Ephesus is one of Turkey’s best-preserved archaeological sites, and also one of its most important. It long served as the capital of Roman Asia Minor and was the empire’s most thriving metropolis after Rome. And even centuries after its abandonment, it remains full of interesting and grandiose monuments. In the following Ephesus guide, we’ll cover all there is to see along with a historical overview of this fascinating city.
Ephesus: A Brief History
The earliest remains found in the Ephesus region date back to the Chalcolithic period. And it was since at least the Late Bronze Age that the Temple of Artemis was used for worship.
As early as the 11th century, ancient Greeks colonized much of western Anatolia, and the region around Ephesus became known as Ionia. And it was around this time that a proper city began to form. In the early days, however, the settlements were centered around Ayasoluk Hill, now in modern Selçuk.
In the 6th century BC, Ephesus was conquered by the neighboring Lydian Kingdom, after which the Persian Achaemenid Empire took control. It was during Persian rule over Ephesus that one of the most influential pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus, lived and composed his major works.
Persian rule would come to an end at the hands of Alexander the Great, and the city would prosper greatly during the subsequent Hellenistic period. After Alexander’s death, the city was first controlled by Lysimachus, one of his former generals.
And it was Lysimachus who moved the urban center to its current location, dividing Ephesus up into upper and lower cities. Curetes Street, home to many of the city’s most important monuments, would be built to connect them. It was also around this time the theater, agoras and Bouleuterion were first constructed.
Ephesus was then taken over by the Seleucids and then the Ptolemies of Egypt. Next, Attalos II, the King of Pergamon, ruled the region from 159-138 BC. Dying without an heir, he bequeathed much of his territory to Rome upon his death.
The arrival of the Romans in the 2nd century BC was met with considerable resistance, in large part due to heavy taxation. The Pontic King Mithridates IV attempted to liberate the province, resulting in great bloodshed. According to records, up to 80,000 Italians were killed in Ephesus during the revolts.
The revolt, however, was eventually suppressed, and Ephesus officially became part of Rome. After the first Roman Emperor, Octavian Augustus, reorganized the political structure of Asia Minor, Ephesus was made the capital of all of Roman Asia.
It replaced Pergamon as the prominent city in Anatolia, and within the Roman Empire, it was second only to Rome itself.
Ephesus thrived politically, culturally and economically during Roman rule. Scholars estimate that the population was as high as 200,000, though this figure is now debated.
In any case, Ephesus reached its zenith in the 2nd century AD, and many elaborate monuments from this period remain standing.
Soon, however, the city would face a series of earthquakes and Gothic raids. It was also around this time that the Temple of Artemis was burnt down by an arsonist. But the city managed to recover and remained highly prosperous for the next few centuries.
Ephesus also played an integral role in the rise of Christianity. The Apostle Paul arrived around 52 AD, but he was driven out by local silversmiths for insulting their images of the city’s primary deity, Artemis. Around the same time, St. John arrived with Mary and spent the remainder of his life in Ephesus.
During the Byzantine Era, the Temple of Artemis, which had since been rebuilt and recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was officially closed. Throughout central Ephesus, meanwhile, numerous churches were constructed. The Third Ecumenical Council took place in Ephesus in 431 AD, at which the Virgin Mary was officially declared the ‘Mother of God.’
Upon the siltation of the port in the 6th century, Ephesus lost its access to the sea, along with much of its economic relevance. Around this time, the Byzantines constructed a grand new Basilica of St. John at Ayasoluk Hill in modern-day Selçuk, and many residents began moving to that area.
The city suffered further at the hands of Arab invasions during the 7th and 8th centuries. And by the 9th century, Smyrna (present-day Izmir) replaced Ephesus as the main administrative center of the region.
Nevertheless, people remained in the city until at least the 14th century, when the area was taken by the Seljuks and then the Ottomans. The region fell under the control of the Beylik of Aydin, who made the area around Ayasoluk Hill their capital.
Quite fittingly, Ephesus’s story ends at the same site of the area’s first prehistoric settlements.
Ephesus Visiting Tips
Ephesus is one of the most crowded archaeological sites in Turkey. Therefore, you’ll want to make sure to get there as early as possible. The site opens from 8:00 in the warmer months, and the closer you get there to opening time, the better.
Only by arriving early can one hope to photograph the Celsus Library and Curetes Street without anyone in the shot.
Ephesus has two entrances – an upper and a lower one. Visitors arriving by public transport from the Selçuk otogar arrive at the lower entrance.
The following Ephesus guide presents the landmarks as if one is starting at the upper entrance. For those arriving early at the lower entrance, it would be wise to hurry to the Celsus Library and admire it before anyone else arrives.
Next, walk up an empty Curetes Street. Arriving at the upper portion of the city, you can enjoy the Bouleuterion before the tour groups start arriving around 9:00. Then take your time exploring upper Ephesus along with the attractions around Curetes Street.
More and more tour groups will start arriving from 10, which might be a good time to head to the enclosed Terrace House.
Around the Top
Upper Ephesus is home to many of the city’s most important landmarks and monuments. Here you’ll find an assembly hall, various temples and even an agora.
As mentioned above, most people visiting via public transport will arrive at the lower level. But, after a stop at the Celsus Library, it would be a good idea to start your explorations here before the tour groups arrive.
The Bouleuterion, or council house, is where local administrative meetings were held. With its semicircular seating arrangement, it closely resembles a theater but on a smaller scale.
This structure could seat up to 1,500 people, and it’s where the local aristocrats discussed bureaucratic matters in private. Large meetings open to the public, however, would sometimes take place in the theater at the other end of town.
The Bouleuterion was constructed around 100 AD, and a new stage was added 50 years later that featured a portrait gallery of the Roman Imperial family. Occasionally, the structure also functioned as an Odeon, or small musical hall.
Nowadays, the Bouleuterion, like many other parts of Ephesus, is inhabited by a community of friendly cats. They’re clearly well-fed and very much used to people.
Simply take a seat somewhere and don’t be surprised if a cat suddenly appears and sits in your lap!
Erected in the 1st century AD, the Prytaneum functioned as an office for the city’s head official. And it also contained a banquet hall.
But now the structure is most known for being where no less than four huge Ephesian Artemis statues were discovered underground.
Currently, two of them are on display at the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk. And as you’ll notice, they hardly resemble the traditional Greek depictions of Artemis at all.
The city’s main Temple of Artemis was situated a few kilometers outside of the center, but Artemis statues were probably placed all over town. Be sure to read our Selçuk guide for more on the history of Artemis worship at Ephesus along with the symbolism of the Ephesian Artemis statues.
Elsewhere around the Prytaneum area, a few different Roman Imperial cult temples were discovered as well.
Around the Upper Agora
In the center of the upper agora was a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The Romans were big fans of Isis and dedicated temples to her throughout their empire.
It’s believed that this one, however, was destroyed by Emperor Augustus due to its association with his rival Marc Anthony, who’d come here with Cleopatra. As we’ll go over below, this wasn’t the only Egyptian temple in Ephesus.
Also in the center of the agora are the foundations of yet another Imperial cult temple of which almost nothing remains.
The southern portion of the upper agora, meanwhile, is home to things like reservoirs, water storage facilities and fountains. An interesting circular structure along one of the roads may have once been part of an elaborate Nymphaeum complex.
West of the agora, but still in upper Ephesus, is a dense collection of notable monuments.
To the north is the Memmius Monument, built in the 1st century BC in honor of a man named Gaius Memmius.
Memmius was the grandson of Sulla, a Roman general and statesman who won the first major Roman civil war. And it was Sulla who reconquered Ephesus, driving back Mithridates of the Pontic Kingdom around 87 BC.
Not much of it remains, and its current form is described as a ‘collage’ rather than a true reconstruction.
Further south is the Pollio Monument, built by the stepson of G. Sextilius Pollio in honor of his generous contributions to the city. Only the foundations survive.
Just next to it is what remains of the Fountain of Domitian. It was once adorned with various statues of Greek mythological figures, many of which are on display at the Ephesus Museum.
The Temple of Domitian
As the name suggests, this Imperial cult temple was dedicated to Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD). Domitian was widely regarded as a tyrant who greatly weakened the powers of the senate. As a result, he was eventually assassinated by court officials.
And following his death, officials tried to wipe all records of him. As such, this temple was later converted into a more general temple dedicated to the Flavian dynasty, of which Domitian was a member.
The original temple was constructed atop a massive six-stepped base which was entirely torn down during the Christian era.
Now, only a few remaining pieces have been erected where the large brick base once stood.
Colossal statues of Domitian himself were salvaged from the ruins and can now be found at the Ephesus Museum
Some of the ancient vaults of the huge temple substructure, meanwhile, are now being used to house different inscriptions discovered throughout Ephesus.
The 210 m-long Curetes Street connected upper and lower Ephesus and was considered the most prestigious part of town. It was densely packed with monuments and residences, and it remains one of the highlights of Ephesus today.
Even the marble paving stones remain in good condition. In ancient times, the entire street would’ve been entirely lined with both statues and columns, some of which remain standing.
The Gate of Heracles
Visitors entering Curetes Street pass through the Heracles Gate, added sometime in the 4th century AD. While we don’t know what it was called then, it features two large reliefs of Heracles on both pillars. A nearby relief of Nike was also likely part of the gate.
Before the 4th century, carts regularly rode up and down Curetes Street. But the narrow Heracles Gate put an end to this, making the road for pedestrians only.
Around Curetes Street
There are numerous landmarks to look out for on Curetes Street, one of which is the Trajan Fountain. As the name suggests, it was built in honor of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD).
Originally two stories high with a pool in the center, it was long considered one of the street’s most remarkable landmarks. It originally stood at 9.5 m high, though it suffered major earthquake damage over the years.
The fountain also housed a collection of Greek mythological sculptures which can now be seen at the Ephesus Museum.
In Roman times, water was brought to Ephesus via numerous aqueducts and then distributed through a series of clay pipes.
Another major landmark is the Temple of Hadrian. Fortunately, many of the original pieces survived, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct much of it.
The temple’s cult room, or naos, faced the street and was lined on either side by Corinthian columns. While primarily dedicated to Hadrian, statues of other emperors like Diocletian and Constantius were placed here as well.
On top is a semicircular pediment featuring a bust of Tyche. A frieze on the lintel of the door, meanwhile, depicts the mythological foundations of the city.
According to legend, the city was founded by a prince of Athens named Androklos, who drove out Ephesus’s prior inhabitants before uniting the cities of Ionia.
Speaking of Hadrian, the base of Curetes Street is home to Hadrian’s Gate. Only a small portion remains of this once elaborate, three-story gate. Its function was to mark the sacred processional route that connected the city center with the Temple of Artemis.
Not far away is the Heroon of Androklos. Named after the mythological founder of the city just mentioned, the U-shaped building functioned as a fountain in Byzantine times. Also nearby is a long inscription from Rome related to bureaucratic matters like taxes and land distribution.
Before leaving Curetes Street, also be sure to check out the Terrace Houses.
The Terrace Houses
The Terrace Houses are the one part of Ephesus that require an additional ticket. It cost around 50 TL at the time of my visit, but the prices are always changing due to inflation. It’s also possible to buy a combo ticket which includes Ephesus, the Terrace Houses and the Ephesus Museum.
If you don’t want to pay, you can see a small portion of the houses, now called ‘Terrace House 1,’ that remains uncovered. And don’t miss the impressive mosaic flooring just along the road.
The paid section, ‘Terrace House 2,’ is now enclosed within a modern building. It consists of six residential units spread across three terraces.
In the city’s heyday, living right on Curetes Street was a special privilege reserved for the elite. The homes here were peristyle houses centered around an open-air courtyard, and some were even three stories high.
The flooring was often made of mosaics, while colorful frescoes adorned the walls. The building materials were chosen to help keep the houses cool in summer and warm in winter.
The first houses here were built as early as the 4th century BC, but the area was mainly used for crafts workshops and as a necropolis. More houses started to be built from around 30 BC, with the most active construction period taking place in the 2nd century AD.
Unfortunately, many of them were later destroyed by 4th-century earthquakes. And after being rebuilt during the Christian era, they were badly damaged by the Arab raids.
They were rebuilt again, but with cheaper materials. And the area was abandoned altogether by the end of the 7th century. Thankfully, many of the older, more elaborate constructions have been salvaged from the ruins.
The families here had small altars in their homes where simple religious activities took place. A basilica was also added to the housing complex in 160 AD.
Each house had a dining room which was a major center of activity. Per Roman tradition, family members and guests would dine in a half-reclining position. And they also drank copious amounts of Ephesian wine sourced from vineyards just outside the city.
Exploring the site, you’ll come across plenty of informational signs with details about the functions of certain rooms along with who lived there.
Aside from houses, a few remnants of the Hellenistic-era workshops can still be seen, while handicraft workshops were established here yet again during the Byzantine period.
Many of the houses maintain their colorful frescoes. Interestingly, crude graffiti was etched over some of them, depicting things like fighting gladiators and animals.
At the upper level of the site you’ll find House 2, probably the most impressive of the bunch. Easily recognizable for its white walls, it’s full of well-preserved frescoes and mosaics.
The wall paintings depict things like the Muses and famous Greek philosophers. The mosaics, meanwhile, depict various Greek deities as well as a lion.
But is the Terrace House worth the extra fee? For those who really like to see it all, then yes it is.
While I enjoyed my visit, I was not a fan of the ugly scaffolding covering the entire area. It dimmed the natural light and made the ancient housing complex feel more like a museum exhibition.
Baths & Latrine
To the north of Curetes Street and east of the intersection with Marble Street is a large area comprising of different bathhouse complexes.
Among them are the Scholastica Bath and the Varius Bath, both of which were established during the Roman period.
It’s also around here that one can find the ancient latrine. It functioned as a free public toilet, serving both passersby and visitors to the nearby baths.
Privacy was seemingly not a big priority in those times given how close the seats were placed. But people could at least stare at an open colonnaded courtyard while doing their business.
Further north among the densely-packed brick buildings is another famous landmark – the brothel. Scholars today, however, believe that the structure was probably just an ordinary residence.
The reason it was believed to have been a brothel is due to a discreet advertisement on Marble Street that seems to direct people here (more below). Furthermore, an erect figurine of the fertility god Priapus was found on site.
The Celsus Library
Arguably the number one highlight of Ephesus in the stunning Celsus Library. It was built around 100 AD in honor of Tiverius Iulius Celsus Polemaeanus, the governor of Roman provincial Asia. While it is indeed a library, it was also constructed over the tomb of the deceased politician.
Destroyed by an earthquake around 270 AD, residents never rebuilt it. Given Ephesus’s long history, the monument it’s best known for today was only standing in place for a surprisingly short period.
Rather than rebuild, residents integrated parts of it into a new street fountain. Thankfully, enough of the original pieces survived for it to be rebuilt.
And the huge facade we see today was entirely reconstructed in the 1970s with financial backing from Anton Kallinger-Prskawetz, an Austrian construction tycoon.
The four statues at the base of the facade represent Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence), and Arete (valor). While the ones here now are replicas, the originals are currently housed in Vienna.
Additionally, a statue of Athena once stood over the grave of the deceased.
Inside, the niches in the walls were filled with shelves where all the manuscripts were kept. In total, there were said to be as many as 12,000 scrolls here, making it one of the largest libraries in the Roman Empire.
Also nearby was the Parthian Monument that commemorated the war of Marcus Aurelius against the Parthians. But other than fragments at the Ephesus Museum (and at other museums across Europe), almost nothing remains.
As mentioned above, be sure to get here around opening time if you want to have the library to yourself. There will be a constant crowd of people here from as early as 9:30.
Making your way toward the lower entrance, there are plenty more landmarks to check out. From the library, head down Marble Street toward the theater, after which you can backtrack south slightly to find the agora.
And before heading for the exit, don’t miss the Church of Mary.
Marble Street, constructed in the 1st century AD, connected Curetes Street with the Theater. It’s along here that you’ll pass the bathhouses and brothel mentioned above.
But keep walking north where you’ll find a rather interesting inscription carved into the ground. It’s now surrounded by a metal barrier so you can’t miss it.
What may be the world’s oldest advertisement directs visitors to the nearby brothel. While hard to make out today, the ad shows a foot, an image of a woman, a money purse, a cross, a heart and the nearby library.
There’s no text, so the collection of images are largely open to interpretation. But many interpret the image as telling pedestrians that they can find a woman whose love can be purchased by turning left before the library.
The foot, meanwhile, seems to indicate that the patron’s own foot must be at least that size!
With so many unique monuments to see at Ephesus, the theater gets rather lost in the shuffle, as every other Greco-Roman city had one. This one, however, could seat as many as 25,000 people, making it the largest in all of Anatolia!
Built into the slope of Panayir Hill, the theater was first constructed in the Hellenistic period, though it was largely rebuilt in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
Despite its monumental size, it hasn’t fared quite as well as the theaters of places like Hieraopilis or Aspendos. But archaeologists are currently working hard on restoring it to its former size.
While not much remains of the facade behind the stage, it was once as high as three stories.
In addition to the typical stage performances and gladiatorial battles, the theater was also home to public meetings and political assemblies.
The Tetragonos Agora is one of the oldest parts of Ephesus, having been established in the 3rd century BC. Surrounded by columns and towering walls on all sides, this is where the city’s main commercial activities took place.
Each side stretched out to 110 meters and there were originally three elaborate entrance gates. One of them, the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, which connects the agora to the Celsus Library, remains in great condition.
Additionally, administrative offices and even a court of justice could be found here.
To the southwest of the agora are the remains of a very interesting temple. Known as the Serapeum, the temple was built in honor of Serapis, the Greco-Roman personification of Osiris. It’s believed to have been built in the 2nd century AD for visiting Egyptian merchants.
But Ephesus had a much longer connection with Egypt. On display at the Ephesus Museum is a bronze statue of an Egyptian priest from the 6th century BC. Ionian mercenaries, in fact, had fought for pharaohs of the 26th Dynasty.
A few centuries later, the region was briefly controlled by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt.
While largely in ruin, the size of the stone pieces lying around reveals what a massive construction this must’ve been. Oddly, however, the decorations appear very Greco-Roman in style, with no obvious hieroglyphs or other Egyptian-style art.
But amazingly, granite stones brought all the way from Egypt have been found. Furthermore, archaeologists discovered a twin statue of Serapis and Artemis.
The temple seems to be off-limits, but you should notice a staircase in the southwest corner of the agora. While mostly blocked off, the rope in front of the steps had collapsed at the time of my visit, and I just couldn’t resist.
Around Harbor Street
North of the agora, you’ll find the wide Harbor Street, also known as the Arcadiane. At 11 m wide and 500 m long, it connected the theater with the harbor. While some of the columns remain, the street would’ve also been lined with statues of Imperial family members.
But as you’ll notice, no such harbor exists today. That’s due to years of siltation, and the harbor ceased functioning by the 6th century. Ephesus is now as far as 5 km away from the sea.
Surrounding the original harbor was a necropolis, and a number of sarcophagi are currently on display.
Nearby, there were gymnasiums at both the theater and the harbor. These complexes were dedicated to athletic training and other leisure activities. But despite how well-preserved Ephesus is overall, very little of the gymnasiums remain.
The Church of Mary
To the north of the theater is one of the most significant surviving Christian structures. This was where the Third Ecumenical Council took place in 431 AD, at which the Virgin Mary was officially declared the ‘Mother of God.’
Mary herself had lived in Ephesus, arriving with St. John in the mid-1st century. She’s believed to have spent the remainder of her days in the region, and the house in which she lived can be visited several kilometers outside of town.
The long rectangular church measured out to 145 x 30 meters. While it long served as the bishop’s palace, the bishop moved to the newly-constructed Basilica of St. John in the 6th century.
The church once featured a nave and two aisles, and the pool of the former baptistry can clearly be made out today.
Given the long Ephesian tradition of goddess worship, it’s a matter of course that the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary would be constructed here as well.
Those looking for even more adventure may want to visit the Cave of the Seven Sleepers a few kilometers to the northeast.
According to a popular tale, seven persecuted Christians were locked in the cave as they slept, only to awaken from their slumber unharmed centuries later.
First you’ll need to get to the city of Selçuk. From the main bus terminal in the center of town, simply find a bus headed there. The ride costs a few lira and lasts just several minutes.
While there’s no official timetable, buses seem to leave pretty frequently.
When finished, you can wait at the bus stand outside the lower entrance gate.
For those coming from Izmir, Selçuk is an easy minibus ride from the main bus terminal. The journey lasts around 90 minutes. The route can also be done via regular rail in addition to Izmir’s suburban railway line, the İzban.
As Izmir’s bus terminal is far from the city center, this is a good option if your hotel happens to be nearby an İzban station.
Selçuk, on the other hand, is one of the few Turkish cities with its bus terminal right in the city center. The bus will be a better option for most, and it’s also from here that you can take shorter bus rides to Ephesus and Şirince, along with the resort town of Kuşadaşı.
Selçuk can also be reached by direct coach bus from more distant cities like Denizli.
Selçuk is a pretty small city and all of the locations in the Selçuk guide above can be reached on foot from the center. While location isn’t incredibly important, be sure to stay somewhere within easy walking distance of the otogar (bus terminal).
Conveniently, the otogar is right in the heart of the city. And it’s from here that you can find buses to Ephesus, Şirince, Izmir and the resort town of Kuşadaşı.
As a budget traveler who prefers private rooms, I chose the ANZ Guesthouse, just several minutes on foot from the city center.
The room itself was rather basic. But aside from the convenient location, the real highlight was the owner, who was very friendly and helpful in regards to travel tips and transport advice.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.