I have visited and explored a lot of Roman ruins, not just on this trip, but whenever and wherever I get the opportunity. And I have to say that Ephesus (in western Turkey) is different to every other site I have visited. It is often mentioned alongside Pompeii as one of the most complete towns from the Roman period, but I think that comparison is wrong. Pompeii gives great detail about the layout of a Roman city, whereas Ephesus is more like Herculaneum, and gives insight into what daily life was like. Herculaneum was a provincial town, Ephesus however, was a major city of great importance.
Usually when you visit an ancient Roman city you see bits of buildings spread across a large area, perhaps with a section of road connecting them. When you walk through the gates into Ephesus, you look straight down the main road, still with its original flagstones, and the large white columns rise up on either side of the road. Always busy, the people and the activity add to the sensation of entering a functioning town. This is what it would have been like. People mingling, moving, talking, generally going about their business, entering and exiting the buildings, some in a hurry, some slowly.
The buildings varied from the public toilets adjacent to Hadrian’s temple, to the more recently uncovered terraced houses complete with spectacular wall decorations. The enormous Agora (the market place) beside a 25,000 seater theatre, one of the largest ever discovered, suggests this town had a population of 250,000 people. Many aspects of life in the town were visible, and the archaeological evidence spanned several centuries, from the Pre-Christian through to the Christian eras.
The terraced houses were one of the highlights for us. These are a group of apartments that are richly decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Each apartment had its own style of interior decoration; one had stunning marble clad walls, another had very strong dark red wall paintings, and a third had white walls with panels outlined in red containing beautiful, delicate paintings of birds and flowers. Viewed from a walkway that has been constructed through the apartments, the symmetry and balance of the mosaic floors is really apparent. These would have been luxurious apartments, occupied by the upper levels of society.
Just outside Ephesus, around the modern town of Selcuk, are other archaeological sites including the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and the Basilica of St John which is the reported burial place of John the Apostle. There is not much left of the Temple of Artemis, a few foundation stones and one reconstructed pillar which is now topped by a storks nest. Four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens, what is now an easily overlooked bunch of old stones, must have been an incredibly impressive site. A building so large that few people would have ever seen anything so big. A statement of the importance of the goddess Artemis in the lives and belief systems of the people in that area during the Roman period. But all this was about to be threatened with the spread of Christianity that was occurring at the time when Ephesus was a major civic centre.
One of the things that struck during my visit to Ephesus, is that the Bible is not just full of stories that one has to have faith to believe actually happened. It is also a historical text that records civic events. These events are usually viewed through the lens of faith, but they can also be viewed through the lens of archaeology.
My visit to Ephesus, as well as nearby sites such as Hierapolis, has made me see the Bible in a new light. Many sites I have visited recently are mentioned in the Bible, some are the stage upon which the stories of the Bible unfold. Occasionally these events are also recorded in other contemporary accounts, and visible in the archaeological record. This was apparent in Ephesus, the location of the silversmith riots which are described in the Book of Acts. Rather than reading the biblical description of the silversmith riots and interpreting it through a lens of faith, I read it as an historical description of a group of tradesmen whose livelihood was being threatened because a new preacher was saying their goddess Artemis does not exist, and they should not be making and selling silver statues of her. Standing outside the theatre in Ephesus where the protest took place, and seeing the imagery and temples of Artemis all around, I can imagine how incensed these people were when a visitor to their city told them to stop what they were doing because they should believe in a new God. Suddenly the events described in the Bible, combined with the buildings I was looking at, gave an extra layer of insight into the lives of the people living in the city I was walking around. And whilst churches did start to appear in Ephesus, many silver statues of Artemis have been discovered, and are dated to several hundred years after the riots. So those individuals, the silversmiths of Ephesus who gathered in the theatre that day, did not lose their livelihood with the arrival of Christianity.