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Ephesus was an ancient port city whose well-preserved ruins are in modern-day Turkey. The city was once considered the most important Greek city and the most important trading center in the Mediterranean region. Throughout history, Ephesus survived multiple attacks and changed hands many times between conquerors. It was also a hotbed of early Christian evangelism and remains an important archaeological site and Christian pilgrimage destination.
Where Is Ephesus?
Ephesus is located near the western shores of modern-day Turkey, where the Aegean Sea meets the former estuary of the River Kaystros, about 80 kilometers south of Izmir, Turkey.
According to legend, the Ionian prince Androclos founded Ephesus in the eleventh century B.C. The legend says that as Androclos searched for a new Greek settlement, he turned to the Delphi oracles for guidance. The oracles told him a boar and a fish would show him the new location.
One day, as Androclos was frying fish over an open fire, a fish flopped out of the frying pan and landed in the nearby bushes. A spark ignited the bushes and a wild boar ran out. Recalling the oracles’ wisdom, Androclos built his new settlement where the bushes stood and called it Ephesus.
Another legend says Ephesus was founded by the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors, and that the city was named after their queen, Ephesia.
Temple of Artemis
Much of Ephesus’s ancient history is unrecorded and sketchy. What is known is that in the seventh century B.C., Ephesus fell under the rule of the Lydian Kings and became a thriving city where men and women enjoyed equal opportunities. It was also the birthplace of the renowned philosopher Heraclitus.
The Lydian King Croesus, who ruled from 560 B.C. to 547 B.C., was most famous for funding the rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, chastity, childbirth, wild animals and the wilderness.
She was also one of the most revered Greek deities. Modern-day excavations have revealed that three smaller Artemis temples preceded the Croesus temple.
In 356 B.C., a crazed man named Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis. The Ephesians rebuilt the temple even bigger. It was estimated to be four times larger than the Parthenon and became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The temple was later destroyed and never rebuilt. Little remains of it today, although some of its remnants reside in the British Museum, including a column with Croesus’s signature.
In 546 B.C., Ephesus fell to the Persian Empire, along with the rest of Anatolia. Ephesus continued to thrive even as other Ionian cities rebelled against Persian rule.
In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and entered Ephesus. Upon his death in 323 B.C., one of his generals, Lysimachus, took over the city and renamed it Arsineia.
Lysimachus moved Ephesus two miles away and built a new harbor and new defensive walls. The Ephesian people, however, wouldn’t relocate and remained in their homes until Lysimachus forced them to move. In 281 B.C., Lysimachus was killed at the Battle of Corupedium and the city was renamed Ephesus again.
Ephesus Under Roman Rule
In 129 B.C., King Attalos of Pergamon left Ephesus to the Roman Empire in his will and the city became the seat of the regional Roman governor. The reforms of Caesar Augustus brought Ephesus to its most prosperous time, which lasted until the third century A.D.
Most of the Ephesian ruins seen today such as the enormous amphitheater, the Library of Celsus, the public space (agora) and the aqueducts were built or rebuilt during Augustus’s reign.
During the reign of Tiberius, Ephesus flourished as a port city. A business district was opened around 43 B.C. to service the massive amounts of goods arriving or departing from the man-made harbor and from caravans traveling the ancient Royal Road.
According to some sources, Ephesus was at the time second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of culture and commerce.
Christianity in Ephesus
Ephesus played a vital role in the spread of Christianity. Starting in the first century A.D., notable Christians such as Saint Paul and Saint John visited and rebuked the cults of Artemis, winning many Christian converts in the process.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is thought to have spent her last years in Ephesus with Saint John. Her house and John’s tomb can be visited there today.
Ephesus is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, and the biblical book of Ephesians, written around 60 A.D., is thought to be a letter from Paul to Ephesian Christians, although some scholars question the source.
Not every Ephesian was open to Paul’s Christian message. Chapter 19 in the Book of Acts tells of a riot started by a man named Demetrius. Demetrius made silver coins featuring the likeness of Artemis.
Tired of Paul’s attacks on the goddess he worshipped, and worried that the spread of Christianity would ruin his trade, Demetrius plotted a riot and enticed a large crowd to turn against Paul and his disciples. Ephesian officials, however, protected Paul and his followers and eventually Christianity became the city’s official religion.
The Decline of Ephesus
In 262 A.D., the Goths destroyed Ephesus, including the Temple of Artemis. Some restoration of the city took place, but it never regained its splendor. In 431 A.D., a council was held in the Church of Saint Mary which confirmed the Virgin Mary as the mother of God.
Emperor Theodosius erased all traces of Artemis during his reign. He banned freedom of worship, closed the schools and temples and forbade women many of the rights they’d enjoyed before. The Temple of Artemis was destroyed, its ruins used to build Christian churches.
During the Byzantine era, Constantine the Great declared Christianity the official religion of all of Rome and made Constantinople the capital of the Roman Eastern Empire. This left Ephesus, a city already facing decline due to accumulating silt in its harbor, left to fend increasingly for itself.
In the sixth and seventh centuries A.D., a massive earthquake and the harbor’s continuing decline left Ephesus a shell of the city it used to be, and Arab invasions forced most of the population of Ephesus to flee and start a new settlement. Ephesus continued to deteriorate, although it experienced a brief period of growth and construction under the rule of the Seljuk Turks in the fourteenth century.
The Ottoman Empire took final control of Ephesus in the fifteenth century; however, the city was in dire straits, its harbor practically useless. By the end of that century, Ephesus was abandoned, its legacy left to archaeologists, historians and the thousands of visitors to flock to the region each year to see the ancient ruins.