Izmir Province’s Selçuk is best known for being the town closest to the ruins of Ephesus. But Selçuk’s city center is also home to a unique collection of historical sites of major global importance. It’s therefore worth setting aside an extra day to allow enough time to see all of the landmarks in the Selçuk guide below.
Historically, the area around Selçuk was merely regarded as the outskirts of Ephesus, one of the major metropolises of ancient Anatolia.
It wasn’t until around the 14th century that a distinct town formed at the site when the Beylik of Aydin established themselves atop Ayasuluk Hill. Formerly, the hill had been the residence of none other than John the Apostle.
The present name of the city was named after the Seljuk Turks, who drove out the Byzantines from the region in the 11th century. Oddly enough, there are no major Seljuk landmarks in town, other than a few minor structures in the charming old quarters.
The Basilica of St. John
Among the most prominent of Selçuk’s landmarks is the Basilica of St. John, situated atop Ayasuluk Hill. It was at this spot that John, the favorite apostle of Jesus, spent the remaining decades of his life.
As Jesus had entrusted John with his mother Mary, the two likely came to Ephesus together after spending time in Halfeti.
Previously, St. Paul had already come to Ephesus and started a congregation. St. John then continued spreading the teachings of Jesus from around the year 67.
After being exiled to the island of Patmos, he returned to Ephesus in the year 95, several years before his death.
Entering the site, the first landmark you’ll encounter is the ‘Gate of Persecution.’ It was the basilica’s main gate and remains the most impressive structure of the ruins, largely thanks to recent restorations.
Above the entrance are carved reliefs taken from ancient sarcophagi. They depict the Greek divinity Eros, while other reliefs once featured scenes of Achilles and Hector from the Iliad (since removed to England).
As visiting pilgrims incorrectly believed the scenes to have shown the persecution of St. Paul, the structure became known as the Gate of Persecution.
Though St. John managed to live into his nineties, Christianity was still a persecuted religion at the time of his death. And while he’s believed to have died upon this hill, it wasn’t until a few centuries later that Christians built a proper tomb and basilica at the spot.
The basilica, however, had already degraded severely by the 6th century, prompting Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora to commission a new one.
While only the foundations remain today, it was once an elaborate church containing no less than six domes. Built in the cruciform style, it measured out to 135 x 65 meters.
Though it survived for centuries, it was badly damaged by the Seljuks upon their conquest of the region in the 1090s. And later in the 13th century, parts of it were converted to a mosque.
But the worst was yet to come. Ultimately, what was left of the basilica was totally destroyed in a massive 14th-century earthquake.
As such, there’s not a whole lot to see. But as the place where books like the Gospel of John were likely written, the global significance of this hill cannot be understated.
The structure believed to be the original tomb of St. John is still standing, but it was off-limits at the time of my visit. Peeking inside, I could glimpse a collection of ancient ikons.
Even in its current state, one can still get a sense of how massive the basilica once was. Many of the rooms have been partially restored, but it’s unclear how far archaeologists are going to take the project.
In Byzantine times, the Basilica of St. John was said to have even rivaled the Hagia Sofia. But fully restoring it to its former glory is surely out of the question.
The Basilica of St. John isn’t the only landmark on Ayasuluk Hill. When finished, continue walking north for a couple of minutes to find the next landmark of this Selçuk guide.
The Byzantine Fortress of Ayasuluk
The fortress was originally built by the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, around the same time the basilica was built. Later on, both the Seljuks and the Ottomans added to it.
And as obvious at first glance, archaeologists have recently added to it as well. The contrast between the new stones and the originals is a bit too glaring to ignore.
The fortress once had a total of 17 towers and five cisterns – one of which was a repurposed Byzantine church. An Ottoman mosque has recently been restored, while the fortress also once contained a bath, a small palace and a residence for soldiers.
There’s not a whole lot to see here, and as far as fortresses in Turkey go, it’s not very remarkable. The hill does, however, offer excellent views of the surrounding town and mountains, in addition to the next landmark on our list.
İsa Bey Mosque
From the Byzantine Fortress, you can get a clear view of İsa Bey Mosque at the base of the hill. To get there, you’ll have to walk back through the Basilica of St. John and then come around the other way.
In Ottoman times, the town here was called Ayasoluk after the local hill. And in the 14th century when the mosque was built, Ayasoluk served as the capital of the Beylik of Aydin. As for İsa Bey, he was a prominent scientist who commissioned the project.
Interestingly, despite being situated at the far western end of Anatolia, its style was influenced by older mosques that were much further east.
Much like Diyarbakır’s Ulu Cami, the courtyard features ancient Corinthian columns. But they’re freestanding and haven’t been integrated into the mosque’s architecture. Most likely, they were ‘borrowed’ from the ruins of Ephesus.
All in all, İsa Bey Mosque requires just several minutes of your time, but it’s well worth the short detour. Not only is it well-preserved, but it’s a very unique structure for this part of Turkey.
The Temple of Artemis
Over two thousand years ago, travel and culture enthusiasts compiled a list of must-see monuments throughout the known world. What we now call the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was essentially a precursor to the modern travel guide.
And included on this list was the Temple of Artemis, now located within easy walking distance from central Selçuk. Around 100 BC, the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon even wrote that the Temple of Artemis overshadowed all the others! (Only the Giza pyramids survive today.)
The temple long functioned as the spiritual heart of Ephesus. But as was common in those days, it was built a few kilometers outside the city proper.
Evidence suggests that goddess worship took place here since the Bronze Age. One of the earlier incarnations of the temple featured a hard-packed clay floor, though it was eventually destroyed by a flood.
A new temple was then constructed in the 6th century BC – likely the first iteration to take on a Greek architectural style. This temple was 115 x 46 meters wide and was surrounded by dozens of marble columns.
Tragically, the temple was destroyed by an arsonist named Herostratus in 356 BC, whose main motivation was fame. Interestingly, the incident coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great, who would later offer to fund its reconstruction.
The temple, however, was eventually funded by the Ephesians themselves sometime after Alexander’s death. The next version was even larger (137 x 69 m) and consisted of more than 120 columns. Its interior contained multiple cult images and many other elaborate decorations.
This final, magnificent iteration of the temple, which garnered international praise, would last for another 600 years. But the rise of Christianity would cause its ultimate demise.
As early as the 1st century, St. John (see above) performed an exorcism here. And according to legend, parts of the temple immediately collapsed as a result.
But it wasn’t until the 5th century, after the Roman Empire had embraced Christianity, that the Temple of Artemis was officially closed.
Just how the monumental structure disappeared remains a mystery, but some credit Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom with its final destruction. In any case, bit by bit, stones from the temple were reused in new constructions elsewhere.
The Temple of Artemis would not even be discovered again until 1869, and excavations have been ongoing since. Today, many of the findings are on display at the Ephesus Museum in the center of town.
The oldest items date from the 8th century BC. Largely made of bronze, they consist of animal figurines, pendants and jewelry.
Findings from the 7th-6th centuries BC, meanwhile, largely comprise of terracotta vessels and figurines of goddesses and animals. There’s even a small goddess statue made of gold.
Next are a collection of small marble statues created during the temple’s final phase, sometime between the 4th-2nd centuries BC. Interestingly, small figurines of Egyptian deities like Isis, Horus and Bes were discovered as well.
Many of the more noteworthy finds from the Temple of Artemis, however, are at the British Museum.
By far the most impressive items at the Ephesus Museum are the large Artemis statues carved in the distinctly Ephesian style.
In Greek mythology, Artemis was a virgin goddess who represented the wild and cyclical aspects of nature. She represented the moon and the stars and was the protector of wild animals.
But as mentioned above, the region was a prominent center of goddess worship since the Bronze Age, when primordial Mother Goddesses like Cybele were popular in Anatolia. These early native goddesses could perhaps even be traced back to the Neolithic settlement of Çatal Höyük.
Upon the Hellenization of the region, the native goddess worshipped at Ephesus came to be identified with the Greek Artemis. But Ephesian Artemis statues borrowed elements from much older images. What resulted was a much more abstract and symbolic image than the hyperrealistic Greek sculptures.
The oldest sculptures were carved of wood and decorated with jewelry, and scholars believe the later stone images were meant to emulate them.
One of the defining characteristics of the Ephesian Artemis is the group of ovoid shapes on her chest. They appear to be breasts, emphasizing the deity’s role as a fertility goddess (Some scholars believe, however, that they represented sacrificed bull testicles.)
Some statues depict her wearing a large mural crown. And given the goddess’s association with wild animals, her robe is completely adorned with carvings of lions, bulls, griffins, and goats.
There are also zodiac symbols around her neck, representing the natural cycles over which she presided.
Interestingly, her skin was painted black on some statues, possibly to represent infinity, the void and the vastness of the night sky (much like India’s Kali).
The Artemis statues on display at the museum were not found at the Temple of Artemis, but at the Prytaneum of Ephesus. They’re also Roman-era copies of a much older design. But we can imagine such images filling up the Temple of Artemis in ancient times.
While there’s not much to see at the Temple of Artemis today, the foundations reveal how big the temple once was. There also appear to have been multiple buildings.
Intriguingly, close to the site entrance is a 14th-century tomb built during the Beylik of Aydin period. Its occupant is unknown, but we do know that the dynasty used this area as a graveyard.
While it’s fairly close to the hill of Ayasuluk, which can clearly be seen from the temple area, one wonders if anyone was aware of the temple’s location in Ottoman times – or if they cared!
The Ephesus Museum
As mentioned above, many findings from the Temple of Artemis, along with the stunning Ephesian Artemis statues, are on display at the Ephesus Museum.
The museum, situated right in central Selçuk, is also home to plenty of other artifacts and sculptures discovered all throughout Ephesus.
Those visiting Ephesus should definitely take the time to visit the museum at some point. In addition to a plethora of artifacts, it’s also a great way to learn more about the ancient city’s history and culture.
Note that here you can buy a combo ticket for the museum, Ephesus and the Terrace Houses at Ephesus which require an additional ticket. While it will only save you about 10 TL, buying an advance ticket will let you hop the line at Ephesus the next morning.
One of the most popular spots in the region is Şirince, a scenic Greek town that maintains much of its original look. It’s an easy 15-minute bus ride from Selçuk’s central bus terminal.
But while Şirince is often hyped up as a must-visit destination, don’t set your expectations too high. Despite the town’s attractiveness, it’s become extremely touristy and has lost much of its authentic charm.
As with other Greek towns in Turkey, Greeks no longer live here. Most Greek Christians were forced out during the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s.
But the traditional Greek architecture and quaint cobblestone streets remain.
While the main attraction is said to be the town itself, there are a few landmarks to seek out if you get bored of looking at souvenir shops. One of them is St. John the Baptist Church.
Situated atop a hill, the 19th-century structure is no longer an active church. This is understandable considering the sudden disappearance of the Christian population. But locals have done a good job at preserving the building.
The main reason to visit the church, however, is for the views it offers of the town below (see picture above).
Another old church to seek out is known as Aziz Dimitrios. Located in the northern part of town, it’s a considerably smaller structure. Its highlight is its unique colorful woodcarvings above the altar.
Şirince is also full of cafes, and many visitors come here to try the local wine. The town is also known for things like olives, figs and peaches.
Şirince is becoming an increasingly popular place to stay, but its atmosphere has already become far too commercialized. While it is indeed worth a short visit, no more than an hour or two should be necessary.
BEYOND SELÇUK: Aside from Ephesus, Selçuk also serves as a base from which to visit other archaeological sites in the region. Tours for Didyma, Priene and Miletus commonly depart from here, while Klaros is another ancient Greek site to the northwest.
Another important site in the Selçuk region is the Virgin Mary’s House. As the name suggests, it’s believed to be the place where the Virgin Mary spent her final years. Situated about 5 km southwest of town, no public transport goes there.
While I didn’t visit, there’s said to be little to see. Despite its significance, the site probably won’t be of much interest to non-Christians.
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.