History forgot Ephesus until the 1860s, when archaeologists rediscovered and excavated the site.
In New Testament times, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean world. It was a port, capital of the Roman province of Asia, with an amphitheatre that could accommodate 25,000 people and a total population probably close to 250,000.
Ephesus had a library of 12,000 scrolls, perhaps second in size only to the library in Alexandria, Egypt. Some residents lived in condominiums with tile floors, patterns on the walls, and running water.
Ephesians certainly lived more comfortably than did most of our ancestors at that time who were struggling for survival in northern Europe. In many respects, the interests and the lifestyle of the Ephesians resembled ours, and Ephesians of New Testament times were much like us. Human nature does not change.
Ephesians worshipped the goddess Artemis. For roughly 800 years before New Testament times, worshippers made pilgrimages to Ephesus, much as modern Christians go to Rome or Muslims to Mecca. Revenue from pilgrims became an important source of revenue for the city’s economy.
Around 600 BC, King Croesus of Lydia, renowned for his wealth and for the introduction of coinage, easily conquered Ephesus. Ephesians had such confidence that Artemis would defend them that they had neglected their city’s defences. For his part, Croesus had such respect for Artemis that he helped to finance construction of the temple, which was still a work in progress.
The temple had eight columns which reached upward for 57 metres, almost 200 feet, and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only one column remains standing today, but it indicates the enormity of the effort. It consists of 19 slabs of round rock, each more than a metre in diameter. A prong at the centre of the top of each rock fits into a hole at the bottom of the rock above and prevents the column from falling to the ground because of top-heaviness. Although the builders had access to horses and pulleys, the effort to erect the pillars must have been expensive in terms of time and money.
In 356 BC, an arsonist destroyed the temple, but so strong were the Ephesians’ religious convictions that they financed its reconstruction. Meanwhile, pilgrims to Ephesus continued to generate revenue and create employment, and the city’s silversmiths produced replicas of Artemis as souvenirs.
In 55 AD, St. Paul arrived in Ephesus, where he remained for three years. An account of his stay appears in the Bible (Acts 19). Not surprisingly, most Ephesians gave him a hostile reception. As devotees of Artemis, they thought he had colossal nerve to go about their city saying in effect, “My God is better than your god.”
Not only was he challenging centuries of conventional wisdom, he was a threat to the local economy. If Artemis were to be cast aside, Ephesus would lose revenues provided by pilgrims, and silversmiths might join the ranks of the unemployed. Life-threatening riots swept the city. St. Paul did manage nevertheless to convert some Ephesians, and one of the books of the New Testament is his letter to the Ephesians.
Ephesus suffered extensive earthquake damage in 262 AD, and the silting of its harbour ended its usefulness as a port. Nevertheless, like its Ephesian parent, the successor community of Selçuk, Turkey, (a short train ride south of Izmir), continues to benefit from religious tourism.
Ephesian Christians soon began to claim that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his mother, Mary, and the disciple St. John moved to the area in order to escape the horrors of Jerusalem and Nazareth.
St. John, the one disciple to die of natural causes, reportedly survived past the age of 90.
Pilgrims and tourists can visit the site of Mary’s supposed residence. After her death, according to local signage, St. John lived on Ayasuluk Hill, writing one or more of the books of the New Testament.
In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) and his wife, Theodora, decided that what appeared to be St. John’s grave on Ayasuluk Hill was unworthy of the great man. Accordingly, Justinian and Theodora arranged construction of a basilica over the grave.
The basilica is now in ruins, but the ruins have become a tourist attraction. Nearby is a store which sells books and memorabilia about St. John and Mary, undoubtedly not as important to the local economy as the statues of Artemis in an earlier period, yet very much a part of the Ephesian tradition.
Graeme Mount is a retired history professor and author. He is a frequent contributor to Sudbury Living.