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The Ruined House of Ephesus

Saint Paul wrote to the Ephesians that ?you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit? (2:22). That community is gone, and his message seems a distant echo.

In the year 401 A.D., John Chrysostom led a large crowd out of the city of Ephesus to the great temple of Artemis and destroyed it about 350 years after the Apostle Paul first preached the Gospel to the Ephesians.

Although Ephesus had long been a Christian city, the destruction of the Artemission (temple of Artemis) by John completed the city’s transformation. For several centuries before Christ, Ephesus had been the center of worship to this goddess of fertility, whom the Romans called Diana.

Ephesus and the area now known as Aegean Turkey remained predominantly Christian until the early part of this century, even after the Muslim Turkish conquest in the 14th century. Only in the early 1920s, after war between Greece and the emerging Turkish Republic, did the situation alter. An exchange of populations left this area, home of the Seven Churches, virtually uninhabited by Christians.

From a Christian viewpoint, then, Ephesus’s past is tremendous – its present far less so. Sad to say, little remains in Ephesus and its surroundings of its long Christian association. Sadder still, the thousands of visitors who come to the ruins every year are more interested in the history of Artemis than in the legacy of Paul.

The name Ephesus is bound up with Christian teaching and tradition. A look at its pagan past, whose strength is still seen in the magnificence of the temple ruins, suggests the task that Paul dared to undertake.

Ephesus’ beauty and size can be judged from its remains: avenues lined with marble columns, carved fountains, odeons, and public buildings, including a fine library.

Ephesus thrived on the commerce of this port city on a natural inlet from the Aegean Sea. Trade was conducted with Europe by sea and with Asia by land. At its peak in the second century, it had a population of around 400,000. Idolmaking and carpet weaving were among the city’s most lucrative trades, catering to the thousands of wealthy pilgrims who travelled far to pay homage to Artemis.

There is no longer a city called Ephesus. Adjacent to its excavated remains is a small town, Selcuk, built on what was the eastern part of Ephesus. In some ways – but on a much smaller scale – it reflects something of the way of life of ancient Ephesus. The area was always fertile, and the daily market that today feeds the people of Selcuk has a flavor of the past. Peasants in traditional attire bring their produce to market, often on horse-drawn carts. Idol-making and carpet weaving are again the town’s chief sources of income.

Acts 19:27 tells how the earlier craftsmen who fashioned these idols were enraged by Paul’s teachings. They feared that his message would harm their trade. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” they shouted at him when he preached in the 25,000-seat open-air theatre, which still stands.

This craft died out with the rule of Byzantium over the region. Ironically, its revival came under its Muslim successors, whose religion abhors depicting the human form.

Carpet weaving also plays an important role in the area’s present life. Originally brought to Ephesus by traders from the East, it has again become more important in recent years due to the demand of Western visitors. As in former times, vendors come from eastern Anatolia to sell their goods.

Mustafa has a choice stall near the entrance to Ephesus’s ruins. “I am not from Selcuk; he says. “I come from eastern Turkey, near the Iranian border,” which is some 1,000 miles away. He says, “There, there is little hope of selling my family’s output. Very few people ever visit that area. But here there are plenty of visiting buyers. I’ll spend all summer here and then return home to help make some more.

The fair-skinned Hellenes of ancient Ephesus may have given way to the darker Turks, but much of life remains the same. Ephesus seems to have come full circle since the time of Paul’s first missionary visit there in 52 A.D.

No longer is there a harbor, however. It silted up over the years, which is the reason for the city’s demise around 900 A.D. Today, the ruins stand some three miles from the sea. When you walk down the great marble-paved avenue to where the harbor used to be, you end up in fertile fields of produce where once fine sailing ships were moored.

Although some comparisons can be made with the past, nothing remains in Ephesus and Selcuk that can compare with events such as the mass conversion by John the Theologian of over 30,000 Ephesians toward the end of the first century in the same odeon where Paul preached. Standing in this splendid amphitheater, one can picture the scene. From the highest end, Saint John arose, blessed the people, and proceeded to baptize the assembled populace.

This event would have taken place not long after John had returned from Patmos, where he received the Revelation. According to Orthodox tradition, John the Apostle and John the Theologian are one and the same, and he spent his last years in Ephesus. He is buried on the Hill of Ayasuluk in Selcuk, where Justinian erected the huge domed Basilica of Saint John. Extensive remains of the structure can still be seen.

Another tradition regarding John says that he brought the Virgin Mary to Ephesus and she ended her earthly life just outside the town in a place honored as her last home. According to John’s Gospel, from His cross Jesus entrusted Mary to the Apostle’s care. It could be supposed that he took Mary with him to Ephesus, especially in view of the persecution against Christians prevailing then in Jerusalem.

Further, the Ecumenical Council of 431 was held in Ephesus to decide on the divine maternity of Mary. In its notes, the Council Fathers make mention of the fact that Saint John and Mary were at one time in Ephesus. The Council was held in a basilica, parts of which remain today. It was the first church ever built to be dedicated to the Virgin Mother.

Another confirmation of the Virgin’s having lived in Ephesus can be found in the oral tradition of the villagers of nearby Kir Kindja, who are descendants of the Christians of Ephesus. From generation to generation these people passed on the tradition of making a pilgrimage every August 15 to the little house just outside Ephesus where they believe Mary had spent her last days on Earth.

The house, rebuilt several times, has foundations dating back to the first century. Now a simple chapel forms part of the building. It is the only church in the entire region where Mass is regularly celebrated each Sunday morning – for the Christian pilgrims who visit the shrine, as there are no longer any local Christians.

When walking through the ruins of Ephesus, or indeed in any part of Aegean Turkey, mosques and other signs of the Muslim faith dominate the towns and villages. It is difficult for us to imagine that it was here that Christianity was nurtured into the great and universal faith it is today.

Gerald Ring, a regular contributor to Catholic Near East, lives in Jerusalem.

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