Ancient Ephesus is arguably one of the most famous archaeological sites in Turkey and even the world. Built by the ancient Greeks and later inhabited by the Romans – 250,000 of them by the first century BCE, Ephesus was an important and prominent city for centuries. Plus it was also home to one of the seven wonders of the world, the Temple of Artemis, and was an important and powerful centre of early Christianity. Chances are you’ve heard of Ephesus.
Today though, when we talk of visiting Ephesus, what we’re really talking about is only a small part of the ancient city. Approximately 15% of the ancient site has been excavated to date, and archaeological work still takes place annually. The main attractions at the site include a theatre, a stack of temples, the remains of terraced houses of the nobility and of course the famous library. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Ephesus, I’d put money on it being a picture of the facade of the library.
I’d visited Ephesus on my first trip to Turkey in October 2010, and to be honest I did not like it. This was due not to the site itself, but to the hordes of cruise ship passengers who had descended on the site for the day; seven ships had docked in Kusadasi and offloaded every person onto buses to Ephesus. The cruise ships even had painfully tacky half-hourly shows put on for their passengers, who could be seen teetering around the place in stiletto heels and equally inappropriate clothing, oblivious to the fact that other people wanted to explore the city as they blocked the paths in their giant guided tour groups. Guidebooks say that it’s better to see Ephesus with the crowds, as it enables you to get a feel for how it might once have been – packed with people shopping in the agoras or visiting the temples or just going about their lives. I suppose that helps if you’re short on imagination, but I found it far more interesting the second time round – when visitors to the site could be counted with fingers only for the first hour or so.
Sure, the weather was nicer in October, but there’s something special about wandering around Ephesus when it’s devoid of people. When you can see the library facade without mobs of tourists swarming around. When you don’t have to line up to visit the houses of the nobles, and can explore in silence with the local cats as your companions. There are a LOT of cats at Ephesus, each with their own little territory. They’re cute and cuddly and happy to see you, some even following us partway around the site. However, they’re not too willing to share their knowledge of the city’s history.
When we arrived we saw nobody for almost an hour, and we took our time playing with the felines and getting into every nook and cranny we could. Mum took millions of photographs of all the carvings and details. Then we spotted a tour group who had just entered [we hadn’t got very far from the gate] and, as I wanted to experience the Library sans people, I made Mum hurry up – we could always go back up before leaving. We moved quickly through the Heracles Gate and down Curetes St, ignoring the lovely ruins along the street as we’d head back later. We didn’t have the library immediately without people, although the small group of people there left in about five minutes and we had the place all to ourselves. It was incredible. This would never happen in peak season, and we felt very privileged. As I’ve said before, there are benefits to travelling at the ‘wrong’ time.
We spent about three hours at Ephesus, wandering through the ruins of the agoras and the temples, as well as paying extra to go and visit the Houses of the Nobles. They’re billed as the best preserved elite Roman houses outside Pompeii, and while I’m not sure how accurate this is, never having visited Pompeii, they are quite impressive. Work here continues annually, and what you can see is the remains of floor mosaics, frescoes, baths, dining halls, temples and more. It’s pretty clear that it was good to be rich in any age.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ephesus the second time around. Visiting Ephesus when in Turkey is an absolute must, and I’m glad I took Mum back there. While the ruins of Pergamum are magnificent, there is just something special about the beautiful facade of the Library, and the old paved streets leading to it. There’s just so much history there, and those who don’t have the perverse fascination with ‘old rocks’ [as my sister would say] that I do can enjoy the majesty of the site without having to delve any further. Sometimes it’s enough just to be reminded that the people who came far, far before us managed to create beauty that has long outlived them. I’m not convinced we can do that anymore.