Our flight touched down in Izmir, Turkey late in the night, after several days in Cappadocia. We lost all sense of where we were (an extremely common occurrence, while on this trip) as we traversed the narrow backstreets and hills of Izmir en route to our overnight stay at a hilltop farm hotel overlooking the serene white-washed town of Sirince. We were exhausted, but eager to explore the ancient ruins of Ephesus the following day.
Ephesus is one of the most well-preserved Greco-Roman archaeological sites in the world (Jerash, which we are visiting in Jordan is another), located near the Turkish town of Izmir. It is also houses one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The reason it is so well preserved is because it was buried under soil for centuries, perfectly preserving the mosaics, structures, marble columns and also preventing looting or environmental damage.
The city’s history and development went through three distinct periods, all incomprehensibly old: i) 11th century BC, ii) 9th century BC, and finally the Roman city-complex was developed in the 2nd century BC where it grew into one of the most important cities in the world. Ultimately, malarial plague, earthquakes and the demise of the Roman empire led to the downfall of the city, and it was eventually buried under layers of dirt. Not until the late 19th century were the ruins of Ephesus discovered by archaeologists. To this day only 15% of the archaeological site has been excavated.
Upon entering Ephesus, our guide pointed out a symbol, called an Ichthys, that had been etched into the marble. Ichthys, in Christian history is the Fish Symbol, but a fourth century AD adaptation represents a wheel with four straight lines all intersecting in the middle. The lines are actually all symbols that read ΙΧΘΥΣ in Greek – and are essentially an early acronym that secretly revealed that Christians lived in the city. In fact, Paul lived in Ephesus for several years, preached his gospel, was arrested, and wrote much of what we read in the Bible while living in Ephesus. In order from top to bottom (and left to right when written) the letters read:
Ι – Iota is the first letter of Iesous, Greek for Jesus
Χ – Chi is the first letter of Chritstos, Greek for anointed
Θ – Theta is the first letter of Theou, Greek for God’s
Υ – Upsilon is the first letter of Yios, Greek for son
Σ – Sigma is the first letter for Soter, Greek for savior
Our tour spanned several hours, moving from Turkish bath houses to shops lining the main street, from statues honoring Greek and Roman Gods to the gorgeous terraced houses, and from the magnificent library to the theaters and coliseums. You could feel the Roman society in the city and get a sense of what life was like moving from a Roman bath house, down the main streets, through the shops, into the library and then, along with 20,000 other animated fans cheering, into the stadium.
The layout of Ephesus, like many Roman cities with sophisticated and ambitious urban planning, is considered and logical. The water ran from the upper levels of the village to the lower areas, allowing the clean water to come in from above and dirty and polluted water to run to the lower portions of the village. Bath houses were near the entrances to the city, cleaning dirt and filth and disease from weary travelers coming to the city along the many trade routes in the region.
They designed the terraced homes layout to run in the same manner, meaning the most desirable homes were located at the top of the terraced areas.
The theaters were built similar to a modern day theater, with a stage as the focal point, an orchestra pit, and semi-circular seating carved from marble that enveloped the stage and orchestra and filling the seats with over 24,000 people. The nuns who maintained the eternal flame in the city were offered the best seats in the front, followed by the aristocrats, villagers and the serfs (or slaves) who were sometimes allowed to view the performances from the highest level of the theaters. The theater was huge, even by today’s standards, and the kids and Brad raced each other all the way up the steep steps to the top of the stadium for a spectacular view, to test out if the acoustics really were perfect from all parts of the theater (questionable) and truthfully to see if Brad could still beat his kids in a stadium steps drill (sorry…to no avail).
In addition to plays and music, the theaters were also used as arenas to witness the brutal act of gladiator battles. Similar to the Coliseum in Rome, there were holding cells below the arena for the slaves (frequently Christians in that era) who would be competing and for the animals who were to be their opponents. You could feel the raw brutality in just where they held the competitors and the animals, deep in the bowels of the theater, dark and confined. Brad and Brayden pretended to be gladiators coming out of the tunnels, prepared to fight to the death and for the glory of Rome! No thanks.
The Temple of Artemis (one of the seven ancient wonders of the world) is left as a shadow of its original splendor, but you can see throughout the city the fountains, monuments and marble lined walkways that brought a magnificence to the city.
Probably our favorite structure was the massive Library of Celus, the third largest library in the world at that time.It housed 12,000 scrolls, mostly in Greek which was the dominant written language at the time (Hellenistic influence). We took a cute picture of Brooke, Brayden and their teacher Ryan in front of the library with a tiny bit of irony that we probably have more content available in our iPhone taking the picture than existed in all of the ancient world!
Ephesus was very real to all of us. Our imaginations were in overdrive thinking of what life was like there living among the Greeks, early Christians and the people of the Roman Empire.