Ruins and donkey carts in Turkey

Property 1018 – Ephesus, Turkey

Sometimes people are confused by the fact that the best preserved Roman ruins are often far from Rome. When that place happens to be Turkey, it can feel even more out of place. Modern Turkey is a very different place, culturally, from both ancient and modern Rome and that contrast can be jarring.

In the case of Ephesus, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Mediterranean basin, the explanation is simple. What is now  Turkey was added to Roman territory in the second century BC. Apart from a few interruptions and frequent raids, the Aegean coast remained under Roman and later Byzantine control until 1304 AD, a remarkable 1500 years. This continuity of culture prevented the destruction usually associated with the sack of a major city.

The other contributing factor to the preservation of Ephesus is one I’ve noticed again and again – being ignored. The city was originally a harbour on the Aegean sea, but over time the harbour silted up, with the result that by the 8th or 9th century it had become a small fishing village. Today the waterfront is more than 5 kilometres from the centre of the Roman city. Neglect seems to be better than active preservation once again.

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In ancient times Ephesus was best known for its Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (now gone). By the time the Romans came into the picture it was known as being a great source of tax revenue. The Roman Republic was delighted to add Ephesus to its roster of profitable Asian cities, and to pocket the cash that came along with it. Roman rule increased the size of the city significantly, so that it was a major capital of the East, along with Alexandria and Antioch. Early Christians lived at Ephesus in numbers, so much so that Paul wrote his famous Epistle to the Ephesians in acknowledgement of their importance.*

My own visit to Ephesus was propitious, having arrived on a donkey cart. There may be some kind of biblical parallel here, but I suspect that it had more to do with my travel addled state. I’d arrived in a bus station after an overnight trip that morning and in my confusion it had seemed to me a good idea to board a donkey cart. I had a voluble companion in the form of a nine-year old girl, who spoke basic English at high speed and helped to translate for her father, who was the donkey pilot.

Much as the Classicist in me pains me to admit it, I wasn’t amazed by the ruins of Ephesus. They are certainly extensive, and relatively well preserved, but it all felt a bit museum-ish. Unlike many other Roman sites that I’ve visited I couldn’t quite imagine the ancients wandering along the roads or haggling in the forum. It all felt strangely dead.

It wasn’t the fault of the architecture. There are some amazing bits, particularly the huge amphitheatre and the monumental confection of the Library of Celsus. I was quite taken with a small open-air sculpture which had been built from bits of other temples which were lying around. It’s all spectacular, but has a picked-over feel about it. Perhaps I’m unjustified in feeling this, but I like my abandoned cities to have a bit of romance about them.

In the end, I came away from Ephesus feeling very little. Perhaps I was suffering from ruin fatigue, but it didn’t do much for me. I’d love to return and reassess as I suspect that it might just have been a bad day for me. Sadly, the most memorable part of Ephesus for me was Turkey’s favourite brand of beer – Efes.

* Maybe. A good amount of biblical scholarship now suggests that Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was probably not written by Paul himself, and was probably a circular intended for many cities, not just Ephesus. It’s nowhere near as catchy though.

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