Ephesus in the First century

Curetes Street – one of the 3 main streets of Ephesus between The Hercules Gate and the Library of Celus. The street was lined with shops and homes for the rich. Under the houses were colonnaded galleries which protected shoppers from the sun.

Its importance

Ephesus was the most important city in Western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in New Testament times. In fact, it was called ’the mother city’ of Asia. It had an estimated population of around 200,000 – 250,000, which was huge for those days, and it rivalled Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria and even Rome itself. Its wealth and importance came from its location. It was situated on an inland harbour linked by a canal to the River Cayster which flowed into the Aegean Sea; and it was at the crossroads of major trade routes. So it was an extremely important commercial centre-in fact, the largest trading centre in Asia Minor, attracting people from all over the world. Strabo, the Greek philosopher, historian and geographer, called it ‘the greatest emporium in the province of Asia Minor’.  So when Paul chose to plant a church here, he was choosing the key city in the region, from which he planned for the new church to reach out.

Countryside surrounding Ephesus

Its buildings

As befitted a leading regional city, Ephesus had many fine buildings, as its ruins still testify to today. It had at least two public squares or ‘agoras’, linked by Curetes Street with its monuments to leading citizens. One agora, designated for civic use, had a stoa, basilica and town hall; the other was designated for commercial use. The city had gymnasiums, theatres (one of them seating 25,000), a triumphal arch and a fabulous library (though this was only built after New Testament times). It had won the right to house the Temple of the Divine Julius (Caesar) and the goddess Roma, and had a huge temple to the Emperor Domitian (AD81-96). It had public baths and latrines, and many upper-class homes with beautiful frescoes. But the city’s greatest claim to fame didn’t lie in the realm of business or economics, but religion.

The Library of Celsus (left) and the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates (right). The Library was built by Gaius Julius Aquila to honour his father Julius Celsus Polemaenus, Governor General of the Roman province of Asia in 135 AD. It was one of the largest libraries of the ancient world with over 12,000 scrolls.  The Gate was built by two slaves to honour the Emperor Augustus who freed them. It was used as the south gate of the Commercial Agora

The temple of Artemis

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). This solitary pillar is all that remains of the once fabulous Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the world. It had been 115 metres long and 55 metres wide, with a double row of columns on each long side and a triple row on each short side – 127 columns in all, each measuring 1.2 metres diameter and 19 metres tall.

The most important structure in Ephesus was a major temple to the Greek goddess Artemis (known in Rome as Diana), which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and which people came from far and wide to see.  It was 425 feet (130m) long and 220 feet (67m) wide, with white marble columns 62 feet (19m) high and just 4 feet (1.2m) apart. The temple was founded when her image-probably a meteorite-’fell from heaven’ (Acts 19:35). Initially this was marked with an idol carved from an oak tree, which a small village grew up around. But as Artemis became more and more popular, the site was marked with increasingly bigger temples dedicated to her, with her image standing in the inner sanctuary. Ephesus became known as ‘the guardian of the Temple of the great Artemis and her image which fell from heaven.’ It was a sacred site for over 1200 years.

Reconstruction model of Temple of Artemis, Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: Zee Prime at cs.wikipedia

The cult of Artemis

In Greek and Roman mythology Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. She was the goddess of the hunt and wild animals, as well as the goddess of women. She protected women in childbirth, protected young girls, especially their virginity, and brought relief to women in need. The Greek travel writer Pausanias said that she was the most worshipped goddess in private devotions in the Mediterranean world. Statues of Artemis had a stiff, long body with her legs bound (rather like an Egyptian mummy), and with many breasts, reflecting the fact that Artemis worship was a fertility religion, particularly as it was practised at Ephesus. She wore a necklace of acorns and a high crown, often topped with the turrets of the city of Ephesus. Her skirt was decorated with rows of animals, symbolic of her fertility. A eunuch priest served Artemis, assisted by virgin priestesses. This heavily-women-dominated religion may be part of the reason why Paul insists so much on women keeping their proper place in the church, and on men rising up to play their proper role in worship (1 Timothy 2:8-15). (Remember that, by the time Paul write to Timothy, Timothy was leading the church in Ephesus.)

As a fertility goddess, ritual prostitution played an important part in the worship of Artemis. So, from a Christian point of view, the temple was an exceedingly immoral.  Worship also included many secret rituals or ‘mysteries’, portraying birth and death-hence Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’ in his letter (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3, 4, 6, 9; 5:32; 6:19). The difference was that whereas their ‘mystery’ was hidden and secret, revealed only to the special few, Paul says that God’s ‘mystery’ has now been made fully known in Jesus-to everyone!

Religion and economics

But the temple wasn’t just about religion; it was also about business–big business! There was a guild of silversmiths who made little silver shrines and copies of the stone that fell from heaven. Clearly they made a good living out of it; because when Paul began to preach about Jesus and people started responding to the gospel, they were afraid that it might affect business and so stirred up a riot (Acts 19:23-41).

But Artemis affected more than the livelihood of a guild of silversmiths. She affected the whole of the city’s life. In fact, her temple served as the city’s main bank, and thousands of temple servants were entrusted with looking after the fortunes that people entrusted to them. Artemis’ image was also on their coins, and festivals and games held in her honour. So to challenge Artemis, like Paul did, was to challenge the whole social and economic order. But that is what the gospel is meant to do!

Ephesus and the church

Paul saw Ephesus as such a key city that he spent three years there, with the result that ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’ (Acts 19:10, 26). He established Ephesus as his regional apostolic base, and it became a major centre of the Christian faith. Sadly, it seemed to sit back on its laurels eventually, and the first love and passion of the church had waned by the late first century AD (Revelation 2:1-7).

The Church of the Virgin Mary According to church tradition (confirmed at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431) Mary, the mother of Jesus, spent her later years in Ephesus, under the care of John to whom Jesus had entrusted her (John 19:25-27). The site of this church was the first ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Early church tradition links John the Apostle with Ephesus and it is said that he spent his final years here. When he wrote Revelation, he was in exile on Patmos (Revelation 1:9), which was a tiny island some 50 miles south-west of Ephesus, so it is entirely possible. According to other early church traditions, Jesus’ mother Mary also ended up here, having been entrusted to John’s care by Jesus (John 19:25-27).

Ruins of the Basilica of Saint John who spent three years in Ephesus, accompanied by Mary. Tradition says he wrote his gospel here. Excavations show that if the Basilica were reconstructed it would be the seventh largest cathedral in the world.

Several church councils were held here in the first five centuries AD, including the important Council of Ephesus of AD 431. But as the River Cayster silted up, Ephesus ceased to be a port and its importance diminished. Several earthquakes led to the city being gradually abandoned, and its stones were gradually taken away for buildings elsewhere, leaving only the ruins that are there today. It seems Artemis wasn’t so great after all!

Recommended book

Schneider, Eugenia Equini  (2010) Ephesus and Pergamon – Past and Present, Hollandaca, ISBN-13: 978-8881622436

a good book that includes artists’ impressions showing what the original structures may have looked like.


Mike Beaumont (April 2017)

All photographs used in this article are copyright © Mike Beaumont, unless otherwise stated. No photograph attributed to Mike Beaumont may be used in any written or electronic publication without prior written permission.

Appendix – More Photos

View from the top of The Great Theatre with Arcadian Street running away from it. The Theatre’s 66 rows of stone seats could accommodate 25,000 spectators. It was destoyed by an earthquake in 4th century BC and only part of it repaired.
Through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates (left) lay the Agora or commercial market. There were two other large gates into it. Built in the third century BC, it was in the form of a square, each side 110 metres long, lined with columns (see next photo). The north side was left open, but the other three sides were surrounded by a portico with two rows of shops in it. In the centre of the Agora was a fountain and a water clock.

The latrines – the public toilets of Ephesus, part of the Scolastica Baths. The gutter in from of the benches had flowing water for cleaning yourself with. And yes- the toilets were open to one another just like this!
The Greeks got there before Lego!
The Temple of Domitian – constructed on the second floor of a terrace with shops and warehouses underneath and consisting of 13 columns on its long sides by 8 columns on its short sides. More recent research suggests that, despite its name, it was in fact constructed for the Emperor Titus.
Trajan’s Fountain – built on the north side of Curetes Street and dedicated to the Emperor Trajan. A huge statue of Trajan was erected over the pool, with water flowing from the pedestal of his statue to the fountain.
Bull’s head decoration
The Basilica – a 160 metre long arcade used for commerce and as the stock exchange. The ionic columns, adorned with bulls heads, divided the arcade into three naves. It was constructed during the reign of the Emperor Augusts.
Wherever sailors could be found, so could The Brothel. This building, located at the corner of Curetes Street and Marble Street, was on two floors. The ground floor housed the reception area, salon and baths. Everyone had to wash their hands and feet before entering the building. The upper floor housed the rooms the prostitutes used. The salon was adorned with statues of Aphrodite, to whom the house was dedicated.
A view of The Great Theatre from Arcadian Street, showing how the theatre dominated the city.
Arcadian Street ran between the harbour on the Oronotes River (now dried up) and the Great Theatre. The street was 530 metres long and 11 metres wide, lined with shops and galleries on both sides. Fifty streetlights lit it up at night (unusual for those days). At the port end of the street were public baths, build in AD 2. AT 160 metres wide, 170 metres long and 28 metres high, the baths were one of the biggest buildings in Ephesus, reflecting how bust the port was. Sailors were not a lowed to enter the city until they had used the baths!