Ephesus and the Library of 12,000 Scrolls

Ephesus and the Library of 12,000 Scrolls

We spent this past Christmas cruising the Mediterranean with my husband’s family. It was our first major trip since before the pandemic, and it did not disappoint. The first stop took us to Athens, where we were able to catch a few glimpses of ancient ruins, including the Parthenon.

The second stop on our epic Viking Cruise was Turkey. Specifically, Kusadasi, a large resort town located on the Aegean coast. The name comes from the words “kus” (bird) and “ada” (island). According to our guide, it is referred to as “Pigeon Island” because the first visitors were fascinated with the sounds the pigeons made. The island in question juts off the port and holds an old timey fort. Though we sadly were not able to visit the fort, it looked pretty cool from the deck of the ship.

My in-laws previously visited Turkey as part of a larger tour roughly a decade ago. But like every other place we visited on this trip, it was my first time. Turkey is a country with a rich and detailed history. But I don’t know much about the modern country and, thus, didn’t know what to expect. We visited a quite touristy area, but I would love to go back and see more someday. I’d especially love to visit the capital which holds some truly enduring historical wonders.

Our stop in Turkey lasted only one day, however, and the main purpose of our visit was to see Ephesus. It took roughly 45 minutes to reach the site and, during that time, our guide shared historical and cultural details about Turkey. Including the fact that the proper pronunciation is distinctly different from the bird – which I had never heard before!

Ephesus in Brief

Ephesus was an ancient Greek city located on the coast of Ionia. It was famous four housing the Temple of Artemis, which is considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. The temple was completed around 550 BCE.

At its height, Ephesus was the fourth largest city of the ancient world. For many years, it was a busy sea port, until the silting of the nearby river pushed the city away from the coast. 3 times the city was moved in order to maintain its position as a port. But when the coast kept receding, they were eventually forced to abandon the city.

Ephesus survived into Roman times, and eventually became subject to Roman rule. It was visited by several historical figures, including Cleopatra, whose sister lived and died there. In fact Cleopatra’s sister was poisoned in a temple in Ephesus (ruins pictured below) – the ruins of which you can still see today. The poison that claimed her was new, so her death was not originally thought to be a murder until another person died from the same poison and it was able to be identified. The name of that poison was eventually coined after Cleopatra’s sister, it’s first known victim. Today, we call it “arsenic.”

Ephesus was re-discovered in 1863 by British architect John Turtle Wood, who was searching for the Temple of Artemis. Since then, the site has been under almost constant excavation for most of a century. Sadly, little of the Temple of Artemis could be found and only 1 column survives today.

What it’s Like Today

I had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Ephesus. My only other experience with archeological sites came from our trip to Belize, and the two ruins we visited there were vastly different. I can say that Ephesus is a truly impressive site from the moment you step into it. Though many of the site’s finds are scattered in piles along the sides of the road, not returned to their original formations or positions, it’s clear from the outset the finds are extensive.

Walking through the remains of Ephesus, it’s easy to imagine the city filled with ancient people going about their days. Our tour included ancient temples, fountains and ruins of houses huddled along the remnants of the marble roads. While many of these structures have only partially survived – and been rebuilt using partial reconstructions, it still gives you a fair idea of the size and scope of the original city. Our initial view included an amphitheatre and an open field which has been dug out to reveal the clay piping that originally sat beneath the city’s baths.

In fact, many piles of clay pipe work and the remnants of old columns and column toppers line the roads between the parts of the city that have been reconstructed. What struck me most is the enduring details of the carvings which have survived wind, rain and dirt to display their original designs with striking clarity. One arch that still stands over the roadway depicts Hercules with the head of the Nemian Lion.

Of course our tour included a visit to the surviving latrines. Because there’s nothing quite like traveling thousands of miles to visit the place where ancient people pooped. (It did look onto a quite spectacular courtyard, I must say.)

The Library of Celsus

The highlight of our visit to Ephesus was the Library of Celsus, which was designed to hold 12,000 scrolls. It was the third-largest library of the Greco-Roman world (behind only Alexandria and Pergamum). The interior of the library and all its contents were destroyed, but the entry facade has been reconstructed by archeologists. It is, in a word, spectacular.

The library was three stories tall. Approaching the stairs feels a lot like approaching the stairs to the modern New York Library. The construction and decoration of the library’s face is larger than life. Standing at the top of the stairs and glancing upward to the intricately decorated ceiling is truly breathtaking. I couldn’t stop imagining how spectacular it would have looked when it was new and fully intact.

Of course our guide explained that the city’s brothel was located across the street from the library. It is even believed there may have been a secret tunnel leading between the two so that men could claim they were ‘going to the library,’ then sneak off to the brothel. Interestingly enough, our guide also pointed out ancient graffiti that indicates the direction to the brothel from another street.

Another epic experience we shared in Ephesus was climbing into the stands of the amphitheatre. We could not go all the way up, as the top portion was fenced off. But we did go as high as we were able. Sitting on the wide stone bench, looking down at the central portion of the stage, it was easy to imagine being packed into the space waiting for a play to start by torchlight. What a truly awe-inspiring experience it must have been!

A Queen’s Procession

It’s hard to fit the experience of Ephesus into a few hundred words. I could go on and on about how exciting it was to see original tile floor and ancient tablets full of words in a language I can’t read. Ancient history is one of my passions, and it was a truly special experience to stand among it.

The roads visitors use to traverse Ephesus are still the original marble roads, though they aren’t as smooth or well-maintained as they would have been at the time the city was inhabited. There is still a working drainage system beneath the ancient city that keeps the area dry and clear during rainfall.

At the end of our tour, Viking arranged for a small performance. Actors depicting Antony and Cleopatra marched with a small entourage to a small modern pavilion. We were treated to a presentation of Egyptian dancers and a brief gladiatorial bout. (Fought with fake weapons, of course. Though the actors did a good job of making the struggle look real.)

Overall, I enjoyed our visit to Ephesus immensely. My mother-in-law said a lot had been uncovered since her last visit. And since the site is still being excavated, it would be amazing to return in another decade and see what else has been discovered.

Our day in Turkey was not finished when we returned from Ephesus. Viking also arranged for a cultural experience that allowed us to glimpse the creation process of Turkish silk rugs. But that was an important and memorable enough experience, I think it deserves its own post!

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