Some of the best ancient Greek and Roman ruins aren’t in Greece or Rome at all. The Greco-Roman empire stretched across Europe, over western Asia, and into northern Africa, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised to arrive in western Turkey and learn that one of the region’s top tourist attractions is Ephesus: the site of a vast city dating back over 2,000 years.
There is a reason that tourists from around the world flock to Ephesus. Touring the ruins provides an entire day of gasp-inducing vistas, notable history, and architectural delights. What particularly shocked me was how hands-on the archeological site is. Visitors are allowed to caress, jump on, and dance atop many of the ancient structures, despite the age and fame of the stones. You can literally walk in the footsteps of ancient Greeks and Romans!
The other fabulous part of Ephesus is its location. Nestled amid soft green hills dotted with wildflowers, the ancient columns resemble a movie set. The Aegean Sea used to lap right up against the city (how pretty that must have been!), but the waters have since receded due to ancient deforestation and erosion. There is still swimming nearby, however. Just a 24-minute drive away is Kusadasi: a town with a sparkling azure beach which boasts lovely accommodations, such as the waterfront hotel in which we stayed. To reach this region via air, the flight from Istanbul is just over an hour.
Let’s dive into the long, layered history of Ephesus. Humans first began settling the area over 8,000 years ago, and the actual city was founded — according to legend — around 1000 BCE, when a prince from Athens named Androklos followed the Oracle of Delphi‘s instructions to “let the fish and boar show you the way.” (I’m imagining these all-knowing animals in fancy clothes, singing and pointing as the Greek prince followed dutifully behind…) A second legend about the founding of Ephesus is even more exciting, though less substantiated: It was created by Amazon warrior women, spearheaded by their queen, Ephos!
So, have you heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? It turns out that one of them, the Temple of Artemis, was located in Ephesus! The temple was rebuilt three times (the third time under the direction of Alexander the Great, whose birth coincided with the destruction of the second temple by arson) before being almost completely demolished in 401 CE. 2,000 years ago during the heyday of the temple, the creator of the Seven Wonders named Antipater of Sidon, gushed: “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon […] and the status of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”
Though almost nothing remains of that temple, many other wonders of Ephesus remain… such as its remarkable ancient public toilets! As you can see by the photo above, visitors can actually sit on these marble latrines, though please do not pull your pants down and do your business therein. Ancient Ephesians using these 36 holes could enjoy a flowing stream of water near their feet into which they could dip a sponge on a stick that they’d use to wipe their bottoms. Since the stone of the thrones could get chilly in winter, rich citizens sometimes had their minions sit on the potty to warm it before they arrived!
Women’s rights flourished in the city, partly because of the cult of the goddess Artemis. Ephesus changed hands numerous times after its founding (Persian, Egyptian, then Greek again), and in 133 BCE, became part of the Roman Empire. Emperor Augustus named Ephesus the capital of preconsular Asia in 27 BCE, and the city flourished. The historian Strabo declared the city was only second to Rome in importance and size. So, how many people lived in Ephesus during that time period? Current estimates put the population at 56,000 people, though other calculations posit much higher. Why, the Great Theater alone could hold 25,000 spectators, and is theorized to be the largest outdoor theater in the ancient world! Good thing Ephesus had one of the most high-tech sewer and aqueduct systems of the time to support all its humans…
Alas, the decline of Ephesus began in 263 CE when Goths attacked, destroying the city. An earthquake smashed buildings in the year 614, and Arabs pillaged in both the mid 600s and 700s. The once grand metropolis reverted to a quiet village, eventually becoming integrated into the Ottoman Empire.
Archaeologists began excavating Ephesus in 1863, and it is now of the biggest Roman archaeological sites of the eastern Mediterranean. We have these intrepid workers to thank for reconstructing many of the buildings that make Ephesus so notable, most famously, the breathtaking facade of the Library of Celsus, pictured above and in the first photo of this article.
In addition to its architectural and historical importance, did you know that Ephesus is known for its Biblical connections? The apostle Paul lived in Ephesus in the 50s CE, stories say the Seven Sleepers slumbered there for centuries, the Gospel of John may have been written in the city, and Ephesus is discussed in the Book of Revelations. Further, many think that Mary, Biblical mother of Jesus, spent her final days in the small house near Ephesus — a site that I found particularly moving and peaceful to visit, though I come from a different religious background.
Woo! That’s a lot of history! So what about the practicalities of visiting? As you might see from these photos, the sun shines powerfully down on the reflective white marble of Ephesus, so for summer touring, do bring a hat or sun umbrella. I would also highly recommend hiring a guide to explain the stories behind the many stones of the city. You might find some locally, though it’s calming to hire a well-reviewed one beforehand. Click here to browse Ephesus tours through the Viator tour search engine, a resource I like because of its helpful reviews and convenient booking system.
On a side note, if you enjoy the outfit I’m wearing in these photos, check out the full story behind the awesome Leota dress company that my friend from college started. It’s now one of the top women-owned companies in America… and the frocks are the top things I reach for every day in my closet!
Where to stay when visiting Ephesus? The closest town to the ruins is Selcuk (click to browse the best-rated Selcuk hotels), though we really loved staying in Kusadasi a few minutes further away so we could be right on the water.
Finally, it is recommended now to look into travel insurance in order to secure your plans, so consider getting a quote for affordable trip insurance by clicking here.
Thus concludes our cyber tour of the famed ancient ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. So what do YOU think? Is this a place you have visited? If so, do tell us your experience and insights. If not, does it seem of interest? Comment away!
I was a guest of Turkish Airlines for this trip, but all opinions and embraces of ionic columns are my own. This article’s affiliate links support this site at no cost to you. Happy travels!