Of Turkey’s superb array of ancient cities, Ephesus (known as Efes in Turkish) is by far the best preserved. In fact, with the possible exception of Pompeii, one could argue that it’s the world’s finest surviving example of a Greco-Roman classical city. A big claim, but with so much to back it up – the ruins here are not merely rocks on the ground, but near-fully-fledged incarnations of what life must have been like in ancient times.

The tantalizing prospect of delving back so many centuries in architectural time makes Ephesus a cast-iron must-see if you’re in, or anywhere near, the area. As one would expect, the ruins are mobbed for much of the year, particularly with summer cruise-ship arrivals from nearby Kuşadası – after the Sultanahmet district of İstanbul, this is the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey. However, with a little planning and initiative it’s possible to tour the site in relative peace.

There are two entrances to Ephesus, both surrounded by stands selling souvenirs and overpriced snacks. The prevailing current of people heads downhill from the upper entrance – a particularly good idea in summer – which is the route followed in this guide. You’ll need two to three hours to see Ephesus, and in summer you’ll need a hat – there’s next to no shade, meaning that the acres of stone act as a grill in the heat of the day. Whatever the season, you’ll probably need to carry water too; this is only sold at the entrances, from which multilingual audioguides are also available.

Brief history

Legends relate that Ephesus was founded by Androclus, son of King Kodrus of Athens, who was 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 – those on view today – by successive emperors. Ephesus’s quarter-million population was swollen 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.