I was very excited to set off today to explore Ephesus, as this would be my first glimpse at ancient Roman ruins during the trip. I had heard of Ephesus before, but didn’t know much about it. The pictures I had seen of it looked incredible, so I had high hopes for this adventure. I would find out that my expectations would be drastically exceeded.
The ship docked in Izmir (ancient Smyrna), which is Turkey’s third largest city. Where Marmaris was kind of a touristy port town, Izmir was the real deal, and I really felt like I was in a Middle Eastern country. There were mosques everywhere as we drove through the city on the way to Ephesus, but I would not have time to explore Izmir because Ephesus would take the entire day, however the next day I would be in Istanbul to really get a taste of the Turkish experience.
The drive to Ephesus took about an hour, and the tour guide was a very outspoken Turk who was very proud of his country and eager to share with us all his knowledge about it. He told us about many Turkish traditions and their way of life, as well as current political issues. This was very educational, and the guide was very smart, as no matter what question someone would ask him, he could spout off facts and figures without blinking an eye. He had recently finished grad school in Ireland, and then served in the Turkish military for several years, as he told us every Turk is required to join the military after they finish school, at whatever level that may be.
The funny thing was he was very stern, and I felt like I was sitting in class. When people would talk or look out the window, he would call them out and ask them to pay attention. He even woke someone up who was sleeping on the ride there! However, he was very entertaining and I learned more than I could possibly have imagined about Turkish history and culture. He was obviously prepping for teaching college with his tour guide experience.
As we began getting closer to Ephesus, I saw a huge castle sitting atop a hill. We passed the castle and then began the climb up a tall mountain just outside of Ephesus. At the top of this mountain is the house that the Virgin Mary is believed to have lived in her last days.
Now I am not very religious, but I find all religions very interesting and I am respectful of everyone’s beliefs. I will say that this place had an eerie aura about it I couldn’t explain. When I walked in the house there were nuns chanting and a huge shrine. The house was very small so not many people could fit inside, and because there were so many people there everyone was in and out very quickly. The eerie vibe intensified while I was inside, whether it was the atmosphere and chanting or some kind of otherworldly powers, I will say I definitely felt something strange, almost like a very mild state of trance.
The great thing about this place is that it is a holy site for two religions. Though Mary is a much stronger figure in Christianity, she is also revered and respected by Muslims. There were many Muslims paying their respects, and I found it to be very nice to see Muslims and Christians getting along since the two have been at each other throughout history. There was a Catholic nun and a Muslim woman sitting on a park bench eating lunch and talking like they were best friends.
The waters from the springs on the site are one of three places in the world believed to have healing powers. Many people were drinking the water and pouring it on themselves. They also sold the water in little bottles in the gift shop. Many people have left braces and crutches on the site as proof they had been healed.
On down close to there was a wall where people left messages in hopes to have a blessing. Both Muslims and Christians believe Mary to be a saint who brings good luck to pregnant women in hopes for a healthy child. Muslims and Christians alike leave messages on this wall in the hopes of Mary’s blessing.
After leaving the House of the Virgin Mary, we descended back down the mountain where Ephesus sat at the foot. Like I said previously, I had heard of Ephesus before and seen pictures, but nothing would prepare me for the shock I received when I saw it for the first time. Like all the grand sites of the world, pictures and words just cannot describe the massiveness this place. The only way to really understand the enormousness of it is to visit it first hand.
No one really knows who founded Ephesus because it lies in an area that has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The mythical origins are that a man named Androklos, a prince of Athens, founded the city after fulfilling a prophesy from the Oracle at Delphi. Ephesus grew to become a massive Greek city. The Temple of Artemis close to the site, built to worship the goddess Artemis, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world before its destruction. During its time it was believed to be the largest structure in the world.
Later on Ephesus became a major city of the Roman Empire and was named the capital of Asia Minor (present day Turkey). It flourished comparable to Pompeii and Rome itself (which I will visit both of these later) during Roman times. Later on it was sacked by the Ottoman Empire and then inhabited, but was abandoned and left to crumble after the water level of the harbor had descended away from the city and left swampy marshlands.
As I walked through the excavations I was dumbfounded. I had seen a map of Ephesus, but for some reason I just didn’t picture it being that big. It is huge, and the Greek and Roman structures are one of the greatest marvels of all the live examples we can see from those eras.
The crazy thing about this though, is that as I kept walking through the ruins I kept thinking “Well, that was amazing,” and thinking that was going to be pretty much it, then I would turn a corner and the city just kept going and going. Even outside the city you could see columns and parts of buildings sticking up out of the ground yet to be unearthed.
An even more crazy thing about the enormousness of Ephesus is that only something like twelve percent of the massive city has been excavated, so this is somewhere I would definitely like to come back and see in twenty years or so to see how much more of the city is uncovered. As it is, it is a colossal excavation. Once they get more if it excavated and reconstructed, it is going to be one of the most massive sites to see in the entire world (though it already is).
The most impressive building in Ephesus is the Library of Celsus, which was a wonder of architecture during the Roman period that was well ahead of its time. The library is massive and was designed in a way that plays tricks on the eyes to make it look even more intimidating. Though the bottom row of columns looks to be larger than the top row, they are in fact the same size but look different because the front of the library was built on a backwards angle.
Next to the library is the theatre, which is a massive structure that seated 25,000 people. The acoustics in this amphitheatre are amazing, and people kept yelling to hear their voice carry throughout it. The Romans constructed walls of clay to help with these acoustics, and even today a festival is held in the theatre every year.
One of the carvings the tour guide showed us was a part of a building that had chipped off, showing an image of the goddess Nike (another name for Athena), who is a symbol of victory. The guy who founded the Nike Company was visiting Ephesus, still in need of inspiration for his company, and saw this part of the ruin. The bottom part of it is broken in the form of a swoosh, and thus, the idea for the name and logo of the shoe company Nike was born.
Upon exiting Ephesus, we received our first taste of the Turkish street sellers. I have been to Mexico, and it is very similar to how it is down there. They will not take no for an answer and will keep following you around trying to sell you stuff, trying to put stuff in your hand so you will feel obligated to buy it. A few boatloads of tourists in town has these guys licking their chops as they swarm with various items they try to peddle for way more than they are worth.
On our ride back the tour guide gave us some tips for haggling with Turkish merchants. I would get to experience more of the Turkish sales trade the following day in Istanbul, at the largest shopping venue in the world, The Grand Bazaar.