Ephesus, Turkey: Walking an Ancient City

You’ve probably heard the expression “streets of gold,” but have you ever heard “streets of marble?” I have. I’ve seen them too. In the ancient city of Efes Örenyeri (the Ephesus Archaeological Site), or simply Efes, streets were actually made of marble. Although marble isn’t a precious metal like gold, you can’t deny it’s still a luxury. And in the olden days, this luxury was such a precious commodity that marble from desecrated Greek temples was recycled for newer constructions like, say, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.



Let’s take the main road to Celsus Kütüphanesi, the famed Library of Celsus. This was the third largest library of the ancient world; the only larger were in Egypt and Pergamon.

Comparable in size by repute and political stature (not by physical girth) was the man the library was built in honor of, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus – Governor of Phrygia, Roman Senator, and Consul of the Roman Empire. Also comparable in size: the wealth of Celsus; the library was constructed from his personal funds and for his commemorative monument. Yup, the Library of Celsus is also the tomb of Celsus.

Built to hold 12,000 scrolls, the building was devastated by fire and earthquake. Its façade, reconstructed in the 1970s, is the most photographed feature of Efes. Do you have Turkish lira on you? Pull out a ₺20 and you’ll find this library on the back of the banknote. On paper or in real life, it’s photogenic at any angle.



Celsus Library, as it’s also called, is guarded by four virtues: Sophia (Wisdom), Arete (Valor), Ennoia (Intelligence), and Episteme (Knowledge). All four virtues are, perhaps not coincidentally, women.



Beside the library was an agora, where Saint Paul was a carpetmaker – if you’re somewhat familiar with the Bible, you might recall passages from “The Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians. He was martyred in nearby Pamukkale, where his tomb and chapel lie. (Religion is closely associated with Izmir: Saint John and the Virgin Mary, for instance. Mary’s House is not far from here; it’s a pilgrimage site for Muslims and Catholics alike.) The agora has long been leveled, so sprinkle in a little imagination.



Scandalous point of interest: By this agora, there was a brothel. How do we know this? There’s a very curious etching in the sidewalk just outside the marketplace. Take a look.



The etchings of a heart and a crowned female symbolize a woman who will satisfy your heart’s desires; the long toe of the left foot points a seeker toward such a woman. And the hole, well, that’s the perfect size to fit a coin. Rumor has it that there are underground passages between the brothel and the library; so if you were a resident here, you knew what your husband meant when he said “I’m going to the library.”

Just because men went to brothels, doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate their women. On the contrary, they created streets just for them. While men walked on the marble streets, there were parallel streets designed for women. This isn’t to say that women couldn’t walk on marble – they certainly could; rather, alternative paths led directly across storefronts. Because women were more likely to browse the shops (that hasn’t changed over the centuries), the streets closest to the market stalls were embellished for them. Here are the mosiac-laden roads of Efes.



Despite its ruinous state, Ephesus retains the world’s most well-preserved Greco-Roman amphiteather. The Greeks loved theater and the Romas loved the arena; it’s no surprise this once-great city’s Great Theater held 24,000 spectators.



Beyond the arena, just outside the city proper, there is a repository I imagine to be a graveyard for stone fragments of buildings that can’t be restored (yet).



The remnants of this once-great city stand erect, holding on to their pride, still somehow evincing a feeling of grandeur. It makes you wonder how beautiful a city this was during its heyday.





This is where I leave you to wander the ruins beyond the Gate of Hercules. Don’t worry, there is no Nemean lion or three-headed dog past those pillars. May you be as strong and Herc, and as long-lived as the ruins of this historic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the next post, we’ll do a deeper dive into sculptures, various decorative details, and embellishments around the ancient ruins.