Touring Ancient Ephesus - Our "Letter to the Ephesians"
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
Whether you go for religious, historical, or just aesthetic reasons, if you find yourself in western Turkey, make the trip to Ephesus.
Between growing up as an Episcopal altar boy and attending Catholic school (albeit also being asked to leave a Catholic school), Chipp heard countless references to the Ephesians. But, as with most Bible references, all these words seem so old and far away to almost be abstract – something from some far off, mythical land. Naturally, when given the chance to actually tour ancient Ephesus, we jumped at it.
The Beauty of a Private Tour
A few years ago, we spent New Year’s in Portugal with family. None us of had been there, and we were looking for a place to all get together – incredible country, and really convenient flying there from the east coast.
It was also the first time we (or at least Chipp and Jenna) did the private tour thing, with a guide picking us up in a van and driving us around to different sights surrounding Lisbon for the whole day. But, Chipp initially took the contrarian stance: seems like a waste of money – surely, we can find our way between sights on our own, yes?
What an idiot…
Turns out, this was an absolute highlight of our time in Portugal, and an awesome way to see a bunch of cool places – with someone who legitimately knows about them. Could we have figured out doing everything we did on our own? Yeah, probably. Would it have been nearly as smooth, enjoyable, and informative an experience? Absolutely not.
With that as context, when we’re in new areas – especially ones with a bunch of things to see outside the city – we look into day tours. Izmir definitely falls into this category. With the ruins of ancient Ephesus and a bunch of other historical sights dotted in the landscape surrounding the city, you couldn’t just hop on public transit between all these spots.
Bottom line, there’s a tremendous convenience and comfort to private tours, as you know A) you’re going to be picked up and dropped off right outside your door; B) the guides know where they’re going and what they’re doing; and C) you can just generally let your guard down and relax a bit more than you otherwise would.
Our experience touring Ephesus would reinforce these beliefs. Jenna did some research and found a company – About Ephesus – that we’ll shamelessly plug. Our guide from the company, Filiz, was an absolute rock star. Leading up to our full-day tour, she talked Jenna through recommendations on the best things to see – and the best ways to see them – eventually solidifying an itinerary for us.
With the comfort of knowing someone else had the details covered, we met Filiz and her driver, Niko, outside our Izmir apartment at 9am to kick off our day exploring Ephesus.
Ancient Ephesus / Modern Selcuk
In the hour-ish drive from downtown Izmir to Ephesus, Filiz sat in the back of the tour van with us, giving an overview of the area. Today, the ruins of ancient Ephesus sit next to the modern town of Selcuk, about 80 kilometers south of Izmir – and constitute one of the largest Roman archeological sights in the eastern Mediterranean.
A massive center of commerce in ancient times, Ephesus thrived as a port on the Aegean Sea from around the 10thcentury BC to 7th century AD, passing through Greek, Roman, and Byzantine hands. And, while the city played a small role in the Crusades and would eventually fall into Ottoman hands, its importance faded due to massive silt build-ups in the harbor. Originally, Ephesus was actually located on the Aegean. These silt deposits – exacerbated by a major earthquake – eventually closed off the city from the sea, and the ruins are now located about four kilometers inland from the Aegean.
From a religious perspective, the New Testament’s “Paul’s Letters to the Ephesians” demonstrates the role the city played as an early hub of Christianity. And, it’d go on to host multiple early Roman Catholic councils – and be visited by several modern Popes.
So yeah, that’s three paragraphs summarizing thousands of years of history. Clearly, no one’s going to accuse us of being experts in anything, let alone Ephesian history, but hopefully this overview gives a sense of the things we’d be visiting for the day.
And, in a culinary aside, Efes – Turkish for Ephesus – also happens to be a delicious Turkish beer – pairs well with a day of sightseeing.
The Temple of Artemis – One of the Ancient Seven
After our drive from Izmir, we started at the Temple of Artemis – just outside modern Selcuk. For background, the Greeks built this temple in honor of Artemis, goddess of – among other things – the hunt.
Though the initial temple was destroyed twice, it was also completely rebuilt twice, with the final, grandest version designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Unfortunately, when you arrive today, all that remains of the temple is a single, towering column – one of what had originally been at least 127 such supports. As such, it takes some imagination to project a staggeringly large temple onto the surrounding, grassy landscape that exists today. Despite this reality, standing beneath this single column – reaching 18 meters into the sky – gives you a serious sense of awe that something like this could be built without the benefits of modern technology.
Virgin Mary’s Mountaintop Abode
In addition to not being historians, we also definitely don’t qualify as theologians. This general ignorance didn’t stop Chipp from thinking some deep thoughts while at the Virgin Mary’s final home (cue SNL’s “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy”). Story goes, as the Apostle Paul moved to what’s modern-day Turkey to preach, he brought Mary with him to care for her.
This mountaintop abode, resting under the cool shade of beautiful cypress trees, serves as a major pilgrimage site for Christians today. Three modern popes – Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI – have even visited the shrine.
With this obvious religious importance, it’s difficult not to ask:
Did Mary truly ever live here?
Should the answer to this question even matter?
In other words, what’s more important, historical fact, or people’s faith? Religious characteristics aside, it’s hard to overstate the absolute serenity of this spot. Fed by a mountain spring, the fresh air on these shaded slopes creates a quiet peace that is hard to ignore. So, whether you want to light a candle and say a prayer – or just soak in the solitude – the House of the Virgin Mary should be experienced.
Walking the Streets of Ancient Ephesus
The excavated ruins of Ephesus itself are the focal point to any visit here. While some Brits discovered the initial parts of the city in the late 1800s, Austrians – and the Austrian Archeological Institute, in particular – have taken point on excavating the ancient city.
Its main thoroughfare – paved with gorgeous local marble – descends down a mountain valley to what used to be the harbor. As a result, visitors can either walk from top to bottom or vice versa. We took the former path and highly recommend it, as it lets you see the entire city unfold before your eyes as you stroll.
The architectural highlights are definitely the façade of the Library of Celsus – rebuilt to reflect its original structure – and the theater – at 25,000 seats, believed to be the largest in the ancient world. But, some of the coolest things to see involved how the Ephesian residents lived. Case in point: seeing A) what we’d consider modern toilets, and B) the secret tunnel leading from the communal baths to the city brothel both put a human face to the ancient marble structures.
A Turkish Lunch with a Turkish Cat
Famished, we wrapped up our time in Ephesus and headed to a picturesque, outdoor café for lunch. Sitting under the shade of more local cypress trees, Filiz joined us for an outstanding, traditional Turkish meal – and broadened our tour from history to the culinary joys of Turkey.
Ironically (or not, if you think about it), Jenna certainly enjoyed the lunch – but her love/obsession with cats may have trumped the incredible meal. As we sat outside, dealing with a mild, post-lunch food coma, one of the restaurant’s cats decided to jump up and join us. Thousands of years of history, delicious food, and beautiful landscapes be damned – thismade the day for Jenna!
Learning about Turkish Carpets – and Why Chipp Won’t Walk on Them
Similar to Persian carpets in Iran, Turkish carpets are an integral part of Turkish culture – and the local economy. As a result, the Turkish government has invested heavily in teaching local women how to make them so as not to let the skill disappear. Practically, this investment has a resulted in a handful of government-sponsored schools throughout the country. Local girls spend a year at the school, learning the art of making Turkish carpets, and then the government will purchase supplies for graduates to create their own, household carpet-making enterprises – a true cottage industry.
We visited one of these schools for our final stop. Wow. We suspected that making handmade carpets would be a labor-intensive process, but we didn’t grasp just how much so. During our tour, we watched one of the master instructors work on a carpet, and every thread consists of a single, hand-tied knot – thousands in total – meaning that a single carpet can take anywhere from several months to over a year to create.
When you think of paying for the labor behind a purchase, it’s understandable why these carpets cost so much. But, money aside, we couldn’t imagine walking on such a beautiful work of art after seeing the time, heart, and soul poured into making them.
While we politely declined purchasing one for thousands of dollars, even if we’d been in a financial / life position to do so, how could you ever walk on one in your home?