There is perhaps no spot more storied in Turkey than the port city of Ephesus. In its day, it was one of the largest and most important urban centers in the region. The city began at the dawn of the Bronze Age as one of the earliest Greek ports in the Mediterranean and later served as the provincial seat of Roman government in Asia.
It was here that the Apostle Paul spread the gospel of Christianity. Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius visited. Some say the city was where the Virgin Mary and St. John spent their final days.
Ephesus became one of the wealthiest cities in the region due to its busy port. Hundreds of shops lined the streets and were arranged in large markets. The fanciful homes of rich merchants stretched on terraces up the hills surrounding the city.
Despite all its early fame, Ephesus declined as the port silted in, forming a landlocked lake that made the harbor useless. An earthquake, invading Arabs, and finally illnesses spread by mosquitoes bred in the now boggy lake forced inhabitants to flee and spelled the end of the city.
Today it is a crumbled ruin. But enough of its fabulous glory stands testament to what the city once was.
This ancient place was to be our second step on our magical Turkish tour.
When Tyler and I arrived in the Ephesus-adjacent village of Selcuk after spending several days in the capital city, we were pleasantly surprised by the stark differences between the colossal Istanbul and this town of 36,000 people. Whereas Turkey’s capital had been busy and cosmopolitan, this small town reflected the slow, quaint pace of the country’s more-rural spots.
We strolled that evening along quiet streets lined with outdoor cafes and a few shops. We sampled Turkish pide, a kind of flatbread pizza shaped like a boat and topped with minced meat, peppers, herbs, and savory spices. We sipped coffee from the top of the pension in which we were staying, enjoying a hawks-eye view of the town.
But it was Ephesus we’d come here to see and the next day we set out for the short ride via taxi to our destination. At the gate to the ruins, we hired a man who proudly declared he was the area’s top backgammon player. He was also a knowledgeable tour guide.
Entering Ephesus from higher ground that eventually had led to the harbor, we could see the gleaming white marbled walls and streets that had made up this grand city. Ahead of us was the marble-paved Acadian Way that once led straight from the city center to the harbor. Lined by columns and statues painted brilliant colors, the 30-foot-wide road had once even been lit with ancient street lamps so everyone entering the city – from sailors to kings – would be dazzled by its opulence.
All around us were ruined edifices, theaters, roads, homes, and scores of still-standing columns. Most had been hewn from white marble or covered with sheets of the veined stone. Sidewalks in front of the hundreds of shops were delicately mosaicked as were the interior floors and still-standing walls and floors of the grand houses.
From one exterior wall, a delicately carved lion’s head would have spewed water out its open mouth into one of the city’s many public fountains. The evidence of statues of heroes and gods were everywhere. The city was so advanced it even boasted underground sewage and water lines thousands of years ago.
As Tyler and I walked the streets trailing behind our guide, I engaged in mental time travel trying to imagine this city as it once was. Thousands of people from across the known world would have crowded the streets, haggling noisily in various languages with the vendors selling both local and exotic wares from their street-side stalls. The elegantly clad aristocracy would have viewed the scene from their palaces and homes located hillside of the vendors.
Hundreds more would be making their ways to the baths to cleanse their bodies or to cleanse their souls at the temples, including the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Even more might have been cheering in the city’s two giant theaters, either watching plays or battles between gladiators who were schooled in an adjacent academy . The more studious might have been headed toward the Library of Celsus, a once-vaulted, two-story edifice constructed in the 2nd Century that contained over 12,000 scrolls.
Great ships would have been sailing in and out of the harbor and burley sailors unloading their goods at the docks. Known as “The Gate by Which the West Visited the East,” the harbor was once the best protected port on the Mediterranean due to land surrounding it. Ironically, those protecting lands would contribute to the eventual silting in of the grand harbor.
I shook my head and came back to the present. Tyler nudged me and hefted a modern-day recreation of a clay underground pipe of the type that would have been joined to carry water through the city to fountains, public baths, and homes. We had just toured one of the multi-storied homes of the aristocracy that covered the hillside.
As we made our way to the exit of the city, I turned for one last look. One of the ubiquitous Turkish cats, this one a kitten, stood on a crumbling wall, also looking out over the ruins. Behind it what remained of Ephesus tumbled down toward the once-harbor. The new and the old – a metaphor for Turkey itself – a country that sparkles with lively modernity while preserving the flavor of the ancients.
However, neither Tyler nor I could have any inkling of what still lay before us on our next leg of the journey as we traveled inland to a place where time seems to have stood still – Cappadocia.