Our guide from the Turkish port of Kusadasi [coo-sha-DAH-shee] was “Elf.” She explained her nickname was short for Elif, similar to Aleph in Hebrew, and both meaning “first.”
“And, no,” she said, “my brother is not named Beta.”
Thus began a delightful day on the backroads—and a few frontroads—of coastal Turkey, aka Asia Minor.
Ephesus was the capitol of the Roman province of Asia Minor when the apostle Paul visited. At the time it was a bustling seaport, but the Meander River [yes, that’s where we get the word] has been bringing silt from the inland mountains for thousands of years and Ephesus is 3 miles from the coast now.
Mark Antony was born in Ephesus in 83 BC and, after the death of Julius Caesar, Antony ruled this eastern edge of the Roman [soon-to-be, under Augustus] Empire. Of course, he spent most of his time in Alexandria with Cleopatra. But that’s another story. [Read Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff]
We were very impressed with Turkey—industry, farmland, infrastructure. They grow peaches, pomegranates, artichokes, tangerines, tobacco and cotton, as well as mulberry trees for silkworms. Making denim here is a big industry: from cotton farming, indigo grown for the blue dye, weaving, sewing blue jeans, and finally “stone washing” them with local volcanic pumice.
The local symbol of Ephesus is the bee, sacred to Artemis, whose enormous temple dominated the city and made Ephesus a tourist attraction from classical times. It was the silversmiths who supplied idols to the tourists who so objected to Paul preaching a new religion.
The site is enormous; all in ruins, but evocative of the importance of the past nonetheless. There are two major reasons the city is still there at all, both tragic. The aforementioned silting began to kill the town in the first few centuries AD. Between 500-600 AD, malaria was brought in from Africa. A quarter of a million people died, and the city was abandoned.
Ephesus was built on a hill, winding down to the harbor. It struck me that it was very much an example of “undertown” the seedy busy seaport with warehouses, whorehouses and alehouses, with “overtown” built with the riches of the former, rising ever upwards. Our bus kindly deposited us at the top and we walked down, to be met at the bottom. Very civilized.
Then, as now, wheeled vehicles were not allowed in the streets of overtown. Too noisy and dirty, don’t u know. The Hercules Gate on the main street was too narrow to allow chariots or carts through.
Our first stop was the modest 1400 seat theater, now romantically nestled in a field of wildflowers. The theater is still in use, as are many classical theaters, though stadium cushions would be a must. Well, they are a must at any venue, aren’t they?
A great aqueduct could be seen, formerly bringing water from the hills into the city, filling the great fountains in the forum and the baths, those essential elements of any Roman city. Local marble was brought in from 25 quarries to build the city, including a enormous shopping arcades, government buildings, temples and statuary.
The great library of Celsus [C=K] was the fourth largest in the world in his day. It has been restored, where it sits at the bottom of the street, where it turns toward the plain of undertown. Celsus was relentlessly anti-Christian and, though his works were utterly destroyed, they could be 90% reconstructed from the Christian writers who refuted them. I guess it is not too surprising that a tunnel was discovered leading from the basement of the library to the brothel across the street.
“Honey, I’m going to spend a few hours at the library” takes on a new meaning. It makes the modern bars and pubs named “The Library” look positively respectable.
Nearby the 24,000 seat theater marks the boundary between the original Greek harbor town and the lavish Roman city. It was this area that Paul, with Aquila and Priscilla, set up their tentmaking business to support themselves while preaching. Little remains of this agora, but the guides gleefully—if not truthfully—point out the workshops of Demetrius and the other silversmiths who managed to get Paul arrested. There is a rocky promontory which they say was surmounted by the prison where Paul was kept for 18 months. When an earthquake cracked the walls, Aquila and Priscilla gathered Paul and got him on a ship out of town.
A beautiful moment occurred when Elf said, “It doesn’t matter what building we use or how many we are, we are a church!”
There was a charming re-enactment of Roman soldiers, Cleopatra and Antony, and dancing girls, complete with trumpets, but, though glancing at it, we chose to explore along the shady ancient road rather than watch the show. We were again impressed by the Turkish “ready for company” attitude.
Back on the bus, we made our way to Miletus, passing the ruins of Magnesia. The 10,000 seat Miletus theater was the site where Paul addressed the elders from the church at Ephesus, as he dared not return there.
Surpassing Miletus was the enormous Temple of Apollo at Didyma. We stopped for a lavish lunch buffet at a restaurant overlooking the Temple. We were served marvelous fresh fish [from local salt water fish farms] and the best eggplant you can imagine, with olives, bulgar, tomatoes—all supervised by numerous courteous but cautious cats hoping we would get clumsy with our fish.
Even having viewed the temple from above could not prepare us for its size. I can’t make it clear with words either, except to say that the column bases were more that 6’ across. The Temple was most important for its oracle, second only to Dephi and was intended to be the largest temple in the world, though it was never completed. The most intriguing part for us was the 2 long, very dark tunnels that led from the high foundation / podium down into the cella, now open to the sky. These would have allowed priests or the oracles access to the sacred well beneath the room where the cult statue was kept. There is still something of a mysterious air about the place, though ruined. Didyma was never a town per se, and isn’t now, but a destination for tourists and the curious, but no longer the devout.