Ephesus: a visual diary

By Victoria Khroundina | July 31, 2015

‘Turkey’s greatest classical sight can come as a shock, even to a die-hard art historian,’ writes Roger Williams in the introduction to the Cornucopia guide entry on Ephesus. Well, I’m not an historian, but even to a layman (albeit a curious one), the sight is fascinating.

After living in Turkey for two and a half years I’ve realised just how little travel I’ve done outside Istanbul. So I promised myself this summer would be different. Two weeks ago I camped on the Black Sea, in the charming village of Kıyıköy. Next weekend there’ll be sailing around the Turquoise coast (jealous?), and the week after that, Cappadocia. But last weekend I finally got round to visiting Ephesus.

With hindsight I shouldn’t have chosen to go in the middle of summer, but c’est la vie. I would recommend visiting in the spring or autumn, which is when most people want to come to Turkey anyway (unless you plan to spend your entire holiday by the seaside, the only acceptable place in the July and August heat). If you do visit in summer, go early (the site opens at 8am) or late (after 3pm; it closes at 7:30pm). We made the mistake of arriving at noon – and no hat, sunscreen or amount of water can help with the oppressive heat.

Attic and Ionian Greek colonists built Ephesus around 1000 BC on the site of the former Arzawan capital. It was a wealthy trading port, prospering especially when it came under the control of the Romans in 1290 BC. It was most famous for the Temple of Artemis (named after the goddess Artemis; Anatolian Cybele, Roman Diana), on the outskirts of Selçuk (the entry town to the sight), which used to be one of Wonders of the Ancient World. It was famously set on fire by Herostratus in 356 BC. Today it is a scattering of sparse remains and one can only imagine its former glory. For a taster, you can visit the British Museum to see the best-preserved marble column drum and two enormous ionic capitals from the temple, unearthed by the British archaeologist John Turtle Wood in 1869. 

You can walk to the sight, which takes around 30 minutes from Selçuk’s town centre, or take a five-minute dolmuş (TL6). There’s also taxi, but it’s really not necessary with the regular dolmuş service. You need separate tickets for the main section (TL30) and the Terrace Houses (TL15), both on the main site. Outside the main site, you can visit the Basilica St John (TL10), the Ephesus Museum (TL10), the House of the Virgin Mary (read Donald Carroll’s feature ‘Mary’s House’ in Cornucopia 29), and the Isabey Mosque.

Don’t rely on the plaques for information (the English translation is straight from Google Translate) and buy a good guidebook instead. Or take along Cornucopia 43, in which Thomas Roueché writes on the Ephesians’ domestic life, with photographs by Jean-Marie del Moral. And don’t miss Brian Sewell’s South from Ephesus, described by Maureen Freely in Cornucopia 27 as ‘a classic’.

Two rows of columns remain from the Basilica, the trading centre during Roman rule. The capitals of the columns are Ionic, with three naves, and were built in first century AD, during the reign of Emperor Augustus, in the shape of bulls’ heads.

Incredibly well preserved reliefs on a sarcophagus

The Trajan Fountain, named after the Roman Emperor Trajan, was built at the beginning of the second century AD. It had two-storey columns and was decorated with statues. Today only the foot of the big statue of Trajan remains. 

The Temple of Hadrian was built in honour of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. You can still make out the frieze of the goddess Fortuna in the middle of the vault, which is supported by four columns with Corinthian capitals. On the semicircle at the back, there’s a relief of Medusa. A visitor, trying to cope with the heat, adds some colour with her red umbrella.

The Gate of Hadrian

The Celsus Library is undoubtedly the pièce de résistance and truly remarkable. You’ll find most of the other visitors conjugated here, gawping at its beauty. It was built in honour of Tiberius Julius Celsus, general governor of the Asia Minor province. He died at the age of seventy in 114 AD, and his son, Tiberius Julius Apuila, began building a library near his tomb. But he himself became ill and it was his son who completed the library in 125 AD. It was rumoured to have 12,000 books in its time and was destroyed but the Goths when they invaded in 265 AD.

Although construction of the Grand Theatre started in the Hellenistic Period, it was much more widely extended during the rule of Emperor Claudius (41–54 AD) and completed during the rule of Emperor Trajan (98–117 AD). The three-storeyed theatre is 18 metres high and holds almost 25,000 spectators. Concerts took place there, as did gladiator and animal fights, with the high peripheral wall around the stage acting as a barrier to the audience.

The Isabey Mosque was built by Aydınoğu İsa Bey around 1375. The west-facing door is covered in marble. Minarets originally stood on the east and west sides, but today only the western minaret remains erect. The courtyard with its pretty fountain is a quiet spot to rest your feet and contemplate all that history you’ve just ingested.

Selçuk itself is nothing short of delightful. If you visit at the weekend, stop by the Saturday market with its piles of light red, fragrant tomatoes and grapes of the darkest purple. It doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of an Istanbul market and is a pleasure to explore. There are little cafés for Turkish coffee. We had all our meals at Tat restaurant, which I would never have discovered if it hadn't been recommended to me. I would have walked up to it, seen the generic menu and kept walking – thus missing an absolute gem. The food is excellent. Lightly spiced chicken and kebabs, hearty kiremitte köfte (meatballs baked with tomato sauce and cheese), and truly superb mezes. Simple cooking with good ingredients never fails. The owners are lovely and found it hilarious that we came there for lunch and dinner two days in a row. The lesson: never judge a book by its cover. Luckily for us, our hotel was up on a hill, so the balmy evenings were spent on the balcony watching the sunset with a glass of Aegean rosé. Bliss. 

All photos by Daniel Salinas Conejeros.

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