Ephesos, First City of Roman Asia

30 January 2010

Today we visited Ephesus, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire during the New Testament period, surpassed in size only by Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt. The most extensive archaeological site in Turkey, excavation of the city began in 1895 and, barring interruptions due to the two world wars, has continued on a regular basis through today. Current work at Ephesus is headed by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in collaboration with the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna’s University of Technology, and (of course) the Turkish government.

Historically, there were four cities on or near this spot, which archaeologists denote simply Ephesus 1, 2, 3, and 4. The first two foundations predated the Hellenistic period, while the last derives from the Byzantine era; “Ephesus 3” was founded in the Hellenistic period and remained inhabited until perhaps the 11th century. This third Ephesus is the one under excavation. It is the city where Paul of Tarsus lived for 2½ years of while he was evangelizing this region, then called “Asia Minor.” Other evangelists and teachers of the early churches in that area included Prisca (a.k.a. Priscilla), Aquila, and Apollos, during Paul’s lifetime, as well as Seer John (the author of Revelation), Papias, and Polycarp during the next generation.

Ephesus is such an extensive site; I will focus on only a few highlights, including the Odeon, the Theater, and the hill houses. If you want to see pictures of many of the structures along the main street, see my slide show of First Century C.E. Ephesus at http://www.jcu.edu/Bible/BibleIntroReadings/PPTs/Ephesus.ppt.

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Ephesus, the Street of the Curetes

Picture this: as you walk into the city from west to east, the road slopes down toward the ancient harbor. This main road, called the Street of the Curetes, is about 50’ wide—somewhat wider than Miramar Avenue. Rather than an asphalt roadbed, however, this street is paved entirely in while marble. In the Roman period, this street was lined with decorative pillars on either side, forming a “colonnade.” Overhead was either a vaulted wooden roof or an awning of the type made by “tentmakers” like Paul of Tarsus. Whether on a cool rainy winter’s day or a hot summer one, this covered colonnade allowed travelers to traverse the city while protected from the sun and elements, creating an experience similar to that of a covered bazaar or a modern shopping mall. Today there are few columns and no awning; on a sunny day in July, the hot sun beating down on one’s head and reflecting upwards from the marble pavement makes one wish for a parasol, a cool bath, or a lovely Roman colonnade.

the Ephesian Odeon

The Ephesian Odeon

One of the first major structures you see on the right side of the road is the Roman bath, and nearby is the Odeon or music house. This one sparkles in the sun; not only the façade, but even the rows of seats are faced with white marble. The town council may have held its meetings here, debating issues of concern to the city and hearing high-profile legal cases. When the space was not being used for such business, several hundred townspeople could relax under its cool awning with while listening to musical performances, entertaining speeches, philosophical disquisitions, and even roving preachers spreading the word about a new foreign cult—like Paul or Apollos teaching about Messiah Jesus. On the left side of the road is the imperial “agora” or government center. Further down the road on the right-hand side, you come to a Temple in honor of the city’s patron deity, Artemis of the Ephesians. A series of upscale apartments on the left-hand side boast courtyards with colorful mosaic floors. Continuing down the hill, you find the public toilets, and eventually you come to a monumental gate that divides the upper city, with its temples and government offices, from the lower city, with its commercial agora (marketplace), shops and fountains and, by the second century A.D., the immense Library of Celsus, the third-largest library in the world at that time (behind those of Alexandria [in Egypt] and the neighboring Anatolian city of Pergamon).

Archway to Ephesian Temple

[to be continued…]

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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