This article has been previously published as a part of book Around Ephesus and Kusadasi: TAN Travel Guide by Izabela Miszczak
Situated in the Aegean region of Turkey, Ephesus is probably the best-preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean. In ancient times, Ephesus was a bustling trading city and a center of worship of Cybele - the goddess of fertility. Archaeological excavations and maintenance works provide new information about the ancient city every year. Therefore, this is a place worth coming back again and again.
Ephesus is also an important place for Christians. Here was one of the first Christian communities in Asia Minor, and Saint John held the position of Bishop of Ephesus. He mentioned Ephesus in the Book of Revelation, where the city was listed as one of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.
In order to imagine what life was like in the ancient city of Roman Empire, walk the streets of Ephesus, look at public toilets and residential houses, then sit back in the theater or visit the library. Ephesus offers all these things, and indeed no one will not be disappointed after the visit.
The history of archaeological research in Ephesus dates back to 1863 when British engineer John Turtle Wood began searching for the remains of the Temple of Artemis. Six years later, he succeeded in identifying its location and then dedicated five years to the excavations in this area.
The next round of archaeological work in Ephesus took place from 1895 to 1913 and was conducted by German and Austrian archaeologists under the direction of Otto Benndorf and Carl Humann. In 1898, Benndorf founded the Austrian Archaeological Institute, which has been conducting archaeological studies in Ephesus ever since.
The finds from the area of Ephesus are scattered in many museums around the world. The most impressive collections of objects found in Ephesus are in Ephesus Museum in Selçuk, Ephesus Museum in Vienna and the British Museum in London.
Vedius Gymnasium is one of the best-preserved buildings that can be seen in Ephesus. It was built about 150 AD, commissioned by a wealthy Ephesian named Publius Vedius Antoninus. He dedicated the gymnasium to goddess Aphrodite, and his friend and protector - Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.
The building served a dual function: of a gymnasium and baths, as is often the case in the architecture of Roman times. To the east of this complex was located a palestra with the propylaea (monumental gate) was situated on its southern side. The palestra was surrounded by covered arcades of the courtyard, where various sports disciplines were practised, especially wrestling. The porticoes served as auxiliary facilities: locker rooms, warehouses, changing rooms. The propylaea were once adorned with statues, and its western side housed a toilet.
On the western part of the colonnade that surrounds the palestra, there is a large room that opened onto the inner courtyard, which was used for ceremonial purposes and reserved for the emperor during his visits. It housed the now-lost statue of Antoninus Pius. In the area of the palestra, the statue depicting the sophist was found, dating back to the turn of the 2nd century AD.
The largest room in the gymnasium extended to the entire width of the building on the eastern side. It was used for physical exercises. The room located in the centre of the building served as the frigidarium that is a part of the baths designed for swimming in cold water. Right next to it, on the eastern side, there was a swimming pool, and on the western side - the tepidarium or a room with hot water.
In the basement there were furnaces, where a fire was burning all the time, heating the air that circulated channels under the floor and inside hollow bricks in a room called caldarium or hot room. These furnaces also heated the water supplied to the tanks in this room.
The stadium is located south of the Vedius Gymnasium. This was the place where celebrations of all kinds were held, including sports events, chariot races and gladiatorial combat. Seats for spectators on the southern side were built into the slope of Pion Hill (now Panayırdağ). On the northern side, the seats were erected over the vaulted basement.
Currently, little is preserved from the stadium, because the stone seats were dismantled and used to build ramparts on Ayasoluk Hill in early Christian times. Only the western part of the stadium has been excavated by archaeologists so far. The discovered inscriptions testify to the fact that the stadium was built during the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). During the excavations, marble vases were also found that served as sports trophies, as well as plates decorated with designs depicting olive branches and rabbits, dating back to the 3rd and the 4th centuries AD.
Richly decorated with apses building of Byzantine Baths was built, most probably, in the 6th century AD. It is situated on the south-west of the stadium, next to the main processional road leading to the city of Ephesus.
Church of the Virgin Mary
The Church of the Virgin Mary is the most significant building from Christian times in Ephesus. This temple was located in an earlier building, erected in the middle of the 2nd century AD. It was 30 meters wide and up to 260 meters long. Architecturally, the building can be described as a basilica with a nave and two aisles. The aisles were divided into shorter parts, which could serve as shops.
Because Ephesus was in the 2nd century AD a major trading city for the whole region, described as "the bank of Asia province', it is believed that this massive building was initially a commodity and monetary exchange center. This hypothesis is reinforced by the position of the building - very close to the ancient harbor. The second, competitive theory, states that this building was called "the Court of the Muses' and was used as an educational and cultural center.
In the 3rd century AD, the times of economic crisis began in Ephesus. During this period, the local Christian community built its first church, located inside the former stock exchange, on its western side. An atrium on the square plan and a narthex paved with mosaics led into the church. In later times two more churches were built inside the ancient building, arranged one behind the other. The eastern part of the building was the seat of the bishop.
Today the best-preserved part of the building is a cylindrical baptistery, located in the northern part of the atrium. In the central part of the baptistery, there was a pool, where baptized people could be fully immersed in water.
It was in the Church of the Virgin Mary were the third ecumenical council, also known as the Council of Ephesus, was held in 431 AD. The purpose of this council was to settle the dispute, caused by Nestorius - the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the understanding of the person of Jesus and the title of Mary of Nazareth.
The Theatre Gymnasium was probably built in the 2nd century AD. So far only the palestra has been completely excavated while the other parts of the building are only partially exposed. From the visible row of seats, stretching on the entire northern side of the palestra, with the dimension of 30 to 70 meters, it can be concluded that this area was also used as a small stadium.
Harbour Gymnasium and Baths
Only a small part of the complex of the Harbour Gymnasium and Baths has been excavated so far. Still, the visible remains of the largest architectural complex in the city of Ephesus make a big impression on the visitors. The complex consisted of two palestrae, and the total length of the complex was 360 meters.
The construction of the gymnasium began during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). During the reign of Emperor Hadrian the chief priest of the province of Asia - Claude Verulanus - ordered paving and tiling of the greater of the palestrae with marble slabs in 13 different shades. These panels have not been preserved to our times, but their existence is evidenced by holes in the walls, where the panels were attached.
The hall in the northern part of the smaller palestra was dedicated to the imperial cult while in the southern part lectures and meetings were held. In this place a Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue of an athlete was found, which is now in Vienna. The remains of the baths are now completely ruined.
The Arcadian Street is a colonnaded road, named after Emperor Arcadius, who reigned between 395 and 408 AD. This name is actually misleading, because there is substantial evidence for the existence of this street much earlier, in the Hellenistic period. This theory is supported by exposed fragments and foundations of the Harbour Gate, located on the axis of the road at its western end.
The Arcadian Street is well preserved and extends for a distance of 600 meters, keeping the width of 11 meters. It starts at the theater and ends near the ancient harbor. Two walkways for pedestrians, located on both sides of the road have a width of 5 meters each. In the past, they were completely paved with mosaics. Along the road, there were numerous shops, so walkers could make purchases, while strolling along the shaded and sheltered sidewalks, at the same time enjoying the breeze blowing from the sea. From the excavated inscriptions it is known that road also had street lighting.
In the middle of the road, there are four columns in the Corinthian order, which once held the statues of four of the apostles. They were erected during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD.
This fountain is located in the northwestern corner of the terrace wall of the theater. The fountain, placed between two columns in Ionic order, faces the courtyard in front of the theater. The elegant proportions and the style of stone ornaments suggest the structure dates back to the Hellenistic times, that is to the 3rd or the 2nd century BC.
The great theater of Ephesus is a splendidly preserved and very impressive building. This structure, built of marble, has a width of 145 meters, and its audience once reached up to 30 meters. In its heyday, it could accommodate up to 24,000 spectators. Read more...
The Marble Road served the role of a processional street in the ancient city of Ephesus. It ran next to the Vedius Gymnasium, the stadium, and the theater, at the Library of Celsus turned to the east and continued to the Upper Agora. There it changed its course to the north and led up to the Temple of Artemis.
In addition to its representative function, the Marble Road was also the primary thoroughfare of the city. It was therefore subjected to frequent renovations. For example, the stretch of road leading from the theater along the Commercial Agora was, in the 5th century AD, paved with marble by a man named Eutropios.
A late-Roman colonnade on the east side of the street has survived to our times. On the west side, a 1.70-meter-high pedestal can be seen, that belonged to the Doric stoa of the Commercial Agora.
This trade area was established in Ephesus in Hellenistic times, as evidenced by the western gate fragments in Ionic order. The agora was surrounded by stoas (colonnades), significantly enhanced during the Roman times.
At the center of the agora stood so-called horologion, which was a combination of solar and water clock. All colonnades were decorated with hundreds of statues of orators, philosophers, athletes and officials. To our times only their foundations have been preserved on which you can see the inscriptions containing valuable information about the social life in Ephesus.
Gate of Mazeus and Mythridates
This gate with three arches, standing next to the Library of Celsus, was built by two former slaves - Mazeus and Mithridates - in honor of the emperor Octavian Augustus, who had freed them.
Three openings of the gate are arched. The vault from the side of the Library of Celsus is lined with black marble, in contrast to the vault on the opposite side, lined with the marble white.
The still visible inscription, located in the upper part of the gate, dedicates the building to Octavian Augustus. In ancient times, this inscription was lined with bronze letters.
Library of Celsus
The Library of Celsus is probably the most distinctive building commonly associated with Ephesus. The library has a two-storey façade, and its interior is one large room with dimensions of 10.90 to 16.70 meters. This library room was located above the vaulted substructure. The building was surrounded by an additional wall, offering adequate protection from moisture. Read more...
Hadrian's Gate is located at the intersection of the Marble Road and the Curetes Street. Once it had three storeys, of which only the lowest has been preserved. Three openings led through theHadrian's Gate and the middle one was the widest, with an arched vault. Side openings are still topped by architraves.
To the south-east of the Library of Celsus stand the remains of a building that shape reminds a pool. These are the ruins of so-called Heroon or a sanctuary dedicated to a hero. Heroon of Ephesus was built in the time of Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) and later served as a fountain. The building was decorated with a frieze depicting the history of the founding of Ephesus, and precisely the scene of Androklos killing a wild boar. It is believed that Heroon was dedicated to Androklos.
The octagonal tomb located next to the heroon is dated to the first century BC, but the inscriptions adorning it were made much later, in the 4th century AD. The skeleton found in the tomb belonged to a teenage girl buried in a marble sarcophagus. One interpretation is that the Octagon was the resting place of Arsinoe, the youngest sister of Queen Cleopatra.
In 48 BC, Arsinoe IV became the Queen of Egypt at the will of the Egyptian army. Julius Caesar removed her from power and allowed her to travel to Asia Minor, where she took refuge at Ephesus. There she was murdered in 41 BC, probably by Mark Antony acting on the orders of Cleopatra VII.
Temple of Serapis
This temple of Egyptian deity is one of the most fascinating buildings in Ephesus. It was built probably by the Egyptian colonists. Stairs led to the temple in the south-west corner of the Commercial Agora.
The cella i.e. the inner chamber of the temple was surrounded on three sides by colonnades. Its walls were very thick to support the weight of a barrel vault with a width of 29 meters. The columns were monoliths, which means that they were made from a single block of stone, and their height was 14 meters.
Judging by massive dimensions of the building, it was concluded that it was dedicated to Serapis. This theory has been confirmed by the fragments of the statue made of Egyptian granite, an inscription describing the Egyptian rites and other inscription dedicated to the followers of Serapis. In its heyday, the building had a size comparable only with so-called Red Basilica in Pergamon.
In Christian times, the temple of Serapis was converted into a church, and the remains of the baptistery in the eastern corner of the building has been preserved to our times.
Temple of Hadrian
The Temple of Hadrian, despite its small dimensions, is a very attractive part of the visit in Ephesus. It was built in Corinthian order and dedicated to Emperor Hadrian by a man named P. Quintilius. In its cella once stood a statue of emperor Hadrian, who was worshiped as a deity. The construction of temples dedicated to the Roman emperors was a widespread custom in Anatolia. The purpose was to ensure that local municipalities gained the favor of Rome. In Ephesus, there are two buildings of this type - the other one is the Temple of Domitian.
The building consists of a cella and a roofed portico. An architrave and a frieze are straight on the sides and form an arch over the central atrium. This arch is adorned with a bust of a woman surrounded by acanthus leaves. In front of the temple, the bases of four statues depicting Roman emperors Galerius, Maximian, Diocletian and Constantius Chlorus have been preserved.
A large bath building was constructed in the late first or the second century AD. It owes its name to a Christian woman named Scholastica, who carried out its renovation about 400 AD. The famous part of the baths, known as a brothel, belonged to the first period of existence of the building. The main part of the brothel's dining room was lined with mosaics. In the corners of the room the mosaic depicted the personifications of the four seasons. Two of these that have been preserved in good shape show Winter and Autumn.
The Terrace Houses complex in Ephesus consists of luxurious residential villas, located on the northern slope of Bülbüldağı Hill, next to Curetes Street and opposite the Temple of Hadrian. So far, two housing complexes - Eastern and Western - have been excavated. They were built according to the Hippodamian plan where the roads transect each other at right angles. The excavation work of the Terrace Houses started in 1960. The restoration of the houses is an ongoing process and every year there is something new to admire there. Read more...
This fountain of impressive dimensions is situated on the Curetes Street. It has a shape of a pool surrounded on three sides by a two-storey structure. Once it was decorated with the colossal statue of Emperor Trajan, standing in the center of the building, from which flowed the water filling the pool. To our times the base of the statue and imperial feet have been preserved. Many statues that used to adorn the fountain are now on display in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.
Curetes Street is one of three main thoroughfares of Ephesus. It leads from the Library of Celsus to the Hercules Gate. Its name comes from the priests called Curetes, whose names were written down in Prytaneion. Along Curetes Street there were once fountains, statues, and shops, of which those located on the southern side had two storeys. Because Ephesus was frequently plagued by earthquakes, the buildings along Curetes Street were damaged, and then underwent refurbishment. After the earthquake in the 4th century AD, the collapsed columns were replaced by others, collected from the various areas of the city. The resulting confusion of architectural styles can be seen to this day.
This gate, located near the Trajan's Fountain, was built in the 4th or the 5th century AD. Preserved fragments of the reliefs depict Hercules and decorated column bases.
Not much has been preserved from this monument erected in the first century AD. According to the discovered fragment of an inscription, on the base built of stone blocks once stood the statue of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman commander and dictator. The monument was founded by his grandson Memmius as a token of gratitude of the inhabitants of Ephesus to Sulla for defeating Mithridates VI of Pontus.
Temple of Domitian
It was the first temple in Ephesus built in honor of the Roman emperor. Domitian, who called himself "the ruler and the god", was condemned since the ancient times as a tyrannical and incompetent emperor. His temple in Ephesus was located at the best, centrally located place of the city, opposite the Upper Agora.
The temple building stood on the slopes of Bülbüldağı Hill, on the terrace whose base was 50 to 100 meters. The temple was typical Roman prostyle-type structure, which means that four columns stood in front of the vestibule. The main chamber of the temple was small (9 to 17 meters), while the statue of Emperor Domitian measured up to 5 meters if seated or 7 meters if standing. It is unknown what was the posture of the emperor depicted on this statue as only his head and one shoulder have remained. These monumental pieces of the statue can now be seen in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.
In the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk, there is also the reconstructed altar from the Temple of Domitian, decorated with reliefs showing different weapons. However, in Ephesus, in a place where once stood a temple, there is virtually nothing interesting to see.
Upper Agora and Temple of Isis
This Ephesian agora is also sometimes called the State Agora, to distinguish it from the Commercial Agora, situated in the north-western part of the city. Upper Agora served as a place for official and public meetings.
On its area stood the temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The capitals of the columns in the Ionic order were additionally decorated with the sculptured heads of bulls. The façade of the temple was adorned with a group of statues depicting the meeting of Odysseus with Polyphemus, one of the Cyclopes. The Temple of Isis was demolished during the reign of Emperor Augustus. He strongly disliked Egyptian deities because they reminded him of his former opponents - Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
The Upper Agora was founded in the first century AD, in the area of a necropolis. This fact has been confirmed by archeological excavations carried out in its north-eastern corner. Numerous graves from the 7th and the 6th centuries BC were found there, as well as an archaic sarcophagus of terracotta and a stone-lined path.
The Upper Agora has dimensions of 160 by 73 meters, and it was once surrounded on three sides by a colonnade. In the area of the agora, the statues of Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia were found. They can be seen in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk. In the same venue, there is a reconstructed the scene of Odysseus and Polyphemus from the Temple of Isis.
Prytaneion was the seat of the rulers of the autonomous city of Ephesus and the place where official celebrations, receptions, and banquets were held. Next to it stood the temple of Hestia, where an eternal flame burned. The preserved fragments of prytaneion are dated to the reign of Emperor Augustus. However, it is believed that there was an official building in the same location since the Hellenistic period, because moving the altar of the eternal flame would be a very difficult task.
The courtyard of prytaneion was decorated with a mosaic. The presence of columns in composite order, combining the elements of Ionic and Corinthian orders, indicates the reconstruction of the building in the 3rd century AD. The building was demolished at the time when Scholastica Baths were repaired i.e. around 400 AD. The most interesting objects from Ephesian prytaneion are two statues of Artemis of Ephesus that once adorned it. They are currently exhibited in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.
Although the building looks like a small theater, due to its the proximity to the prytaneion and the Upper Agora it can be concluded that this was rather a bouleuterion or a meeting place of the city council. Possibly it was simultaneously used as a place of artistic performances. The odeon was built around 150 AD by Publius Vedius Antoninus. In the orchestra, there are canals, that provided water drainage, and the entire structure was most likely covered.
Baths of Varius
It was a small building of private baths, built by the famous Ephesian sophist Flavius Damianus in the 2nd century AD. The mosaics, adorning a 40-meter-long corridor, are much newer, in fact, they originate from the 5th century AD. The Baths of Varius were built with the blocks of marble. They consist of three sections: a frigidarium (with cold water), atepidarium (with warm water) and a caldarium (with hot water).
The gymnasium, located on the eastern outskirts of Ephesus, has been preserved in fairly good condition. The building, erected in the 2nd century AD, combined the functions of the gymnasium and baths, and also had an auditorium. In the central part of the building were bathrooms, surrounded on three sides by vaulted halls designed for physical exercises. When archaeological works were carried out in the gymnasium, the statues of the god of health Asclepius, Hygeia, Pan, and Dionysus were found. They are now in the Archaeological Museum in Izmir.
Ephesus is open to visitors daily, in summer season (April - October) from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm, and in winter (November - March) from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Terrace Houses close half an hour earlier. The entrance ticket to Ephesus costs 100 TL and the ticket to the Terrace Houses - additional 45 TL.
The are to entrances to Ephesus and most of the organised groups start sightseeing from the southern one, near the odeon. If you also choose to start from there, you will be able to walk downhill most of the time. However, we recommend beginning the tour from the northern entrance, near the theatre. Moreover, it is a good idea to start as early as possible, to avoid the crowd. The minimal time you need to spend on the site is 3 hours, but to fully appreciate this site and see all the sights plan half a day for it.
Before setting out on the tour remember to take bottled water and appropriate protection from the sun as it is difficult to find shaded areas on the site. Smoking is strictly forbidden. Because of ongoing archaeological work some buildings may be temporarily unavailable for tourists.
Are you going to visit Ephesus soon? There is an excellent e-book devoted to this ancient city and to other archaeological sites of the region - Around Ephesus and Kusadasi: TAN Travel Guide.
By plane: the nearest airport is in Izmir.
By public transport: regular buses go from Izmir to Selçuk and Kuşadası. These two towns are a natural choice as the bases for sightseeing Ephesus. There are some minibuses to Ephesus from Selçuk and, in the summer season, from Kuşadası.
By car: take D515 road from Kuşadası (18 km) to Selçuk (3 km).
On foot: you can walk or cycle from the bus station in Selçuk to Ephesus. The distance is 3 km and on your way, you will be able to visit the ruins of the Temple of Artemis.
The nearest accommodation options are available in Selçuk. It has a well-developed tourist base, serving the visitors coming here to see the ruins of Ephesus. The choice B&Bs is impressive, and the prices - affordable. However, travellers seeking luxury options should stay in nearby Kuşadası.