The Complete Guide to Ephesus, a Highlight of the Ancient World

ancient Greek ruins with columns and red poppies in the foreground

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Ephesus Ancient Greek Theatre

Acarlar, 35920 Selçuk/İzmir, Türkiye

You don't need to be an ancient history buff to appreciate incredible Ephesus—although it certainly helps. This ancient ruined city just inland from western Turkey's Aegean coast was once one of the most important ports in the Greek and Roman world. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, visitors to Ephesus can walk along cobblestone lanes, watch archeological excavation and restoration in progress, marvel at the enormous amphitheater and facade of the Library of Celsus, and learn about the centuries of history here and across the Mediterranean and Aegean civilizations.

History of Ephesus

Ancient legends state that Ephesus was founded in the 11th century BCE by Ionian prince Androclos, but much of the settlement's earliest history is unknown or unclear. More concrete historical knowledge of Ephesus begins in the 7th century BCE when the city came under the rule of the Lydian kings of western Anatolia. Lydian King Croesus, who reigned from 560-547 BCE, funded the Temple of Artemis's rebuilding in Ephesus, which has remained an important focal point of the settlement throughout the centuries. After being burned down in 356 BCE, the Temple of Artemis was rebuilt on an enormous scale (supposedly four times bigger than the Parthenon in Athens) and known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple doesn't exist today (except in fragments at the British Museum in London).

Over the centuries, Ephesus came under the rule of the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, the Seleucid Kings, and the Romans. Most of what can be seen today at Ephesus are remnants of the Roman era, which spanned from 129 BCE until the 3rd century CE. Under Emperor Tiberius, Ephesus flourished as a port city and is believed to have been second only to Rome within the Roman Empire as a cultural and commercial hub.

Ephesus has also long been important to Christianity in the region and remains a Christian pilgrimage site. Early Christians of prominence, such as St. Paul and St. John, visited Ephesus and converted residents to Christianity, encouraging them to turn away from the cult of Artemis. Jesus Christ's mother, Mary, is thought to have spent her last years near Ephesus. Her house, and St. John's tomb, can be visited, not far from the main ruins. Ephesus is mentioned throughout the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Ephesians.

The decline of Ephesus began in 262 CE when Goths attacked it. Some parts were rebuilt, but not to the same scale as before. The Byzantine Roman emperors increasingly adopted Christianity, so the worship of Artemis at Ephesus was not viewed sympathetically. The harbor at Ephesus also began to silt up, causing problems for trade. All of these factors left the remaining inhabitants of Ephesus largely to fend for themselves without the great empires' support. Destructive earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries, and Arab invasions, further led to Ephesus' decline. It was finally abandoned in the 15th century under Ottoman rule.

remains of a circular Roman amphitheater with hills in background

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How to Visit Ephesus

Although parts of Ephesus were destroyed over the centuries, the many layers of history can still be seen today at what is one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. Archeological excavation remains ongoing: at its heyday, Ephesus had a population of up to 55,000 people (double the size of modern-day Selcuk nearby), but only 20 percent of the city has been excavated, so far.

The ruins at Ephesus are spread out over a large area and are mostly unshaded. So, arrive early in the day (especially in the hotter summer months), wear comfortable shoes and a sun hat, bring plenty of water (that available on site is very expensive), and be prepared to walk.

Entrance to Ephesus is ticketed, with separate entry fees for the main site and the House of Mary and the Terraced Houses. Opening hours vary depending on the season and daylight. If you're very interested in ancient history you could spend the whole day here; otherwise, two-three hours is sufficient. If you're short on time, plan your route in advance, so you don't miss the highlights. Simply wandering through the city without a plan can take hours, and you may get hot and tired before you've seen everything you want to see.

It's worth having some kind of guide to Ephesus, whether an in-person tour guide, an audio guide, or a dedicated guidebook. While simply looking at the ruins is still impressive and interesting, you'll learn so much more about what you're seeing with a proper guide.

Highlights to look out for as you walk through the ancient city include:

  • The famous colonnaded facade of the Library of Celsus. Originally built in 125 CE, it once contained 12,000 scrolls. It was reconstructed in the 1970s from pieces found onsite and in museums elsewhere.
  • The Ephesus Amphitheater, which once had a seating capacity of 25,000, making it the largest in the ancient world.
  • The Odeon theater, where plays were performed for "small" audiences of up to 1500 people.
  • Bath complexes were built under Roman rule.
  • The aqueduct systems, among the most advanced in the ancient world.
  • The Temples of Hadrian and Sebastoi.
  • The Terrace Houses, with mosaic floors and frescoed walls.

Things to Do Nearby

Not everything worth seeing at Ephesus is within the perimeters of the ancient city. Selcuk town itself is an interesting place. The remains of the ancient Temple of Artemis (although with just one lonely column remaining, it is a mere shadow of what it once was) are not far from the center of town. Turreted Ayasoluk Castle looks over Selcuk from atop its hill and offers great views of the surrounding countryside, as well as the burial site of St. John the Apostle. There are also the remains of ancient aqueducts in the middle of town.

The nearby town of Sirince is highly worth visiting for half a day. Located 5 miles east of Selcuk, in the hills, the red-roofed houses are surrounded by grapevines and orchards of apples and peaches. It was historically inhabited by Orthodox Christian Greeks, distinct from Turkish-speaking Muslims, and is a wine production center.

The nearest beach to Selcuk and Ephesus is Pamucak Beach. While there are more picturesque beaches elsewhere along the Anatolian Coast, Pamucak offers a wide strip of sand where you can sit for free or hire a lounger and umbrella.

Where to Stay

Ephesus is less than two miles from the modern town of Selcuk (population 28,000). While some visitors on tight schedules pass through on the way to or from Izmir and places on the Anatolian coast, those who stay a bit longer largely stay in and around Selcuk. As a small town, the best accommodation options are boutique, independent, family-run, and just outside the more touristy town center.

How to Get There

The nearest major city to Ephesus is Izmir, Turkey's third-largest city, 50 miles to the north. Flights from elsewhere in Turkey (such as Istanbul) frequently fly to Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport. Some airlines put on shuttles to Selcuk, the gateway to Ephesus, for passengers, and some accommodations may arrange a shared or private transfer. Alternatively, it's easy to catch regular trains to Selcuk from the railway station attached to Izmir airport. Trains and buses take about an hour and are low-cost.

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The Complete Guide to Ephesus, a Highlight of the Ancient World