Before all roads led to Rome, as the saying goes, they led to Ephesus. And so it was appropriate that it was Ephesus that would be the final destination of my voyage, before the long stretch of daylight winging my way home.
The flight to Ephesus was from the high and dry vastness of Caesarea, at the foot of western Turkey’s tallest volcano – an abrupt and staggeringly huge peak named Erciyes. Waking up to morning in that sprawling industrial city was like waking up within a partially completed watercolor painting: Dawn was all long strips of glowing purple, blue and orange, rinsed of detail, floating below the sharp white triangle of the volcano.
It was a bracing setting, all wide dimensions and keen wind, sharpening my hunger for the flight’s momentum.
After shoving through a smoky shoebox of a Turkish flyspeck airport, we managed to figure out the weird, provincial methods of boarding and somehow got on the plane in a timely way. When we stepped off of it, we were in a different world: No cold, borderless high desert – rather a bustling place where the air tumbled in an invigorating blend of warm and cool, and all the close-in colors shone like new fruit. That is the place of the Aegean shore. We had reached Izmir, “Smyrna” to the ancients on account of its aromatic myrrh trees, the city near where Ephesus dreams.
The ride to Ephesus along the highway road was a chance to sip the cocktail of the seaside air and let my eyes meander over the intricate pastel work of the landscape. All the shades of hills and field, coupled snugly together, were rendered in vivid shades of ochre, taupe, jade and bone.
We glided through the sharp, rough shoulders of the hills, some vitality in them seeming to suggest they could rear up at any moment. And this was how Ephesus’ environs should look, as for over a thousand years – a span of time longer than the life of England – Ephesus was the pounding heart of Mediterranean commerce.
The Neolithic legacy of Goddess worship had been born from a timeless tradition of fire-lit cave rites into the day of the historical world with the founding of the gleaming Temple of Artemis here. The temple had drawn the interest and investment of the famed King Croesus – as in “rich as…” – who earned that honorific by founding banking in Ephesus. Banking had drawn the best sculptors of Greece, the great faiths of Asia and the all-important money of Rome.
Ephesus’ gleaming gravity had, at its apex, drawn over a quarter of a million free people, over a million slaves, to it. It sprawled, shining, within a circle of hills crowned by a 10 mile long wall built by Alexander the Great, and into that busy circumference flowed the height of culture and capital – and, come the time of Christ, some of the true luminaries of the gospel: Paul preached here, most famously in Acts 19. Saint John the Evangelist, author of the gospel, lived most of his life here. And the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus herself, spent her final days in a modest house just outside the sparkling, messy metropolis.
Now a town called Selcuk lounges on Ephesus’ outskirts – a warmly mellow beach village just out of the sight of the beach, with the surfer vibe of a Santa Cruz and the field-fresh food of a Napa or Cambria.
Our hotel was less than 500 yards from the low hill where the author who had written the history of the end of the world in ‘Revelations’, John, lay buried, and was as laid back as any Big Sur retreat. After spending an evening on its cushion-strewn roof terrace, surrounded by hookahs and plates of amazingly fresh food, we headed for Ephesus.
Our first visited site, though, had been the Artemision – the site of the Temple of Artemis – just down the road. There is no overstating how awesome this site was for the people of the ancient world, and how total its devastation in the opening chapters of Christian Rome was.
In the famed Seven Must-Sees of the World, better known as “Seven Wonders of the World,” the dusty travel writer Antipater wrote,
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue 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 anything so grand.” ”
It was the marvel of the ancient world – the Louvre and Great Wall fused elegantly into one form, where the greatest artists of the greatest age of art the world had ever seen worked with unlimited wealth and scale. The Temple itself swept over a football field in length over enormous gardened grounds, reared up nearly two hundred feet from its three-tiered platform, and kept safe the lore of a faith that was as old as mankind – Goddess worship. And in its time, tourists and pilgrims would flock there in daily tens of thousands.
The Temple was, however, not nearly so fortunate as it was glorious, and finally met its end after a chain of damaging catastrophes when Christian mobs consisting of boozed Goths and a violently intolerant Bishop annihilated the place utterly. Its bashed stones were crammed into a variety of other buildings, its art defaced and its pieces scattered, leaving only the description, “Destroying the delusive image of the demon Artemis, Demeas has erected this symbol of Truth, the God that drives away idols, and the Cross of priests, deathless and victorious sign of Christ.”
What one can today visit is the Temple’s vast foundation, stuffed and ringed with those chunks of marble that remain. A single reconstruction of a column, stacked to the historical height but still missing its ornate capitol, crowns it like a diadem.
Ephesus is far more intact, as no one in particular had a grudge against it. Its demise came when its harbor silted up, leading to a catastrophic drop in commerce and a vicious malaria epidemic due to the swarms from swamp where Ephesus’ lifeblood used to flow. Covered by dirt, it wasn’t unearthed until late in the 19th century – and they have still to unearth more than 30% of this gargantuan city.
Visiting Ephesus proved a two day venture – one day for the mind to wrap around it, another to savor it. There is truly too much to see and experience on a single day, if one tries to absorb the rich diet of history along with the deluge it offers the senses: The soaring 2,500-year-old theaters for crowds of 25,000…
…the library fronting drizzled with miniature leaves of pure marble…
…the looming edifice where a forty-foot tall Imperial statue stood…
…the detail bursting from everything
…the sheer, endless size of it.
This was the lower Manhattan of the ancient world, and it remains largely intact, preserving a sense of grandeur, sleaze, ambition and wonder that is thrives identical in our own time. Its urban landscape is scattered with dusty reflections of our own concerns, passions and issues: Fast food places, mega malls, culture wars, market regulation battles, class struggle, suspicion and embracing between faiths, and, above all, the presence of wealth – wealth driving, memorializing, evolving the world.
In a profound sense, walking as one among tens of thousands within the high and elaborate skeleton of this most-great city, I felt I was nearly in another time.
And in a profound sense, I felt I was already home.
Like millions of others did one hundred and twenty eight generations before, I picked up some souvenirs and was on my way.