expanding Roman Empire and eventually became a major Roman city. While the site is vast, only about 15% of this Greco-Roman metropolis has been excavated.

But as Rome fell, so did Ephesus. Once a thriving seaport, the city was sacked by Barbarians. Eventually its busy port silted up and it was abandoned. A thousand years of silt left it stranded three miles inland from the Aegean Coast.

The library — the third largest of the Roman Empire — is a highlight. The facade is striking. Statues of women celebrating the virtues of learning and wisdom inspired the citizenry.

The city’s main street is lined with buildings grand even in their ruined state. This one, known as Hadrian’s Temple, was built in the second century. Dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, its decorations are full of symbolism. To this day, archeologists debate just what it all means.

For extra guidance, we’re joined by my friend Lale Surmen Aran. For years, Lale has led our bus tour groups around Turkey and for this itinerary she’s joining us.

Rick: Huge city — quarter of a million people!
Lale: This was one of the biggest metropolises of the Roman period. Now, we’re in the downtown and the main street of the city, but the city expanded beyond this main street on both sides.
Rick: So, way up to the mountain, actually?
Lale: On both directions, way up to the mountains — and housed 250,000 people. All the city was planned. Right underneath us there was a huge sewer, and there were clay pipes at either side of the street taking fresh water to the baths and the fountains.
Rick: Ah, so they had aqueducts coming in and powering the whole city.
Lale: Yes.

Lale: See, these were the public toilets attached to the Roman baths next door. Everybody sat next to one another.
Rick: So, public toilets were really public.

The terrace houses stretch up from the city’s main drag. These excavations are incredibly complex — like piecing together an enormous puzzle. The fragments are so delicate, the ongoing work is protected under a roof. The terrace houses give us a particularly intimate look at Ephesian life 2000 years ago.

Rick: Now, how many families would have lived in this zone right here?
Lale: Only five.
Rick: Just five!
Lale: Five families. And these were huge houses.
Rick: This must have been the elite of Ephesus.
Lale: Ultra, ultra rich. Not only for Ephesus, but among the richest of the world lived in these houses.
Rick: So, when you walk through here, can you imagine what it would be like to live at that time?
Lale: Sort of — it was very luxurious living in these houses. All houses were arranged around an atrium, so they had a courtyard with rooms all around, which were richly decorated with art on two or three floors.

A standard feature of any Roman city was its theater. To estimate an ancient city’s population, archaeologists multiply the capacity of its theater by ten. As this one holds 25,000, they figure the city’s population was a quarter million. It was here that the apostle Paul planned to give his talk, instructing the Ephesians to stop worshipping manmade gods. And here in Ephesus, that god was Artemis.

The local craftspeople produced statues of Artemis — like this. It was a big industry — they exported them far and wide. When they realized Paul’s message would ruin their businesses, they started a riot. Imagine this theater filled with thousands of people all shouting in one angry voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” For his own safety, Paul had to flee, and he ended up giving his message by letter. That’s why, in the Bible, we’ve got Paul’s “Letter to the Ephesians.”