Elton John has performed there, St John the Baptist is believed to have preached there. Fittingly, my defining moment at Ephesus too was at the amphitheatre — as I sat on one of the lower steps gazing at the empty space all around. The amphitheatre was magnificent. In its time, it was capable of seating 24,000 people. I sat there alone, savouring the silence and magnitude of the arena.
In the distance, the highway snaked its way to the brown hills that lay further beyond. Just then, a large tour group walked in, a guide in the lead. ‘Italian’, I thought, judging by the cheerful loud voices and the purposeful hand gestures. I sighed, mentally saying goodbye to the sense of peace I had experienced at Ephesus so far.
A song and dance
Suddenly the group broke into song; they organised themselves into a semi-circle and began singing choir music. No mikes, no wires, just the voices of a dozen adults enjoying the acoustics. I walked further up and the voices followed me. A small crowd had gathered by then, drawn by the music, and we all sat in companionable silence at a site where gladiators had once fought bloody battles.
I hadn’t expected this. After the Sultanahmet area, Ephesus is supposed to be Turkey’s tourist hotspot. A friend in Istanbul even described to me in detail, how loud tour groups were herded by louder Japanese- and German-speaking guides. I approached Ephesus therefore, with visions of Babel floating in my head.
The theatre of war
There are many stories about the origins of Ephesus, known locally as Efes. One claims that it was founded by the Amazons, a clan of female warriors and named after ‘Ephos’, their queen. Historically too, Ephesus was the site of the temple of Artemis or Diana, the goddess of fertility often depicted as a huntress.
Built in 550 BC, the temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. My local guide, Sevan Nisanyan, the friendly owner of the little hill inn I was staying at, told me the story of its destruction. Invaders broke it down and used the pillars to support part of St John’s Basilica built just behind the temple.
A few centuries later, the Basilica was looted, and it is believed that few of the pillars now stand inside the Isabey mosque built between the two monuments. “It is all about recycling,” Nisanyan said.
It was a bright and sunny autumn morning when I reached the Artemis temple, or the lone defiant pillar which marks the centre of the area where the temple once existed. It was empty, but for a few locals offering to sell “genuine antique coins” at an unbelievable bargain price. And from where I stood, in front of the diagram showing the temple as it was in its days of glory, I could see the mosque just behind it and the Basilica on the low hill beyond. Recycling, sure, but some people may call it religion.
Behind the scenes
With a last look at the marble pillar, Nisanyan and I headed to Ephesus, just over 3 km away. Just down the road from the amphitheatre is the Brothel. For the directionally challenged, there is even a footprint (ancient, I was assured) engraved in the marble stone, pointing towards it. The breathless voice on my audio tour guide informed me that the women of the
Brothel were not just beautiful but highly intellectual and influential too. They enjoyed privileges not allowed to ordinary Ephesian woman, such as owning houses and voting in elections, and also had the right to choose their customers.
The Brothel sits right in front of what must be the most magnificent of the buildings inside Ephesus, the Celsus Library.
At one point, the library held between 12,000 to 15,000 scrolls and was rivalled only by the one at Alexandria. Ephesus is considered one of the largest and best preserved classical cities in the world, although it is understood that only 15 per cent of the site has been excavated till date.
I recently read in the news that a skeleton in Ephesus was identified as Cleopatra’s half-sister Arsinoe. It is believed that she was murdered by Cleopatra’s lover Mark Antony on her orders. My image of Cleopatra was that of a charming queen with a pretty face and prettier nose, formed entirely through early readings of the comic-book Asterix. And I find it difficult to reconcile that with the picture of a woman ruthless enough to eliminate any competition. Woman power, I guess, takes many forms.