With the exception of Pompeii, Ephesus (Efes in Turkish) is the largest and best-preserved ancient city around the Mediterranean; and, after the Sultanahmet district of İstanbul, it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey. The ruins are mobbed for much of the year, although with a little planning and initiative it’s possible to tour the site in relative peace. You’ll need two to three partly shady hours to see Ephesus, as well as a bottle of water – the acres of stone act as a grill in the heat of the day, and the water sold from the kiosks at either gate is expensive.
Legends relate that Ephesus was founded by Androclus, son of King Kodrus of Athens having been advised by an oracle to settle at a place indicated by a fish and a wild boar. Androclus and his entourage arrived here to find natives roasting fish by the sea; embers from the fire set a bush ablaze, out of which charged a pig, and the city was on its way. The imported worship of Artemis melded easily with that of the indigenous Cybele, and the Ephesus of 1000 BC was built on the north slope of Mount Pion (Panayır Dağı), very close to the temple of the goddess.
Alexander the Great, on his visit in 334 BC, offered to fund the completion of the latest version of the Artemis shrine, but the city fathers tactfully demurred, saying that one deity should not support another. Following Alexander’s death his lieutenant Lysimachus moved the city to its present location – necessary because the sea had already receded considerably – and provided it with its first walls, traces of which are still visible on Panayır Dağı and Mount Koressos (Bülbül Dağı) to the south.
In subsequent centuries, Ephesus changed allegiance frequently and backed various revolts against Roman rule. Yet it never suffered for this lack of principle: during the Roman imperial period it was designated the capital of Asia and ornamented with magnificent public buildings – the ones on view today – by a succession of emperors. Ephesus’s quarter-million population was swelled substantially at times by the right of sanctuary linked to the sacred precinct of Artemis, allowing shelter to large numbers of criminals. Of a somewhat less lurid cast was the more stable, mixed population of Jews, Romans, and Egyptian and Anatolian cultists.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this, Christianity took root early and quickly at Ephesus. St John the Evangelist arrived in the mid-first century, and St Paul spent the years 51–53 AD in the city, proselytizing foremost among the Jewish community. As usual, Paul managed to foment controversy even in this cosmopolitan environment, apparently being imprisoned for some time – in a tower bearing his name near the west end of the walls – and later provoking the famous silversmiths’ riot, described in Acts 19:23–20:1.
Under the Byzantines, Ephesus was the venue for two of the councils of the Church, including one in 431 AD at which the Nestorian heresy was anathematized. However, the general tenor of the Byzantine era was one of decline, owing to the abandoning of Artemis-worship following the establishment of state Christianity, Arab raids and (worst of all) the final silting up of the harbour. The population began to siphon off to the nearby hill crowned by the tomb and church of St John, future nucleus of the town of Selçuk, and by the time the Selçuks themselves appeared the process was virtually complete.