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Ephesus and Miletus

[Anatolia, Turkey, May 22, 2019]

With two ancient cities on our itinerary and lots of driving in-between them, we got an early start. Once we woke up, we could hear the preparation for the breakfast buffet, as it turned out we were right below the 7th floor restaurant. The buffet had a great variety, hence there were more plates on our table than people in our party.

We used Google Maps to navigate to the first ancient city on our list, Ephesus, which was about 20 minutes away. I had downloaded the maps for the area ahead of time, so we didn’t have to use data to navigate. In fact, we made it through our trip thus far without having to get a local SIM card and without having to turn on data from our US plan. It worked great. Aside from a little detour to take an unnecessary shortcut, which turned out to be a dirt road, Google did a good job of getting us there. We arrived at the lower gate shortly before it opened.

Ephesus has two gates, we learned – a lower and an upper. The upper entrance has limited parking, so most people park at the lower entrance. Tour buses go to the upper entrance to drop off their passengers, then pick them up from the lower entrance. This was all explained to us by a Turkish guy who approached us and said he worked there. He showed us what looked like an official government badge and offered us tea while we wait for the site to open. He said that we can walk uphill to the upper entrance and make our way down, or we could get a ride from one of his partners, who will take us to a carpet weaving school before dropping us off at the upper entrance. None of this was in my research – granted, most people come to Ephesus with a tour and don’t have to figure it out on their own. But the guy was super nice, and we agreed to visit the carpet school first, which was just on the other side of the highway from the turn off to Ephesus.

At the carpet school, a salesman explained to us how much work is involved in hand-weaving the carpets. A relatively small but intricate carpet can take months to make. Moreover, if the person making it is unable to finish it, nobody else can pick it up and complete it. That would be like a painter finishing another artist’s painting.

A woman working on a carpet. You can see the pattern starting to show at the top

We were waiting for the sales pitch, and it didn’t take long to get to it. The salesperson showed us a ton of carpets, which were impressive but honestly, we weren’t planning on shopping.

We also went through the jewelry section just to be nice, but then I had to cut the sales pitch off and ask to be taken to the upper entrance of Ephesus. Although I did not feel unsafe doing this, I wish I’d known ahead of time that this tourist trap was common place at the lower entrance. I was a little bit apprehensive and I was glad B was with me. I also understood that these practices put food on the table for the workers and tried not to get too annoyed.

The upper entrance was not far at all – maybe 5 minutes by car – and it was already a bit busy with a couple of tour buses. But there was no line for tickets and we quickly found ourselves within the complex.

Ephesus was an ancient Greek city built around 10 BC in what is present-day Izmir province, Turkey. It flourished under the Roman empire around 129 BC. Today, Ephesus is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world and as such joined the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2015. Ephesus is also important to Christians because it was home to of one of the seven churches cited in the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel of John may have been written here. From AD 52-54, the apostle Paul lived here. 

Once again, the Rick Steves Audio Europe app proved incredibly useful with its guided tour of Ephesus. There were audio guides available at both entrances but we came to look forward to Rick’s jokes and style. We queued up the walking tour on our phones and started our exploration of this fascinating ancient city. The information below comes from the audio guide.

Ephesus was the second largest city in the Roman empire, smaller only than Rome. The hillsides on either side of us were home to vibrant neighborhoods. The state agora (marketplace) was here, right in the middle of them all.

The remnants of the stoa – a covered walkway lined with columns – were visible. The stoa was eventually remodeled and turned into a basilica; the columns half-way down the stoa marked its footprint.

Just after that was the Odeon. This indoor theater – it once had a wooden roof – seated about 1,500 and, in addition to hosting plays and concerts, was also where the city council met. It was built around 150 AD. The acoustics were amazing – B and I both held a monologue from center stage while the other person was at the top, and we could hear each other quite clearly.

The two Doric columns you see in the photo below mark the Prytaneion. It was a combination temple and town hall. The temple once held a statue of the Greek goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, and the eternal flame of Ephesus.

Continuing our way downhill, we reached a magnificent viewpoint with a panoramic view of the excavated city. On a clear day, you can make the Aegean sea int he distance. Ephesus has a long history. The site was first settled in 1000 BC by the Greeks. By 500 BC, it was busy sea port and was known as the worshipping center of the goddess Artemis. Ephesus became one of the biggest cities in Ionia, the region along the west coast of present-day Turkey. It inspired the Greek golden age and introduced the Ionic column – a column with scroll-like capitals on top – to the world. Other cultures overran Ephesus over the ages but daily life remained virtually the same.

The river nearby, the Maeander river, gave us the word “meander” after its winding pattern. Ephesus also gave us the philosopher Heraclitis, who postulated that the only constant in life is change. 1,500 years ago, Ephesus was right on the Aegean sea, but today the coastline is way in the distance. This is because silt from the river and big city drainage eventually filled up the area between Ephesus and what is now the coastline, ultimately leading to the city’s decline.

These stone pillars with carved reliefs provided directional aides for Ephesus’ residents and visitors who came from all over. The statue of Hermes, god of merchants, points towards, the market. The other, of Esclipios, points towards the pharmacy.

We continued to make our way down the Sacred Way.

We reached Domitian Square. The arch you see in the top right photo below was the site of a fountain. The columns are the remnants of a temple located here. Can you spot the statues topping the columns? In the bottom right photo is the Greek goddess of victory, Nike.

The Hercules Gate marks the point where the road becomes pedestrian only – carriages could not go through the narrow gate. It dates from Roman times, when the city reached its peak as the capital of the Roman province of Asia, roughly today’s Turkey west coast.

From here, we also got great views of the rest of Ephesus. By now you may be wondering what that big facade is at the end. I’ll be sure to talk about that in a bit.

B took this great shot! I was too lazy to get on the perch he took this from. This angle produces one of the classic pictures of Ephesus.

This basin, Trajan’s fountain, provided water for many of Ephesus’ citizens. Indoor plumbing was only for the wealthy.

This mosaic sidewalk was part of a stoa once lined with shops that catered to the aristocracy

The public baths were quite interesting. The complex was divided into rooms, in traditional Roman manner. There was a changing room, a hot steam room, a cold pool, a luke-warm room for relaxation. The public baths were an ancient version of today’s health club!

One of the most photographed buildings in Ephesus is the Temple of Hadrian (do you remember his mark on Athens?). Its Corinthian columns (topped with leafy capitals) and the lone surviving curved arch do make for a wonderful photo.

The public toilets are, indeed, public. Private bathroom were, again, for the wealthy only. Visiting the loo became a social occasion – there are marble seats for about 40 here.

We had reached the terrace houses, which required a separate ticket. We decided to check them out.

The terrace houses we saw are located under the roof, which was specifically erected to protect the excavations
Entering the terrace houses. The glass walkways form a one-way path through the different rooms.

The 7 homes of wealthy Ephesians were three story high and featured courtyards and elaborate decorations. A few of the original frescoes and mosaics remain, depicting gladiators, animals and scenes from mythology.

Remnants of the Marble Hall in dwelling unit 6

The Basilica

The terrace houses were first discovered and excavated in 1999 and opened to visitors in 2006. Archaeologists are still at work inside.

As we exited the terrace houses, we finally got to the most famous building in Ephesus – the library of Celsus.

The library of Celsus was the third largest library of the ancient world, with 12,000 volumes. Only the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon were bigger. It was built in 123 AD in Corinthian style.

View outside from inside the library of Celsus

The nitches inside once held scrolls. The earliest scrolls were made from Egyptian papyrus, but the Egyptians eventually stopped sending papyrus to Ephesus because they didn’t want the library to become bigger than the one in Alexandria. The industrious Romans invented a different material – parchment. Eventually, the pieces of parchments were stacked on top of each other and bound – what we know today as books!

The triple-arched gate next to the library of Celsus
The commercial agora is past these columns

The last thing we saw before exiting was the Great Theater. It held about 25,000 spectators, making it possibly the largest theater in antiquity. Its size lead scholars to believe that Ephesus had almost 250,000 citizens, but that figure has been since revised down to about 50,000.

We exited through Harbor road, the marble road that used to lead out of the city to the sea. Most visitors entered the city from here; it was also the end of the Silk Road from Asia. The city fell in 263 AD to a hoarde of Barbarians and never recovered to its former glory, aided by the dried-up harbor.

Visiting Ephesus was quite the treat, but as beautiful as this ancient city is, B was even more excited to visit Miletus – the birthplace of modern philosophy.

In the 6th century BC, Miletus became the site of origin of the Greek philosophical (and scientific) tradition, when Thales, followed by Anaximander and Anaximenes (known collectively as the Milesian School) began to speculate about the material constitution of the world, and to propose naturalistic (as opposed to traditional, supernatural) explanations for various natural phenomena. B, who loves philosophy, was thrilled to finally see its birthplace.

The Miletus theater

A small museum a 5-minute walk from the parking lot exhibited artifacts found in the excavations, which started in the late 19th century by German archaeologists.

The Miletus site is not nearly as developed as Ephesus. There was plentiful signage but the place was overgrown and seemed a bit neglected. I mostly waited and took photos while B ran around to see various things up close.

This burial chamber from 100 BC was quite interesting. I was amazed we were allowed to go inside.

The theater was best preserved and we had fun climbing around, even though by now it was almost 4 pm and we’d been out walking around on the hottest day so far on our trip.

While reading up on Miletus for this blog entry, I found out that its market gate had been excavated, transported and re-assembled in Germany and is now on display at the Pergamon museum in Berlin… which I had visited in 2016! I actually remember seeing the market gate back then and wondering where the heck Miletus is and why its gate is a big deal! How funny to come full circle like this.

Gate of Miletus as seen during my 2016 visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. About 60% of the fragments are original, the rest are reconstruction

We bought some sugary sodas from a vendor by the entrance and sat for a bit to try and muster some energy for the drive back.

Our evening was quite chill. We went to the local store to get some drinks and snacks, and spent the evening in our hotel room with our feet up enjoying that ocean view. Our visit to the ancient cities of Ephesus and Miletus was a resounding success.

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