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Photo of me with the Library of Celsus in Ephesus
A wonder on every corner of Ephesus

Posted on 27 April 2013, 2:41

Seven churches: Intro Pergamum Thyatira Smyrna Laodicea Philadelphia Sardis Ephesus Patmos

My sets of pics for this post: Basilica of St John, Ephesus city

After a lifetime of familiarity with the Bible, it’s a strange thing to see biblical names on a modern road sign. But that’s what I’m seeing now as I look out the car window: a blue sign above a roundabout tells us that Efes (Ephesus) is 3km to the right, just a chariot dash.

Ephesus was one of the great cities of the ancient world, famous in its time, but more than that, it’s one the ‘ians’ and therefore famous ever since and for ever. Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians… these ‘ians’ of 1,000 indifferently read lessons in church have made me very curious about visiting this city.

There are two letters to the Ephesians, of course: the long one which comes after Galatians, and the shorter one by John in his Apocalypse.

We started at the (ruined, naturally) 6th century basilica of St John in nearby Selçuk, which is an inspired choice as from the west end of the church you get an angel’s eye view of the geography of this place: the surrounding hills, the broad, fertile valley between them which ends in the distant sea, the small hill on the left behind which Ephesus is hidden.

By tradition, the church is the final resting place of St John and a white marble slab laid on the floor of the chancel, guarded by four columns, is the modern memorial of that.

In the church is an ancient stone baptistery which any Baptist church would be proud to have. It’s set in the floor with steps leading down one side into a small, circular pool, and then steps up the other side. Next to it is a square slot cut into the marble floor which archaeologists think was once filled with oil for anointing the baptized Christians.

Since it’s such an old baptistery I wonder if they followed the tradition of the early church by giving the newly-baptized milk and honey as they ascended from the pool: a sign of passing through the waters of Jordan and entering the promised land.

By the time we reached Ephesus itself, the day was hot and the tourists were out in large numbers. We worked our way down from the top of the site. Once you’re through the turnstiles, you’re basically following the main street down through the old town, with education, entertainment and distraction along the way.

Within a couple of hundred metres in a variety of temples, statues and carvings we met Hermes with his winged shoes, Tyche the goddess of luck, Hercules out walking a lion and the hissing hairstyle of Medusa. We saw the numerous cats of Ephesus lounging on mosaic floors or draped over column capitals. We paused at the famous bogs of Ephesus, where wealthy men sat on a marble shelf punctuated by holes and a channel of running water at their feet served in place of loo roll.

We spent a while at the Library of Celsus, which surely boasts one of the most handsome facades of all classical architecture. Looking at the way the lintels on the columns swap places between the first and second storeys, I wondered if it had inspired MC Escher in his drawings of impossible buildings.

The library opened for reading in AD 100-ish and issued its last book just 170 years later when it was demolished by an earthquake. Its columns were raised again in the 1970s. Four statues stand beside the doors welcoming readers, and I loved seeing Sophia and Episteme (Wisdom and Knowledge) among them. The whole building reads like a homage to the beauty and improvement of reading.

It’s easy to get classical overload here: the baths, the market, the fountains, the theatre, the advert for the bordello just up the street carved into the pavement. The house where Anthony and Cleopatra used to meet up. After a while your imagination collapses with the effort of trying to take in the idea that these things happened here, and that if you’d been here at the right time you’d have seen them happen before your eyes.

Visiting Ephesus wasn’t a spiritual experience for me. Instead it was merely amazing, with a new wonder around every street corner.

I think this place is powerful in opening you up to the classical and pagan context for early Christianity. It helps you understand why the faith of the early Christians was the shape it was. Somehow, seeing the hills John, Paul and the other first believers saw, and walking in their streets under the heat of the Asia Minor sun, gets you under the skin of the letters to the seven churches and the episodes in the book of Acts.

Even though I don’t know it for sure yet, I think visiting these churches will add a lot of width (and maybe even depth) when I read the texts of the New Testament.

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Thanks, Pauline. I’ve loved visiting all the sites and trying to get my brain around the idea that these things which I’ve thought about all my life happened here! It’s very good for you, I think, to get a new angle on it all. Hope your trip to Corinth does that sort of thing for you.

Simon, Wed 1 May, 15:13

Sounds like it would be better to go there over the Christmas holiday than Easter or summer! I hate the heat. That said, I like travel to new places….

K M Masser, Sat 27 Apr, 15:35

Love reading this Simon. Having just returned from Israel I know exactly how you feel. It is almost awe inspiring to see these places and I am sure you will appreciate it more when you return home. Will be visiting Corinth later this year so you have inspired me.

Pauline Randall, Sat 27 Apr, 13:41

I’m sure that’s true, Sue. It’ll certainly be hard to feel much sympathy for St John exiled on Patmos after discovering what a lovely place it is.

Simon, Sat 27 Apr, 11:28

Reading these nightly epistles has been a treat Si. I can imagine that after this, reading the NT letters will never be the same again x

Sue Barrow, Sat 27 Apr, 05:17

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