If you’re planning a trip to southwestern Turkey, chances are you have Ephesus on your itinerary. Here, you can visit not just one of the world’s most prized archaeological treasures, but nearby attractions in the town of Selcuk such as the Basilica of St. John and the House of the Virgin Mary.
I hope these tips for visiting Ephesus and Selcuk will help prepare you for this epic journey through Greek, Roman and Christian history.
What to See in Ephesus
Ephesus was built by the Greeks in the 10th century BC then, at its peak, became the most important city during the Roman Empire second only to Rome in the 1st and 2nd century AD with a population of 33,000-56,000. This ancient city was also a significant centre of Christianity.
Think of Ephesus as one massive, spectacular, open-air museum. Its Greco-Roman ruins are among the largest, most well-preserved in the world. Catastrophically damaged by earthquakes and invasions throughout the centuries, the city has been painstakingly excavated and restored. If that isn’t remarkable enough, consider that Ephesus is even more vast than what has been uncovered — 80-85% of the city is still buried!
Some would say if there’s only one archaeological attraction you can visit in Turkey, this is it. You won’t be able to help but imagine yourself riding a chariot in a white toga among soaring pillars and ornate sculptures during the heyday of the Roman Empire.
Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Curetes Street was one of the main thoroughfares in Ephesus with artisan shops, statues and monuments on each side. Extravagantly lined with columns and paved with white marble, Curetes Street was used for ceremonies to honour the Greek Goddess Artemis, and opulent enough to be walked by the likes of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
Look for the marble wall where the city’s laws were engraved.
Prytaneion was not only the city hall of Ephesus from where senior officials governed, but the site of religious ceremonies, receptions, celebrations and banquets. Its history can be traced back to the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Beside it, an eternal flame burned at the Temple of Hestia, the goddess of fertility, symbolizing the heart of the city.
The Memmius monument was erected in the 1st century AD by Emperor Augustus to celebrate Roman liberation after its military victory over Pontic armies.
The first temple in Ephesus to be named after an emperor, the Temple of Domitian was once the tallest temple in the city even though Domitian was widely considered an inept, repressive autocrat.
Library of Celsus
If there’s an image of Ephesus already floating in your imagination, it’s the towering Library of Celsus, a two-story, architectural masterpiece decorated with massive Corinthian columns. Built in honour of the Roman senator, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, by his son between 114-117 AD, this structure also houses the remains of Celsus himself in a crypt under the library.
The building was the third largest and most exquisite library during ancient times and home to 12,000 hand-written scrolls but was eventually destroyed by a fire and a later earthquake. Thanks to archaeologists, however, the lavish facade of the building was reconstructed.
The statues seen in the niches of the facade (replicas of the originals that are now in Vienna) were carved as symbols of the four virtues of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and valour.
The Library of Celsus alone is worth the visit to Ephesus.
Temple of Hadrian
One of the best preserved structures in Ephesus, the Temple of Hadrian is recognizable by its beautiful facade that’s decorated with an ornately carved arch.
Across the temple is a group of buildings called the “Houses on the Hill” where the wealthiest and most powerful Ephesians lived.
This colossal forum was constructed during Hellenistic times in the 3rd century BC then expanded by the Romans in the 1st century AD. With three large stories, the Great Theatre has a seating capacity of 25,000! The Emperor’s box was located in the lower section and marble seats were reserved for VIP spectators. A hub for civic activity, the Great Theatre was used to host theological, political and philosophical events, as well as gladiator fights, plays and concerts (more recently, Elton John, Sting and Diana Ross performed here). Stand in the middle of the theatre and you’ll feel as small as a mouse.
It’s widely believed St. Paul preached biblical sermons in the theatre but some disagree with this account. What we do know, however, is that he found himself in a conflict with Artemis’ supporters which consequently barred him from entering the theatre, then landed him in prison.
Connecting the Library of Celsus with the Great Theatre, Marble Road was the primary artery of Ephesus and a processional route, also used by Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Known as the Sacred Way, this street was paved with large plates of marble. Only chariots travelled on the marble sections of the road, traces of which can still be seen.
While walking Marble Road, look for the world’s earliest recorded advertisement: a carving of a footprint, purse, woman, heart and library. What did it promote? The brothel (a.k.a. House of Love). If this piques your interest, you can find it at the intersection of Marble Road and Curetes Street.
Baths of Varius
Built in the 2nd century during Hellenistic times and further developed during the Roman and Byzantine periods, the Baths of Varius was a marble complex used for both bathing and socializing. Props to the Ephesians for their high standards of hygiene!
The complex covered a large area; what you see is just a small portion of it as excavations are not complete.
For an additional fee, you can get a glimpse into the daily life of wealthy Romans by exploring what used to be their homes. Decorated with well-preserved mosaics and protected by covering, the Terraced Houses aren’t just a history lesson, they can provide much-needed relief from the sun.
Tips for Visiting Ephesus:
- You can reach Ephesus by taking a one-hour flight from Istanbul to Izmir, then a 1-1.5 hour train to Selcuk.
- To avoid missing out on some of the top sites, research and plan your route in advance and give yourself at least 2 hours to explore.
- Plan your visit in the early morning or mid-afternoon to avoid the heat and crowds. Ephesus is near the Mediterranean Sea and attracts cruise-ship tourists on day trips.
- The sun has no mercy, especially during the summer. Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses. Water is sold inside at a premium so it would be wise to bring some of your own.
- Be prepared for a lot of walking on uneven ground. Leave the flip-flops in your hotel room and wear comfortable shoes.
What to See in Selcuk
Selcuk is the small, quiet town in Izmir province that serves as the gateway to Ephesus, making it an ideal location for an overnight stay.
Apart from its convenience, Selcuk a worthy destination in itself. Quaint, simple and easily explored by foot, you can weave through the cobblestone streets while soaking in the laid-back atmosphere, visiting the town’s attractions and getting a taste of delicious Turkish fare.
Dominating the Selcuk skyline is Ayasuluk Castle, a fortress built atop Ayasuluk Hill during the Byzantine era to guard the Basilica of St. John, and given a facelift by the Ottomans (marked by the Turkish flag at the top of the building). There’s little to see inside but the hilltop views from the castle are stunning, particularly at sunset.
Tip for Visiting Ayasuluk Castle:
- Combine your visit with other nearby sites. Within minutes from the castle, you can reach the Basilica of St. John (see below) and the tranquil Isa Bey Mosque which is an impressive example of Anatolian beylik architecture.
- Also nearby is the Temple of Artemis. Just don’t expect grandiosity — after a Gothic invasion in 401 AD, a single column is all that’s left of what used to be the largest temple in the world.
Basilica of St. John
Referenced in the New Testament and believed to be the burial site of John the Apostle, the Basilica of St. John holds deep significance in Christianity.
He reportedly spent his last years here, visiting Ephesus twice to conduct Christian sermons, once with the Virgin Mary. On his second visit, he wrote his gospel on the hill. His tomb is located under the basilica, marked by a marble plate.
Tip for Visiting the Basilica of St. John:
If you’re approached by a man trying to sell you an “ancient coin”, say no. Not real.
House of the Virgin Mary
Legend has it that the Apostle John took care of the dying Virgin Mary in Selcuk after the crucifixion of Jesus and laid her to rest in this stone cottage among the green hills. Today, the House of the Virgin Mary is a chapel and sees hundreds of tourists, as well as pilgrims of both the Christian and Muslim faiths, daily. Visitors leave prayer offerings by tying tissue to the wishing wall, and drink from the nearby water fountain that’s believed to have healing properties.
Tips for Visiting the House of the Virgin Mary:
- Feeling generous? You can leave a donation to help maintain the chapel.
- Put your camera away before entering — photography is not permitted inside.
Selcuk is an agricultural town. Consider visiting the Saturday farmer’s market or the smaller market on Wednesdays to experience local life, and sample local produce, nuts and cheeses.
Tip for Visiting the Farmer’s Markets:
Haggling is common so remember to hone your negotiation skills!
Looking to book accommodations in Selcuk? Check hotel options at Booking.com here.
A Lesson in Ancient History You Won’t Forget
With an impressive concentration of ancient sites within one geographic area, you won’t find a shortage of things to do in Ephesus and Selcuk. Great civilizations will come alive in all their glory.
Also incredible is the fact that excavations and restoration work have yet to be completed at some of these sites. Imagine what other archaeological treasures will be uncovered in the coming years and decades!
Do you have tips for visiting Ephesus and Selcuk? Leave them in the comments below.
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