“This is the biggest puzzle in the world,” exclaimed our guide Oscar as we stood in a recently unearthed section of the Terrace Houses at the Ephesus archeological site on the west coast of Turkey.
Spread on the floor of the active excavation site were thousands of pieces of broken mosaic tile and as I looked around, it was difficult to argue with his assessment.
“They are using laser imaging technology to figure out how to put the pieces back in the right place,” he continued. “The amazing part is that only about 20 per cent of this entire site has been uncovered. Those who visited a few years ago would not have seen the Terrace Houses at all.”
Taking a walk through the ruins of Ephesus is just about as good an introduction as one can get to ancient Roman civilization and seeing the ruins of this once great empire is a vivid reminder of its tumultuous past.
Although the current population is almost entirely Muslim, there was a time when this region of present-day Turkey was one of the most important Christian centres in Asia Minor.
The apostle Paul lived in Ephesus and likely wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians while he was imprisoned in a tower close to the harbour. Many scholars believe the Gospel of John was also written in Ephesus and some believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived out the remainder of her days after her son’s crucifixion in the area near Ephesus.
But the city’s roots date back even farther than Christianity.
Ancient Ephesus was an important trading city as early as 600 BC. According to legend, it was founded by Androclus, the son of King Codrus of Athens. Androclus is said to have consulted the Oracle of Delphi to decide where to found a settlement in this region and the cryptic oracle told him to “choose the site indicated by the fish and the boar.”
Days later while frying a fish out of doors, a cooking accident started a small brush fire and disturbed a wild boar. Ephesus is said to have been established on the site where Androclus killed the boar.
By the first century BC, Ephesus had a population of approximately 250,000 and was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world — little wonder that it became such a contested locale.
First ruled by the Greeks, it was conquered next by the Romans and ultimately by the Turks. Although the battles and several natural disasters had a destructive effect on the city, it was ultimately the loss of its port due to silt deposits from a nearby river that did the city in.
As the shipping industry died so did the city — becoming the stuff of legend until it was first unearthed by British archeologists in the late 1800s.
Today, Ephesus is one of the most important archeological sites in the world — second only to Pompeii in its ability to lend insight into the everyday lives of those who lived in the Roman Empire.
Our visit began at the Upper Entrance to the ancient city and we followed the original main street past toppled buildings and ruins that lend an idea to the glory of this once powerful city.
Highlights of the main archeological site include the Odeon of the Upper Agora, which was the administrative heart of the city and was constructed between the reigns of Augustus and Claudius — at or shortly after the birth of Christ.
About halfway down the main street, you pass through the Gate of Hercules, which features two columns engraved with images of Hercules wrapped in a lion skin.
One of the great highlights of the entire site is the Temple of Hadrian, which is decorated with several stone carvings of Greek gods and includes a series of panels that depict the mythological founding of Ephesus, including a scene of Adroclus chasing a boar.
Not far from the Temple of Hadrian are a set of Roman baths that lend insight into the intricacies of the plumbing system used by the Romans at the end of the first century.
Adjacent to the baths was a brothel and public toilets where men would sit side-by-side on narrow stone benches above open troughs covered by their robes and discuss current events while using the toilet. A fountain in the centre of the room had running water that drowned out any “unpleasant sounds” that might affect the pleasure of the discussion — as our guide put it.
I have to admit, hearing about this ancient method of catching up on current events made the modern day practise of reading the newspaper in the washroom seem more appealing than it had been previously.
There is an extra fee to go into the Terrace Houses, but these homes that were occupied by the richest members of Ephesian society are fascinating to see and should not be missed. The houses all had running water, sophisticated heating and cooling systems, tile mosaics, hand-painted frescoes and rich décor that featured the finest craftsmanship the city had to offer. Inside, you can watch archeologists at work still uncovering and reconstructing this section of the dig site.
Other highlights of Ephesus include the remains of the Library of Celsus, a two-tiered façade that is remarkably well preserved and features four statues personifying wisdom, knowledge, destiny and intelligence.
There is also a street paved entirely in marble where you can examine ruts created by ancient chariot wheels.
The last highlight of the site is the Great Theatre, a 25,000-seat theatre that was built into the slopes of Mount Pion and was used to host theatrical and political events. It is believed that St. Paul delivered a sermon condemning pagan worship in this theatre.
The view from the top of the theatre is spectacular and well worth the effort of the arduous climb up the uneven stone steps. From its top, you can see the massive archeological site stretched out across the hillsides.
Early on in our visit, our guide had indicated that the tile mosaics inside the Terrace Houses represented the world’s largest puzzle, but as you gaze out upon the entire dig site and realize that most of it is still underground, you realize that much of the puzzle of this place is yet to be discovered.
If you go:
• It will take a half day to get an overview of the site and a full day for a more comprehensive visit. To avoid the heat of the day, it’s best to arrive early in the morning. Be sure to bring hats, sunglasses and drinking water.
• A guide is highly recommended at this site. We used the services of Kusadasi Tours (www.kusadasitours.com) to arrange a private guided trip to Ephesus and a custom tour of other sites in the area. A four-hour tour that includes the services of a professional guide, a private van and driver, and all entrance fees will cost 65 euros per adult. Guides can be hired at the site for 39 euros for two hours or there is also a one-hour audio guide for about 4.45 euros per person.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.