Let’s back to ancient times, about 1900 years ago. This is the time of the Book of Revelation- one of the most famous and mysterious books in human history. A part of its prophecy consists of seven messages to the Seven Churches of Asia. One of them is the church of Ephesus, in the ancient city with the same name, located in Western Turkey. So, let’s visit and explore this city and its secrets!
But before diving into the ruins of Ephesus and its history, let’s first take a look at a very special book- the Book of Revelation! Because Ephesus is not just one of the many other ancient cities, but there is something unique, and the answer is in this book.
Table of Contents
The Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible, known as “Apocalypse”. While the word “apocalypse” today is considered “the end of the world” (by horrible disasters), its original meaning is just “revelation”- a prophecy for the future. And yes, it speaks about the end of this world, but also about the beginning of a new, perfect world.
This book is structured as a complex prophecy in several parts, given to John the Apostle around 95 AD, while he was exiled to Patmos Island in Greece. This prophecy reveals secrets for the future (from John’s point of view)- from the 1st century AD to eternity. It starts with an introduction where Jesus Christ reveals to John. What follows next is the first main part of the Book of Revelation- the messages to the Seven Churches of Asia.
These churches were Christian fellowships established consequently in seven cities in the Roman province of Asia (not the whole continent of Asia!), in today’s Western Turkey. They were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
And while the messages to them consist of certain instructions, promises from God, sin exposures, and encouragements, they are at the same time prophecies for Christianity in the following centuries, as a part of the whole Apocalypse.
This makes Ephesus- the city of the first one of the Seven Churches a special and unique place. So, let’s take a look at the message to the church of Ephesus!
The message to the Church of Ephesus
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of Him Who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
As you can see, this text raises a lot of questions: about the deeds of the Christians in Ephesus at first and 40 years later, about the Nicolaitans (who are they), and more. And of course, what does all of this mean? Let’s try to find answers, but to do it, let’s first start with another obvious question: Where is Ephesus?
Where is Ephesus
The ancient city of Ephesus is located south of İzmir, near the famous resort city of Kuşadası and the town of Selçuk. Here, the river Küçük Menderes flows into the Aegean Sea, passing through a small flat plain that once has been a sea bay, surrounded by hills and mountains. Today, this river reaches the sea at one of the longest sand beaches in Turkey- Pamucak Beach.
And here, at the edge of the plain, in a valley between two of the surrounding hills, at its southern side, you can find the ruins of the gorgeous ancient city of Ephesus. It is about 2 km long and 100-200 m narrow. The city has been abandoned centuries ago, and today the nearest human settlement is the town of Selçuk, about 3-4 km northeast of Ephesus. Some people consider Selçuk as the “child of Ephesus”, but in fact, this is a new, different town, inhabited by different people.
However, once Ephesus was a living city, one of the largest in the Roman Empire, thriving and full of life. And there was a Christian society living in this city that was chosen by God to be a part of the Apocalypse. Why and how? Let’s dive further into the past, to discover how the city of Ephesus was established and what is its history before the Book of Revelation.
The ancient history of Ephesus
To make it simpler, let’s generalize the ancient history of Ephesus.
Bronze Age (unknown times- until 13th century BC)
The earliest traces of humans around what later was known as “Ephesus” date from several thousand years ago. And around the 16-17th centuries BC, a kingdom called Arzawa was established in this region. Its capital was Apasa. And since the name “Apasa” is quite similar to “Ephesus”, many scholars consider that this was the earliest version of the city. Some archaeological findings confirm this hypothesis.
In the next centuries, the Achaian Greeks started settling in the area until the end of the 13th century. However, this process ended with the so-called Bronze Age Collapse, characterized by wars and destruction. As a result, Apasa was destroyed.
Dark Ages and Greek Migrations period (12th century BC to 650 BC)
After the destruction of Apasa, the area remained devastated for 1-2 centuries, and only local Carian and Lelegian tribes inhabited it in scattered villages. Then, in the 10th century BC, a prince from Athens named Androklos came here and re-established the city, now called Ephesus (but in a different location than where are today’s ruins- about 2 km northeast).
He led Ionian Greeks and he was one of the founders of the Ionian League (a league of cities on the Aegean coast of Minor Asia). He also built the Temple of Artemis which became one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
Archaic Period (650 to 547 BC)
Ephesus was destroyed again by the Cimmerians in 650 BC, but later these were driven out and the city was restored. And for the next 90 years, the city was an independent state ruled first by tyrants, then by councils.
In 560 BC, Ephesus was conquered by the Lydian Kingdom, but the invaders didn’t destroy it. On contrary, the Lydian king Croesus respected the locals and even helped them rebuild the Temple of Artemis. However, only 13 years later, the city was conquered by the Persian Empire.
Classical Period (547 to 334 BC)
Most of the time during this period, Ephesus remained independent from Persia, a city-state that was part of the Greek Delian League. The Persian Achaemenid kings ruled it only from 547 to 499 BC, when they were driven out in the Ionian Revolt. After that, the city prospered and became a quite modern metropolis.
In 356 BC, a lunatic called Herostratus burned and destroyed the Temple of Artemis. But it was used as a reason for the locals to rebuild a new one, larger than the previous.
Hellenistic Period (334 to 133 BC)
The army of Alexander conquered the area around Ephesus in 334 BC. After Alexander’s death, the Macedonian empire entered into the Wars of Diadochi era, when it gradually disintegrated into several smaller kingdoms. At first, Ephesus was under the rule of Lysimachus.
At that time, the river Küçük Menderes changed its course, creating marshes full of malaria, so around 290 BC, Lysimachus moved the city to the present location. In 281 BC, Lysimachus was defeated by the Seleucids and Ephesus became a part of the Seleucid Empire until 263 BC.
Then, the other Hellenistic kingdom- the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt conquered this area and ruled it from 263 to 197 BC. After that, the Seleucids regained it again, but for only 7 years.
Finally, in 190 BC, Ephesus became a part of the Kingdom of Pergamon, under the power of the Attalid Dynasty. This period lasted until 133 BC when the Attalids left their kingdom to the Romans
Early (Classical) Roman Period (133 BC – 314 AD)
From 133 to 27 BC, Ephesus was a part of the Roman Republic. However, this period wasn’t peaceful all the time. Between 88 and 86 BC, the city was involved in the war between Rome and the king of Pont Mithridates VI Eupator, and later- in the conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian Augustus.
And the real Golden Age of Ephesus began when Rome became an empire. The city was made the capital of Asia Province, many buildings were erected and Ephesus became “the second after Rome”. Most of the main sights that can be seen today- the Theater, the Celsus Library, the two Agoras, the Odeon, and the terraced houses, were built during that period.
Ephesus in the 1st century AD and the creation of its church
And one day, in this rich, prosperous, and famous city, a group of followers of Jesus Christ arrived from continental Greece. It was about 50 AD. They were led by Paul the Apostle.
At that time, a significant Jewish minority lived in Ephesus (as in many other cities in the region). The local Jews had their own synagogue. And when Paul and his people arrived in Ephesus, they stayed for a few days, and Paul visited the Jewish synagogue. He was welcomed, but he had to leave for Jerusalem.
About a year or two later, another follower of Jesus called Apollo arrived in Ephesus and shared the Gospel, then left for Corinth. Then, Paul arrived in Ephesus again and found twelve new believers who have become Christians by the teaching of Apollo (Paul had to correct some details of Apollo’s teaching).
But this time, Paul remained in Ephesus for two years- from 52 to 54 AD. For three months he preached in the Jewish synagogue, then moved to the school of a local named Tyrannus. Paul’s work was successful, and thousands of locals believed in Jesus, not only from Ephesus but from the whole province of Asia. Thus, the Church of Ephesus was born.
At the end of Paul’s stay in Ephesus, unrest began concerning the business with the statues of Artemis. Because the new Christians abandoned the cult of Artemis, this business began declining, and some businessmen led by Demetrius raised a mutiny against Paul and the followers of Jesus. The main scene of the mutiny was in the Grand Theater (one of the main sights in Ephesus), but it was eased by the local Roman authorities.
The first Christians in Ephesus and their “first deeds”
After that, Paul left Ephesus. What remained after him was a dedicated congregation of Christians (they didn’t have church buildings but just met at their homes), well-organized with leaders, prophets, teachers, deacons, and other church positions (in fact, every one had his own position and role in the church).
When Paul passed for the third time by Ephesus (around 56 AD), he didn’t visit the city, but met with the local leaders in the nearby Miletus and encourage them by giving some important guidelines. Later (while he was in prison), Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Ephesus which has become a part of the Bible- the Epistle of Ephesians. From this letter, we have information about their life and their first deeds.
This congregation was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (Greeks and Romans) who became together as one. They were eager to work for the Kingdom of God, and they were strong and patient during difficult times.
The false apostles
From the Epistle of Ephesians, we see that Paul prayed and encourage them to grow in wisdom and knowledge. We don’t read about some serious persecutions against them (as in many of the other cities), but we read about people that called themselves “apostles” who came to visit them and tried to lead them. And the Christians in Ephesus, with their wisdom, successfully identified and denounced them.
This was an early heresy, created by a man called Nicolaus (probably a former Christian). The goal of its main teaching is to provide a way for Christians to avoid the persecutions and rejections from society by “accepting” the sins, such as idolatry, adultery, and more, thus compromising the whole doctrine of the Bible.
The Nicolaitan heresy was widely spread in the second half of the 1st century, mainly in Minor Asia. But it was not successful in Ephesus- the local Christians rejected it, and as we read in the Book of Revelation, Jesus commends them.
40 years later- the retreat from the “first love”
Meanwhile, many things changed in the Roman Empire. The Jews in Israel revolted against Rome but their revolt was suppressed and Jerusalem (with its Temple) was destroyed. The first more serious persecutions against the Christians began- with the emperor Nero, and then by emperor Domitian.
Although we don’t read about any severe persecutions against the Christians in Ephesus- at least not more severe than in some other cities in the Roman Empire, there were such, especially when Emperor Domitian raised himself as a “god” and built his own temple for emperor cult worship in the city.
As we know, John the Apostle worked in Ephesus, and the persecution due to the rejection of the Christians to worship the emperor was the reason why John was exiled to Patmos Island.
But we read that the activities of the followers of Jesus in this city were changed. Around 95 AD, a whole new generation grew in the Church of Ephesus, and Jesus says that they lost their first love. They were excellent, full of wisdom, with perfect organization, hardworking, and enduring all the persecutions and other challenges in the pagan world where they lived.
However, they turned all of this into a duty. They stopped doing it because they love Jesus, but just for their own self-bringing to the fore.
And Jesus told them that if they don’t repent from this, they would lose the light that has been given them in this dark world. They would lose their spirit power, wisdom, and influence. In other words, they would become useless and all their suffering would be in vain.
The Tree of Life
Ephesus was the city of Artemis- the center of the cult of Artemis in the ancient world. Remember, the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world! Artemis was the goddess of fertility.
If you look at her image, you can see a statue of a woman with many breasts giving fertility type of blessings to everybody. That was what brought thousands of pilgrims from all over the known world to the high-class city of Ephesus- not only the wealth of being one of the major trade ports but also to worship Artemis.
And in front of the temple, there was a big tree that symbolized fertility- a tree planted in honor of Artemis. It was a very important symbol for the worshippers, but Christians would not participate in this worship.
That’s why Jesus tells them in the message that if they win all the challenges, they will enjoy a bigger and better Tree- the Tree of Life that gives more than Artemis and her tree. And the Tree of Life stays forever in the Paradise of God.
So, the message of Jesus to the church of Ephesus is also a prophecy for all other churches and Christians in the following centuries that would be in a similar situation like the Christians in Ephesus- as a part of the larger prophecy, named The Book of Revelation.
The later history of Ephesus
So, what happened after the time of John and the Revelation? What happened with the city and the church of Ephesus? Did they withstand? Did they repent and back to their first love?
This situation remained until 263 AD when the Goths invaded the area and destroyed the Temple of Artemis. After that, Ephesus gradually started declining.
Byzantine Age (314-1304 AD)
The persecutions against Christians proceeded until 314 when Emperor Constantine I The Great stopped them, and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Many things changed at that time.
First, the empire was gradually divided into Western and Eastern, and this division was completed in 395. Concerning the church of Ephesus, it changed too- from a living congregation of believers, it gradually turned into a state religious institution.
In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I built the Basilica of St. John. At the same time, the former pagan temples remained in ruins. Küçük Menderes River gradually changed its course and the seacoast moved about 6 km far from the city. As a result, the harbor was closed and Ephesus lost its importance as a sea trade city. The decline was further accelerated by the wars with the Sasanid Persia and the Arabs in 655, 700, and 715.
By 1090, Ephesus was already just a small village amidst ruins. It was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, then again by the Byzantines, and temporarily by the Crusaders. Another village, called Ayasalouk appeared on the other side of the former Temple of Artemis.
Pre-Ottoman Period (1304-1390)
The villages of Ephesus and Ayasalouk were conquered by the Turks. Most of their inhabitants were massacred, and the church of Ephesus almost seized to exist. The Turks developed a new harbor nearby and this caused a temporary revival of Ayasalouk village, but not to Ephesus. Later, Ayasalouk was renamed Ayasulug, and this is the present-day town of Selçuk.
Ottoman Period (1390-1923)
In this period, around the middle of the 15th century, Ephesus was completely abandoned. Only silent ruins remained, gradually covered by thorns and bush. As for Ayasulug- this village was turned into a Turkish Muslim town with mosques, Turkish baths, caravanserais, and a castle.
Modern period (1923 until today)
Ephesus remained in oblivion until recent times when it drew the attention of archaeologists and the Turkish government. Its ruins were cleaned and the dead city was turned into a tourist attraction as it is today.
The church of Ephesus disappeared for many centuries, but there is some information that there are some Turkish Christians in Selçuk- probably they can revive it?
Our trip to Ephesus
So, all of this was the reason why we included Ephesus in our Western Turkey itinerary. We traveled by car on a route from Bulgaria, crossed into Asia at Çanakkale with the ancient Troy, and proceeded along the Aegean coast of the country. First, we visited Pergamum and Smyrna, and Ephesus was the third one from the Seven Churches of Asia on our route.
The tourist sites of Ephesus
The main tourist site itself includes the ancient city and several other smaller sites, thematically connected to the city- the Temple of Artemis, the Seven Sleepers, and the House of Virgin Mary. In addition, there are some points of interest in the town of Selçuk: the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. John, Selçuk Castle, and some other minor places.
The ancient city of Ephesus
Due to its shape, the ancient city of Ephesus has two entrances. They are well-accessed by roads, and there are parking lots in front of them. So, you can enter from one of the entrances and exit from the other. Or, you can back to the entrance you entered.
The distance between the two entrances is about 2 km. And the whole route inside follows the main ancient street of Ephesus that is now extended to the entrances. If you enter from the lower entrance, you will pass by the Grand Ancient Theater, then by the Lower Agora in a square shape, designed mainly for trade and market activities, and then, through the gate of Augustus, you will reach the Library of Celsus- one of the most iconic landmarks of Ephesus.
From there, the ancient street turns left and gradually ascends by more points of interest- mainly ruins of temples for pagan gods and the Emperor cult. On your right side, you will see a covered area. This is the complex of the terraced houses. Nearby you will also see the Temple of Hadrian.
Finally, you will reach the Upper Agora, designed mostly for state business. On its left side is the Odeon- the cultural center of Ephesus- a small theater for theatrical plays. Here is the upper exit of the tourist site.
Entrance fee: 200 TL. Additional fee for the terraced houses (not included in the main ticket): 60 TL.
Working hours: from 8:00 to 20:00 (summer) or 18:00 (winter)
If you come by car, there is a parking fee in the parking lots- 20 TL. Some people offer a carriage to take you to the other entrance, from where you can back to the first entrance through the ancient city- usually for 200 TL. We avoided it- we just walked from the upper to the lower entrance and then back to our car at the upper entrance.
Other points of interest nearby
Temple of Artemis
This place is located about 2 km northeast of the ancient city of Ephesus. There is the main road connecting Selçuk with Pamucak Beach, and the Temple of Artemis is on its north side. Today, there is only one pillar remaining from the temple, as well as some scattered ruins around it. Entrance fee: free.
House of Virgin Mary
It is an old building, located about 5 km south of the upper entrance of Ephesus. The building is discovered in the 19th century and is considered the place where Mary, the mother of Jesus spent the last years of her life. Whether it is true or not, remains unclear, and the building can be just an ancient church built by locals in this place. Nevertheless, it is accepted by the Catholic Church as the right place, and many pilgrims from all over the world come to visit it. Entrance fee: 120 TL
This is a grotto, located east of Ephesus (the road connecting the upper and the lower entrances of Ephesus passes by this place). It is related to a Medieval legend about a group of Christians that hid here during the persecutions in 260 AD and slept for 300 years. Entrance: free.
The Archaeological Museum of Ephesus
This museum is located in the town of Selçuk. It exhibits a lot of artifacts, related to the history of Ephesus and the area around it. Worth visiting if you want more archaeological knowledge about the place. Entrance fee: 30 TL
Basilica of St. John
It is constructed by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD and is dedicated to John the Apostle. Now it is located in the town of Selçuk and is another archaeological site related to Ephesus. Entrance fee: 10 TL.
This is a fortress that dates from Byzantine times but later has been remodeled into its current shape and image by the Turks. Today, it stands magnificently on a hill near the town of Selçuk. There are ruins of an old mosque, a church, and other ruins. Entrance fee: 15 TL which includes visiting the Basilica.
In addition, you can walk around the streets of Selçuk, exploring the local shops, markets, and some minor places of interest in the town.
How to reach Ephesus
The best way to reach Ephesus is by car. You would have the freedom to arrive there whenever you want. Ephesus is well-connected to the main roads along the Aegean coast of Turkey, as well as the big cities like İzmir, Istanbul, Turkey, and Antalya.
When you approach Ephesus, you can choose which entrance you would like to enter, so you can park your car there and start exploring the ancient city. Also, by car, you can easily visit the other neighboring points of interest.
Other ways of transportation
If you don’t travel by car, you have other options to reach Ephesus:
- By air: The nearest airport is Adnan Menderes Airport in İzmir. From there, you can take the IZBAN fast train to Selçuk (this is its last station). And from Selçuk, you can take a minibus (dolmus) or taxi to the lower entrance of Ephesus.
- There are also buses from İzmir (Central Bus Station) or from Kuşadası to Selçuk. Again, once you reach Selçuk, you can go to Ephesus as described above.
There are no places to sleep in and around the ancient city of Ephesus. So, if you want to spend the night in the area, you have to look for a hotel, a guesthouse, or an Airbnb property in the nearby towns- Selçuk, Kuşadası, or some smaller villages and coastal resorts. And because this is a touristy area, you can find a lot of options.
You can find a lot of hotels in Selçuk and Kuşadası. They are a bit expensive, especially in Kuşadası (although there are more choices in Kuşadası), because it is a famous seaside resort. The cheapest hotels here are around USD 25 in the low season. And in the high season (from April to October), they are at least USD 40.
But there are also a lot of Airbnb properties, and if you are a budget traveler, Airbnb is a much better option. You can find properties for less than USD 20, at the same time with better quality than the cheapest hotels. Just don’t forget first to communicate with the owner and see the reviews, to avoid scams (yes, Airbnb scams are possible).
Camping around Ephesus
If you are more adventurous, basically, you can go wild camping in Turkey. But better avoid doing this around the ancient city of Ephesus and the hills around, because there are a lot of ancient remains in the area. Camping near ancient remains in Turkey is suspicious and you may get in trouble with the police that would check whether you want to steal ancient artifacts.
Instead, the best place for wild camping is Pamucak Beach. It is not far from Ephesus, and the beach is beautiful- wide and long.
The best way to visit Ephesus is to include it in a longer trip to all of the Seven Churches of Asia. Although it might be difficult to visit the churches following the order in the Book of Revelation, where Ephesus is the first one, you still can do it, just in a different order, especially if you come from Istanbul, İzmir, or Çanakkale.
But if your first stop is Kuşadası, the best you would do is to follow the right order, starting from Ephesus and ending with Laodicea. And of course, you can always combine this with a longer itinerary, including other destinations.
Finally, you can join a tour. Today, there are a lot of tours to the Seven Churches of Asia, including Ephesus. Although their tour guides would not certainly explain to you all of the details in the Book of Revelation, it is still useful and very convenient, and you can learn a lot of things.
Take a look at some tours to Ephesus:
We didn’t follow the right order in the Book of Revelation, because we came from Çanakkale. So, before Ephesus, we visited Pergamum and Smyrna, the third and second of the Seven Churches. And our next destination was the beautiful city of Bodrum. But we still included all of the Seven in our big Western Turkey journey, along with the best of the history and nature of this amazing region of the Earth.
Check some travel books about Ephesus:
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.
Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.