Ephesus: a biblical scholars dream?

Kuşadası (where I was staying) is the closest ‘major’ (around 100,000 permanent residents) city to the ruins of Ephesus so I had to visit. It’s arguably the most important historical sight in all of Turkey, but we’ll get back to that later.

The first place we went on the organized tour was the Mary’s house. You know, mother of Jesus and all that…yeah, that Mary. It was commonly believed Mary had moved to Ephesus after the death of Christ, but people were unsure where for a long time. It seems a nun in the 19th century had visions of Mary’s house which she wrote down. Having never been to the area added some validity to the claims of finding the location based on said visions. Also, the oldest parts of the structure date to the first century.

A church was later built onto the house, and this is the section tourists are allowed to visit. They don’t allow photography inside, but its appearance is consistent with that of most small christian churches. Due to the large number of visitors, you have to go through rather quickly. There’s just enough time to light a candle, and say a quick prayer before a guard starts hassling you to keep things moving. Note: he only bothers you if you’re slow; most people are fine.

After exiting, you come to the on-site water source. It’s widely believed by religious people that the water is ‘holy’ or has healing properties. They even sell vials of it at the souvenir shop. Being a man of science, all I’ll say is it’s mineral water and [barring some sort of strange medical condition] won’t hurt you if ingested. The day I went, there were hordes of children lined up to get a taste. Noisy brats…I mean…I love kids…yeah, we’ll go with the latter.

Right next to the spring is the wishing wall. Supposedly, wishes/prayers placed there have a higher probability of coming true. Be ware if they do though, because then you’ll need to make the trip back to remove it. Depending on where you’re from, that could be an expensive wish. Though I suppose if it was important enough for you to place it there, it would be worth the price of a return journey.

There’s also a pool on site in the shape of a key. It was used to perform baptisms, and which some believe is the ‘key’ to heaven. Queue bad pun drums.

Travel tip: don’t go close to 15 August. That’s the day Mary died so visitors will be more numerous. Also don’t go on a Sunday as they have services at 1030 which are also largely attended. The site is considered religiously significant by Christians and Muslims who will perform pilgrimages to it. So I would recommend going during the week while most people are working (and the kids are in school).

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After fighting through the throngs of teenagers, it was time to hit up Ephesus. At the time of Christ, it was a major (and very rich) city. It’s said there were at least 250,000 permanent residents which is a lot for that time (cities have been getting progressively larger). The Biblical book (that sounds so repetitive…) of Ephesians was specifically written to the church there.

It used to sit right on the Mediterranean Sea via a bay and/or river depending on the year. As time progressed, water deposited increasing amounts of sediment which eventually cut the city off from the water (a death sentence for a major trade site). Today the city is several kilometers from the coast.

While all that sedimentation caused the city to be abandoned, it was awesome for farmers. The entire area is now some of the richest (for plants) places on the planet. So much so that the nearby town of Selçuk is populated by mostly vegetarians. Sorry animal rights activists, they’re that way for practical reasons rather than activist ones.

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Back to Ephesus…. The ruins are superficially far more impressive than most. This is because many of the ruins have been reconstructed. Also many of the original statues have been taken to museums so there are quite a few replicas in their place. While this might annoy some people, I loved it. I could get a far better idea of what the place looked like back in the day. Plus, some of the stones are 2000+ years old so…win!

Some of the more notable structures include…. The most famous building on site: the library. At the time, it was the third largest library in the world, and the entrance was commensurate with its stature. If you Google Ephesus, chances are the first few pictures that come up will be of the library.

Connected to the library by a tunnel was the brothel. “Honey, I’m going to the library.” So if you ever hear your partner say this, you might want to interrogate them a little more to ensure it’s not an ancient euphemism. Some people are old school like that….

We also saw a 2000 year old advertisement. Carved into the marble, on the ground, between the port and the city, was a foot, a woman, and a slot for a coin (a prototype vending machine?). The foot pointed toward the brothel. The woman…well, that’s obvious. And the coin was to bring cash; not paper which did exist at the time (see the history of money).

We also passed through Hercules’ Gate. It currently consists of two pillars which are close together with Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion carved into one of them. Its purpose was to prevent vehicles from going further into the city. It’s also said that if you touch both pillars with your outstretched arms while passing through the gate, you’ll be granted the strength of the demigod. So now when people ask me why I don’t go to the gym, I’ll just be like “I passed through Hercules’ Gate; I’m good”.

There are two theaters. The larger one has been mostly rebuilt, and hosts modern concerts. These are mostly at night as the area is hot during the summer days. In older times, it was also used as an arena.

We also saw a public bathroom (or toilet if you’re British). The sewage system of the city was advanced for the time, and maintained running water pushing the waste out of the area. There was a separate channel running in front of the toilets for people to use the sponges on sticks to wipe themselves. I was impressed.

The public bathroom was also the noisiest place in the city due to people talking and running water. When people (politicians, shady businessmen) wanted to talk and not be overheard, they would go there. I image that’s where the phrase “step into my office” originated. (For those that are unfamiliar, people will say that when they want someone to accompany them into the bathroom. It’s one of the less common English phrases).

Anyway, I really enjoyed my time there, and would recommend it for anyone that’s interested in Greek or Roman history. A few tips:

  • Start at the upper gate. The city is on a large slope with the bottom being the old port. There are two gates you can enter through: one at the top, the other at the bottom. Unless you like walking a few kilometers uphill, I would start at the top.
  • Bring water. Chances are you’ll be there on a warm day. It was 30 degrees when I went, and I’m very glad I bought a water bottle with me. A couple people in our group had to go to the exit early because they were getting dehydrated and needed to buy some water.
  • Avoid weekends. It was very crowded on the Saturday I went. There won’t be as many people during the week. It’s still one of the most famous sites in the world though so you’ll never have the place to yourself.

Until next time….

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