The Ruined House of Ephesus

Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit” (2:22). That community is gone, and his message seems a distant echo.

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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In the year 401 A.D., John Chrysostom led a large crowd out of the city of Ephesus to the great temple of Artemis and destroyed it about 350 years after the Apostle Paul first preached the Gospel to the Ephesians.

Although Ephesus had long been a Christian city, the destruction of the Artemission (temple of Artemis) by John completed the city’s transformation. For several centuries before Christ, Ephesus had been the center of worship to this goddess of fertility, whom the Romans called Diana.

Ephesus and the area now known as Aegean Turkey remained predominantly Christian until the early part of this century, even after the Muslim Turkish conquest in the 14th century. Only in the early 1920s, after war between Greece and the emerging Turkish Republic, did the situation alter. An exchange of populations left this area, home of the Seven Churches, virtually uninhabited by Christians.

From a Christian viewpoint, then, Ephesus’s past is tremendous – its present far less so. Sad to say, little remains in Ephesus and its surroundings of its long Christian association. Sadder still, the thousands of visitors who come to the ruins every year are more interested in the history of Artemis than in the legacy of Paul.

The name Ephesus is bound up with Christian teaching and tradition. A look at its pagan past, whose strength is still seen in the magnificence of the temple ruins, suggests the task that Paul dared to undertake.

Ephesus’ beauty and size can be judged from its remains: avenues lined with marble columns, carved fountains, odeons, and public buildings, including a fine library.

Ephesus thrived on the commerce of this port city on a natural inlet from the Aegean Sea. Trade was conducted with Europe by sea and with Asia by land. At its peak in the second century, it had a population of around 400,000. Idolmaking and carpet weaving were among the city’s most lucrative trades, catering to the thousands of wealthy pilgrims who travelled far to pay homage to Artemis.

There is no longer a city called Ephesus. Adjacent to its excavated remains is a small town, Selcuk, built on what was the eastern part of Ephesus. In some ways – but on a much smaller scale – it reflects something of the way of life of ancient Ephesus. The area was always fertile, and the daily market that today feeds the people of Selcuk has a flavor of the past. Peasants in traditional attire bring their produce to market, often on horse-drawn carts. Idol-making and carpet weaving are again the town’s chief sources of income.

Acts 19:27 tells how the earlier craftsmen who fashioned these idols were enraged by Paul’s teachings. They feared that his message would harm their trade. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” they shouted at him when he preached in the 25,000-seat open-air theatre, which still stands.

This craft died out with the rule of Byzantium over the region. Ironically, its revival came under its Muslim successors, whose religion abhors depicting the human form.

Carpet weaving also plays an important role in the area’s present life. Originally brought to Ephesus by traders from the East, it has again become more important in recent years due to the demand of Western visitors. As in former times, vendors come from eastern Anatolia to sell their goods.

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Tags: Christianity Turkey Muslim Pilgrimage/pilgrims