A Journey Through The Ancient Ruins Of Ephesus

The day before, we’d clambered around the travertines of Pamukkale and explored the haunting ruins of Hierapolis. After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast to set us up for the day, we once again hit the road for the short 2 hour drive towards Selçuk. And, first stop for the day, the magnificent ruined city of Ephesus.

We were on our little drive around southwest Turkey. Since our last visit in 2003, Ephesus had been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status and the famous Terrace Houses had been opened up to the public. A perfect excuse to reacquaint ourselves…

Ephesus Turkey, Celsus Library Detail

Ephesus is famous for the Celsus Library

Arrival At Ancient Ephesus, Turkey

Whenever we’re doing road trips in Turkey, there’s always something that doesn’t quite go according to plan. We’d planned on finding some accommodation in Selçuk and then walking the 3km stretch to the Ephesus site from there.

Somehow, the road signs we followed lead us right to a jandarma check point. A quick check of documents and momentary scan around the car and we were waved on our way again…straight into the car park of the second entrance of Ephesus. How did that happen? Guess we’ll explore Ephesus first, then…

Exploring The Ruins Of Ephesus

Entering via the second entrance meant we’d be starting from the top and working our way downhill, through the city. A whole different perspective from our last visit. And, if we’re being totally honest, we remember very little, if anything, of the ruins at this top end. The beauty of returning time and again – you forget things, you miss things, parts of the site were off limits on a particular visit.

Known today as Ephesus, the ancient city is called Ephesos in Greek and Efes in Turkish. It dates from the 10th Century BC but what we see as we’re walking around are Hellenistic and Roman era ruins. Second only in size to Rome, Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and these guys were pretty wealthy! Come with us for a wander…

The Bath of Varius

Ephesus Varius Baths

The Bath of Varius dates from the 2nd Century AD

There’s constant work to be done for archaeologists at the ruins of Ephesus. The first photo my camera shot, right by the entrance, was of the Bath of Varius. Restored and extended numerous times from its original state in the 2nd Century AD, excavations are apparently yet to be done here.

Whenever we’re exploring ancient ruins in Turkey, ‘snap happy’ comes into play. Snap now, more research later. Even using this strategy, we were still at Ephesus for around 3 hours. It’s fascinating – the best preserved Roman city in the region. Rather than wander between selections of rocks and stones, you walk through the city, along the roads built and trodden by those who lived there. If you really want a feel for how the ancient Romans lived, the ruins of Ephesus are a must.

So transport yourself back to those ancient times and let’s move on…

The Basilica Stoa of Ephesus

Ephesus Basilica Stoa

The ancient Greeks and Romans loved a column or two

What better than a long row of columns to lead the eye, to tempt the photographer? Izmir’s Agora and the columns of ancient Perge are etched into my memory.

The first offerings we come to at the top end of Ephesus are the columns of the Basilica Stoa. This was an area for important public gatherings that would have had a roof resting atop the columns and it’s the first feel of being a part of the city. This is where the pathways start to lead you around and where relatively intact ruins take the imagination to daily life rather than trying to conjure up images of what maybe a structure looked like.

The Ephesus Bouleuterion or Odeon

Ephesus Bouleuterion

The Ephesus Bouleuterion was where city matters were discussed

Behind the Basilica Stoa, we walked by the Bouleuterion where the important Ephesian aristocrats would meet to discuss matters of the city. Tax collection, building maintenance, construction – those discussions took place here. As an odeon, theatrical performances and the like were performed here, too. This top end of the city was such an important public gathering area and, first time round, it seems we missed its relevance.

Depending on which site you read, the Ephesus ruins are one of the most – if not the most – visited tourist attractions in Turkey. It hit like a thunder bolt while we were there – the lack of crowds. Great for us on a selfish level but so frustrating and sad, too. Granted, it was October – perfect weather for a trip to Ephesus, by the way – but the scenes were so different to our first visit and photos we’d seen since. The crowds will return so let’s enjoy these relatively empty scenes.

The Ephesus Prytaneion

Ephesus Prytaneion

The Ephesus Prytaneion housed an eternal flame

Housing a sacred eternal flame that was dedicated to the Greek goddess of hearth and fire, Hestia, the Prytaneion was one of the most important buildings in Ephesus. The columns you can see in the distance have been re-erected and other parts of the building were used to construct the baths further down the hill, hence its not-very-intact state.

For this important and sacred building, well, your imagination needs to be in vivid mode. Excavations here recovered two statues of the goddess, Artemis, and they, along with so many other artefacts from this site, are on display at Efes Archaeological Museum, just down the road in the centre of Selçuk. We love this museum, but that’s for another article.

Our goddess, Artemis of the Ephesians, is the very same Artemis fetured in the myth of Leto; the myth surrounding the ancient site of Letoon. Another link in our chain of piecing together modern day Turkey’s ancient history. Artemis was revered and worshipped by the Ephesians and their Temple of Artemis was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Pollio Fountain & Temple Of Domitian

Ephesus Fountain Of Pollio

The Pollio Fountain was under scaffolding at the time of our visit

Clues as to the immense wealth of the city of Ephesus are everywhere as you walk through the site. As with so many other temples we’ve come across when exploring Turkey’s ancient ruins, it’s difficult to imagine what the Temple of Domitian would have looked like in its prime.

It’s neighbour, however, is the Pollio Fountain. As fountains go, this is mighty. This area was fenced off at the time of our visit; scaffolding protecting and supporting the arch of the Pollio Fountain. It’s always a marvel for us how, so long ago, water was so effectively transported and channelled to the citizens of the Roman Empire. The Fountain of Pollio was built in honour of Sextillius Pollio who built an aqueduct that carried water all the way from Kuşadası to supply the city. Hence the shape of the fountain? Quite possibly.

You can just imagine that tranquil sound of gushing fountain water amongst the everyday hubbub of city life. Of course, there were statues adorning this grand fountain. And, of course, they’re to be seen in the nearby museum.

The Ephesus Memmius Monument

Ephesus Memmius Monument

The Ephesus Memmius Monument is a commanding scene

Perhaps because we were walking downhill, from the top to the bottom of ancient Ephesus, we noticed so much more than previously. We’ve never had a guide with us at this site so we were there to discover for ourselves. Turkey’s official guides really know their stuff – we learned so much on our revisit to ancient Myra and Church of St. Nicholas via a guide – but sometimes, an independent stroll is in order.

And, on this visit, as we approached the main stretch of the famous Curetes Street, the Memmius Monument stood proudly to the right of the road. Quite a commanding scene. We’re just a few metres away from the Pollio Fountain, here, and apparently, there was a fountain here, too. Lucky Ephesians. As Ancient Roman life was, it seems the Ephesians were leading a charmed existence.

Ephesus Hercules Gate

Ephesus Hercules Gate

One column of the Hercules Gate

Yes, we know a gate should have two pillars to it – and the Ephesus Gate of Hercules does have two pillars. However, despite the lack of crowds exploring the ancient city on the day we were there, a photo containing the second pillar minus close-up people and sun glare proved impossible.

So, the main reasons for including this half-a-story photo are two: The first reason is to give you a clue of the intricacy and detail of some of the statues and monuments you can just be in awe of when you visit Ephesus. Each pillar is apparently a carving of Hercules. The second reason is because the Hercules Gate marks one of the boundaries of Curetes Street. And this, is the really special part of the ruins of Ephesus for us.

Curetes Steet, Ephesus

Ephesus Curetes Street

Let the eye be drawn to the end of Curetes Street

Curetes Street is astonishing in its ability to place you in the ancient Roman era! We’ve not seen every single ruined Roman city in the world, obviously. But, as getting a sense of real life in an ancient affluent city goes; as town planning goes; and as natural landscape goes: Just look at Curetes Street! Astounding. The best you’re gonna see?

We’re sharing those paving stones that the Ephesians, too, walked along. Many of the highlights mentioned in this post are to the left and right, top and bottom of Curetes Street. And Curetes Street is on a slope. At the bottom, as you zigzag from left to right to take in each sight of Ephesus, is perhaps the most famous sight. Yes, we need to take in all the other marvels first, but the Library of Celsus awaits. It beckons you!

From the top of Curetes Street, you can see the fertile plains of Selçuk, leading towards the sea and the horizon. Neat rows of modern day lush greenery and vegetation were once the sea and harbour that helped to make Ephesus the prosperous, important city that it was. Despite dredging efforts, the Ephesians were unable to prevent the silting up of the harbour and this was one of the deciding factors of the city’s eventual demise.

The Ephesus Fountain Of Trajan

Ephesus Fountain Of Trajan

It’s another fountain – Trajan’s Fountain

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, writing off this amazing city of Ephesus just yet. On the right of Curetes Street as we walked down the slope was the Fountain of Trajan. Another fountain. Your walk uphill in the intense summer heat must have been a tad easier back in the day, with all this water spraying as you passed by.

We’re in the 2nd Century AD, here, and the Ephesians built this fountain in honour of Emperor Trajan. Trajan carries the label of one of the five ‘good emperors.’ So labelled because, as well as his successful military expansion of the Roman Empire, he was also well known for his administrative and building knowledge and acts. Guess where the excavated statues are that were excavated around the Fountain of Trajan? Yes, you really need to include the nearby museum in your visit to Ephesus!

Ephesus Hadrian’s Temple

Ephesus Temple Of Hadrian

The beautiful Temple of Hadrian

How beautiful is this Temple of Hadrian? We stopped here for a good few moments just admiring the intact, decorative stonework. All of this had slipped from memory from our first visit – it doesn’t help that I lost all my photos from pre-digital-camera days when we first moved to Turkey. No images to rejog the memory. Gazing at Hadrian’s Temple was like a first time visit for us.

I did remember that some replica work had been done by archaeologists both at the Temple of Hadrian and other sights of Ephesus, to piece together missing parts and to protect vulnerable stonework. Those original parts, again, are in the nearby museum and thankfully, the replica work in no way takes away from the beauty of this temple. And it would have been interesting to compare those past photos because this restoration of Hadrian’s Temple was only completed in 2014.

Lost in taking photos, lost in the history of Curetes Street and the magnetism of the awaiting, nearby, Ephesus Terrace Houses and the Library of Celsus at the bottom of the street, we completely neglected to take a peek at the Scholastica Baths just behind the temple. That can be saved for another time…

Terrace Houses Of Ephesus

As we stood admiring the Temple of Hadrian, just behind us was the mosaic footpath and the entrance to the famous Terrace Houses of Ephesus. These Terrace Houses were perhaps the main reason for our return to the site as they were only opened to the public relatively recently.

Mosaic Footpath Of Ephesus

We couldn’t wait to get inside the Terrace Houses

There are so many ancient ruins in Turkey – we’ve only seen a fraction – and it is easy to get ‘ruin fatigue’ if you’re touring around, trying to take in as many as possible. Another temple, another theatre, another emperor, god, goddess. It all becomes a mishmash in your head.

These photos hopefully give you some clue that Ephesus is different. It’s a city. And what’s even more special about ancient Ephesus are the Terrace Houses. Ruins of temples and major public buildings are one thing, but to get a peek into the daily home life of wealthy Ephesians – that, for us, is truly amazing.

Terrace Houses Of Ephesus

The Ephesus Terrace Houses offer a unique insight into home life of wealthy Ephesians

There’s an extra fee to go into the Terrace Houses so perhaps this was why there were so few visitors inside. But if you do go to Ephesus, make sure you don’t skip this real insight. It’s a must!

Raised wooden walkways guide you around and up each terrace level. The walls of the villas are still decorated in their original paintwork. There’s writing etched into the walls here and there. Some is where kids have played games and kept score. Others are lists – shopping lists and the latest prices for meat and vegetables.

They layout of the living quarters is clear to see, separated by interior walls and doorways. Bathroom fittings are still in evidence.

Mosaics In The Terrace Houses

The mosaics and frescoes of the Ephesus Terrace Houses are sublime

And then there are the floor mosaics and the frescoes around the walls. Never have we seen so many intact mosaics in their original setting. A mosaic in a museum display is one thing. To see them here as part of the homes of the Ephesians is just extraordinary. Some are patterns, like you can see in the photo above and there are also superb depictions of animals and other mythical beings and creatures.

Cutlery, crockery, toys, jewellery and other household items found in the Ephesus Terrace houses are all on display at the museum. And if the work of the archaeologist fascinates you as much as it does us, their painstaking efforts are on full display at these Terrace Houses. There’s still so much more to be revealed here.

Ephesus Celsus Library

Ephesus Hadrian's Gate

The towering Hadrian’s Gate

Leaving the Terrace Houses, we passed through the towering columns of Hadrian’s Gate onto Marble Street and headed to what is perhaps the most famous landmark of Ancient Ephesus. This is what most people come to see; the Library of Celsus…

Ephesus Library Of Celsus

The Celsus Library and the Gates of Mazaeus and Mithridates

Flanked on one side by the Gates of Mazaeus and Mithridates, the Celsus Library area is often rammed with visitors. We were blessed on this day to have relative ease of access. It’s amazing to think that this structure was completed in 117 AD and still stands in its current condition, today.

Built in honour of the Roman Governor of Asia, Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, by his son, the library contained 12,000 scrolls as well as the tomb of the governor. It’s not difficult to see, even today, why it was considered to be one of the most impressive buildings in Asia Minor.

Ephesus Celsus Library Detail

Up close and personal with the Library of Celsus

Getting up close and personal with the Celsus Library and this is yet another ancient Ephesus construction where the carving of the stone is like lacework. It really is remarkable. Statues also adorn the library and these are replicas that reveal the grandeur of the building in its heyday. You don’t need us to tell you where any of the original statues that were here are displayed. Yes, that’s right, you can find many of the original pieces in Efes Archaeological Museum. Some others, however, are displayed at museums internationally.

Ephesus Commercial Agora

Through the gates, we wandered around the square boundaries of the commercial agora. This agora originally bordered the harbour on one side and was the trade centre of Ephesus. As well as the trading of goods, don’t forget, we’re in Roman times, here. Slaves of both the male and female variety were also traded.

Ephesus Commercial Agora

The Ephesus commercial agora is surrounded by columns

It’s perfectly square (160m x 160m) and lined with columns. And, if Ephesus is crowded on the day you visit, this little area might be a good spot to escape for a while. Bar one other wanderer, we were the only people here.

Ephesus Great Theatre

We took our exit out onto Marble Street and headed towards our final Ephesus highlight for the day, the Great Theatre.

Ephesus Great Theatre

The Ephesus Great Theatre is colossal

It’s called ‘Great’ for a reason. The Ephesus theatre is colossal! We’ve included this photo, taken from the edge of Harbour Street to try and give you an idea of its size. And this is, for us, the most impressive view. When you actually climb up the steps inside the theatre and stand amongst the rows of seating, it loses its magic for us.

Used for performances today, when we visited, the temporary stage was being erected. It was hammers and drills and wires. Not to worry though, if you do make the effort to climb up into the Great Theatre, you’re rewarded with these great views along Harbour Street.

Ephesus Harbour Street View

Climbing the Great Theatre is worth it for the views

The Ephesus Theatre also has fame in the Bible in the book of Acts. John The Baptist (whose basilica and said burial place is close to Ephesus) had already converted a few Ephesians to Christianity. And Paul, who was residing in Ephesus at the time was continuing the work, encouraging people to convert.

As you might imagine, some Ephesians were non too pleased about this because they were worried about the demise of the worship of Artemis. A local mob gathered in the theatre with the aim of preventing Paul from any further preaching, only to be talked down lest Ephesus get into trouble from Rome for rioting. All fascinating stuff – and we’re not done there with the Biblical connections.

The Church of Mary

It’s got to be said, the Church of Mary (aka the Double Church and the Council Church) is up there with the least impressive of the physical ruins of Ephesus. We followed the signposts there and four other visitors just ahead of us stopped as they arrived at the site.

“Oh. Is this it?”

Yeah, Mary’s church can only be described as underwhelming in its present state. However, we can’t omit it from our Ephesus journey because its story has great historical significance.

Ephesus Church Of Mary

You need a good imagination to conjur an image of the Church of Mary

The Church of Mary was the Cathedral of Ephesus and this was where the Council of Ephesus was held in 431 AD. There discussion was to decide whether the Virgin Mary could be labelled Theotokos (bearer of God). Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius made himself Mr Unpopular by suggesting she should be described as Christotokos (bearer of Christ).

The former description was agreed upon and apparently, Mary is labelled ‘Theotokos,’ to this very day. Bishop Nestorius was thus not flavour of the month amongst the people of Ephesus and he was sent elsewhere – Antioch – to be bishop.

And thus concludes our journey around the highlights of the ruins of Ephesus. There is lots more to see that isn’t mentioned here and, as the years pass, no doubt more will be revealed and we will once again return. Let’s look at some practicalities:

Visiting Ephesus – Useful Information

  • The ruins of Ephesus, including the Terrace Houses, are open daily throughout the year.
  • Opening times are 08:00 – 18:30 in summer and 08:30 – 18.00 in winter.
  • Entry fee (2018) is 40 TL and an extra 20 TL for the Terrace Houses. If you are resident and have a Müze Kart, admission is free but you will still need to pay to visit the Terrace Houses. If you are not resident and are touring the sites of the Aegean region, it might be worth you buying an Aegean Museum Card. This is 75 TL and gives you free access to various archaeological sites and museums in the region.
  • If you are staying in Fethiye, a local travel agent should be able to sort a trip to Ephesus out for you, or you can book a combined Pammukale/Ephesus tour in advance through TripAdvisor’s Viator. Likewise, from many other places in Turkey, Viator should be have a tour available to Ephesus.
  • If you are visiting Ephesus in summer, make sure you have loose clothing to cover up, hat and water. It gets very hot and crowded. If you can visit out of season, you can enjoy fewer crowds and pleasant temperatures.
  • For independent travellers, a stay in the town of Selçuk is a must. There is much more to see after Ephesus in this area including the Efes Archaeological Museum and the Basilica of St. John.
  • Ephesus is in Selçuk in the Izmir Province of Aegean Turkey. The site is approximately 20km from the resort of Kuşadası.

This 5 minute YouTube video by American travel presenter Rick Steves might bring Ephesus to life for you…

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  1. I was sorry to miss you there by one day.

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