In March I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother. I am continuing to process each place we visited, share some of our adventures, and take what I can from having been there. For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry and read my thoughts on Athens and Corinth.
After spending about four days in Greece, we hopped a plane to Istanbul, Turkey and caught a connecting flight to Izmir. From the Izmir airport, we took a train about an hour south to the town of Selçuk. Unfortunately, the sun had already set, so there was not much to see. Arriving in Selçuk, we found our hotel and were warmly greeted with some tea and good conversation with a man named Lucky. I liked this place already! Selçuk is a nice little town where shop owners want to sit and talk with you. There are good places to eat, coffee shops, and sweet shops as well. Right outside of the town, sits the site of Ephesus. Many tourists come from the cruise ship port not far from Ephesus, but increasingly travelers are discovering that Selçuk is a great place to spend a couple of days away from the tourist town of Kusadasi.
Neither my brother or I are big on guided tours – they are always moving you on to the next stop before having adequate time to explore the present stop and the lunch buffets are usually pretty bad – but about the only way to see the ancient sites of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma was via guided tour. Priene is the home to the Temple of Athena, which rests at the base of an imposing cliff face. The site was abandoned when the shoreline receded. The remote nature of the site means that much of the building material is still there, resembling a jigsaw puzzle dumped out over the site. It is not mentioned in Scripture, but its proximity to Miletus suggests that the early church nearby would have had contact with Priene.
Across what used to be a bay, sits the site of Miletus. Miletus boasted three harbors in its day, along with a 25,000 seat amphitheater, much of which is still intact. The rest of the site was unfortunately flooded for the most part, but a large Roman bath complex is still there. It must have been impressive in its day. Miletus is mentioned in Acts 20: On Paul’s Third Journey, he sailed into Miletus where he met the elders from Ephesus, wanting to avoid getting delayed on his way to Jerusalem. Today Miletus is about five miles inland from the coast and suffered the same fate as Ephesus and Priene when the river silted up, cutting the city off from the coastline.
The final stop of the day was Didyma, which wasn’t so much a town in Paul’s day as it was a temple complex to Apollo. Today it is odd to see a town built up around the site, with kids and dogs running around and ruins lying in people’s backyards. The Temple of Apollo was the third largest Greek temple of its time and would provide some perspective to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, given that little remains of what would have been the largest temple. Walking among the ruins, we felt like we were on a movie set constructed for giants. Didyma was linked to Miletus via a 12-mile sacred processional way.
The next day we walked through the site of Ephesus. Having walked through many archaeological sites at this point, the prominent feature of Ephesus is just how large an area the site is. From the upper entrance, you can walk through a marketplace, small temples, archways, an Odeon, only to realize you have not yet reached the main road through the city. Curetes street leads you past several structures to the terrace houses (which are worth the extra admission price) and finally leaves you facing the Library of Celsus. The main agora itself covers the area of two football fields, then you are awed at the 25,000-seat theater. The theater overlooks Harbor Street that would have led to the docks.
There are many areas that remain unexcavated or have not been kept up. Ephesus had a population of 250,000, by some accounts the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria. Walking through the city, the surrounding hills – now just grassy hillsides – must have been covered with houses and shops. Paul had truly entered the big city!
And you still would not have come upon the primary identity of the city: the Temple of Artemis, the largest temple in the empire. We made our way through an orchard back to the main road and found the site of the temple. There is little that remains, only its enormous footprint in the earth and a single reconstructed column. I am glad we were able to visit Didyma to appreciate what it must have looked like.
There are many insights that can be gained by walking through these sites. I hope to fill a book with them one day, but in the meantime here are some impressions:
Insight #1 – Pagan temples dominated the landscape of Asia Minor. While pagan temples were an important part of every ancient city, the identities of the cities in Asia Minor were forged by their temples. I admit that this is just my impression, but I got the sense that cities like Rome, Alexandria, and Athens would have continued on if you removed their temples. But in Asia Minor, if you removed the temples you would be stripping places like Miletus, Priene, and Ephesus of their very identity. Ephesus and Miletus (Didyma) were rivals primarily because of their rival temples. So when Paul strolls through town and announces that “in [Jesus] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:21), that announcement was challenging the very power structures and the livelihood of these cities. This is especially true in Ephesus…
Insight #2 – The Temple of Artemis and its influence on Ephesus. It is difficult to overstate how much the identity of Ephesus was inextricably tied to the Temple of Artemis. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World for a reason. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor notes that, “Artemis was part of the fabric of Ephesus, and the city was unthinkable without her. Ministry in Ephesus, Paul mused, was going to be very different.” In Athens when Paul announced that God does not live in your magnificent temples, the philosophers perhaps raised an eyebrow. In Ephesus, that sentiment morphed its citizens into a violent mob. This led to the uproar in the Great Theater.
Insight #3 – The scene at the Great Theater. The Temple of Artemis contributed greatly to the economy of Ephesus. Just as a modern-day sports team would draw fans throughout the region on game day contributing to the local economy, Artemis drew pilgrims from the region on a continual basis. An entire industry sprang up around the production of small shrines of the temple and Artemis (available in the gift shop, no doubt) of which several have been unearthed in the region. So Paul’s message was not just perceived as a religious threat to paganism, but also an economic threat to the livelihood of the city.
This is what sparks the riot in Ephesus that spills into the Great Theater. Acts 19 records that as the mob filled the theater, “they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'” Order was eventually restored but Paul was clearly shaken by the event. Writing from Ephesus to the church at Corinth, Paul notes, “If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?” Later, Paul would write,
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.
There is little doubt that seeing his colleagues being dragged into the Great Theater and he, himself being threatened, this event left an indelible mark on Paul’s psyche.
There is much more that could be said about Ephesus. In fact, my next project is exploring these very themes in the letter of Ephesians. But this will suffice for a trip update.
Next up: Cappadocia!