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Ephesus: History, Location & Culture

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Have you ever wondered how the famous ancient Greek city of Ephesus developed into the important Roman city that the Christian apostle Paul visited? Learn more about its location, development, and culture in this lesson.

Where is Ephesus?

Have you ever seen the symbol of a double-headed axe that was frequently used in ancient artwork and architecture? Many scholars think this symbol had its origins in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. This ancient city was located on the west coast of what is now modern-day Turkey, and it has a long and complex history, with ownership passing from civilization to civilization. The city was scattered on the banks of the Aegean Sea, making it a perfect trade center since it had a water port. Though it remained in mostly the same spot, at one point, a Greek ruler even moved the city a couple miles.

History of Ephesus

Beginnings

It is not clear from historical records exactly when the city of Ephesus was established, but according to legend, the Amazons, a group of half-divine warrior women, founded the city. It was named ''Apasus,'' which means ''city of the Mother Goddess.'' Artemis seems to have been considered the Ephesian ''mother goddess,'' though most Greeks understood her as a goddess of nature. Perhaps because of this connection to Artemis, Ephesus, by most accounts, was the origin of the labrys, or double-headed axe, that was traditionally symbolic of goddesses. After its mythical beginnings, Ephesus was settled first in the late Bronze Age around 1500 BCE by Aegean and Anatolian (the place where Turkey lies today) peoples.

Golden labrys from an early Greek group
Golden labrys from an early Greek group

Greek Settlement

Around the year 1200 BCE, the Ionians, an early Greek people, migrated to Ephesus. Though Ephesus was built and expanded during this time, about 500 years later, a rival nation ravaged the city. This weakened the city enough for the Lydian empire to take over. Under Lydian rule, the city flourished. It became a center of education and wealth during this period. The Lydians had enough money that they even installed oil lamps in the streets to light it at night! King Croesus built the Temple of Artemis during this period, which was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Perhaps because of its association with a goddess rather than a god, the city provided equality between men and women. Women could have any position they wanted, own land, become educated, and were not just subjugated to the home. This lasted for centuries until the Christian takeover of the city.

Conquering of Ephesus

Despite the strength of the Lydian empire, Croesus made the poor decision of attacking the Persian empire and was defeated. Under King Cyrus, the Persians took over control of Ephesus and made it into a prominent trade port. Many Greek city-states and groups banded together to overthrow the Persian empire, which resulted in the destruction of many cities—but Ephesus escaped destruction because it was neutral during the rebellion.

In 334 BCE, the famous Greek ruler Alexander the Great liberated the city and gave it to one of his successors, Lysimachus. Lysimachus redeveloped the city immensely, adding defensive walls and a harbor. He even renamed the city Arsinea after his wife. He also moved the city two miles to the southwest, which upset the citizens, but required them to move because he cut off the sewer system where they originally lived. When the city was resettled later, after Lysimachus' reign, the name was changed back to Ephesus.

Depiction of the queen of the Amazons meeting with Alexander the Great
Depiction of the queen of the Amazons meeting with Alexander the Great

Roman Control and Christian Importance

When Attalos III of Pergamon, an Anatolian empire which was in control of much of the area, died in 129 BCE, he left Ephesus to the Roman empire. While the city was still a major trade and water port during Roman control, rebellions against Rome's taxation led to damage of the city, which took even more damage in an earthquake in 17 CE. However, the city was still the most important trade center in Asia. It was not only an important trade and political center in the area, it was also one of the most important intellectual centers. Ephesus was home to a major school of philosophy and even had an enormous library called the Celsus Library, which was dedicated to a Roman emperor.

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