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Travel - Learning from the Classics

Ephesus, ‘The Imperial Capital of Asia’ — Hadrian, AD 125



Among our travel mementos is a small rug that hangs on the wall behind the piano. Like the prayer wheel, the Aztec mask, the jade pagoda and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam we have dragged home from the far corners of the earth the rug has a story. But unlike the others, which simply recall a place, a person, or an event, the rug recalls a domestic crisis – a reminder that even the most stable relationships can face rocky times. But that's the end of the story, it begins with a visit to Ephesus on the Aegean coast of Turkey.

In the course of our island-hopping aboard the Greek motor vessel Atlantis we decided to make an optional side-trip to the ruins of Ephesus. The Atlantis docked at Kusadasi where we were introduced to Rosa, our vivacious and knowledgeable guide for the day. She led us to a dilapidated old bus and, during a short drive to Ephesus, explained that the existing ruins are those of Ephesus three, the city having moved from its two previous locations in an effort to keep up with its ever receding harbour.

The area was first settled around 2000 BC and for more than 3,000 years it was a principle gateway between East and West. Located in a fertile valley near the mouth of the Cayster River its protected harbour linked the sea lanes of the Aegean and Mediterranean with land routes used by camel trains from the East. At the height of its glory, during the Greco-Roman period (290 BC to AD 300) Ephesus had a population of 250,000 inhabitants and was a thriving centre of commerce, religion, and culture.

But by the fourth century, as power and influence shifted to Constantinople, Ephesus went into a slow decline. With its silted-up harbour no longer accessible and living conditions plagued by pollution and malaria the population faded away. By the time it was taken by the Turks and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire little remained of the once great metropolis. In the end silt from the Cayster River claimed not only the harbour but much of the city itself. Not until archaeological excavations were begun in 1863 were the marble streets and elaborate frescos of ancient Ephesus revealed to the modern world. The excavations are still in progress and the ruins, which now attract thousands of visitors each year, have become a lucrative source of tourist dollars for Turkey.

We left the bus near the ruins of the Magnesia Gate and followed Rosa along a pathway, leading past the Roman baths, to the Upper Agora, a complex of buildings where the state archives were kept and where important political and social items were discussed. Situated high on the southern edge of the city the Agora gave us our first overview of the sprawling ruins. They are vastly larger than I had imagined and the ornate detail of the architecture is truly remarkable. Broad streets of fitted marble are lined with rows of columns and the remains of statues. Archways, walls, pedestals, and the facades of buildings are all intricately carved.

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