The library of Celsus

The Family took the high road and I took the low road, quite literally, to the library of Celsus, the centerpiece of the reconstruction of Ephesus. As a result, I walked through an ancient gateway and was surprised by crowds before I realized that I was in front of the library. The Family had a good view of the reconstructed facade before coming down to the square in front of the library. It was the first of Ramazan, and tables were being laid out, possibly for an Iftar dinner for the big brass of Selçuk, We joined the crowd of visitors gaping at the facade which had been reconstructed during the 1970s. Bits and pieces of it had been excavated over the years and taken to museums in Vienna and Istanbul, so the reconstruction had to use the remaining pieces and fill in the rest with reproductions. The result looks glorious, as you can see in the featured photo.

There was a single large room behind the facade, with a semicircular niche in the far wall. Below this is the burial chamber of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaenus, the Proconsul of Ephesus in 92 CE, the first Greek to hold such a post. The library was built by his son in his memory over the crypt. From the room you can see that the building material included bricks, rubble, dressed stone as well as marble. I was using an audio-guide which told me that there are two interesting things about this structure. The first was that in Roman times people were not generally allowed to be buried in the city, so the existence of the crypt was a mark of singular honour. The second was that this was the third largest library in the empire, after Alexandria and Pergamon. I was struck by the fact that such a large room, and its upper floor, together held only thirty shelves, each of which could hold only 400 scrolls. In the times before printing, the number of books was remarkably small.


The facade is elaborate, with beautiful double rows of marble columns framing three entrances. Between then in four niches stand the (reproductions) of four statues: Sophia Celsus (representing wisdom and learning, whose name gives rise to the word philosophy), Arete Celsus (representing the fulfilment of learning), and headless statues of Ennoia Phillipi (who represents thinking and understanding), and Episteme Celsus (representing provable knowledge). These are categories of knowledge which had been discussed and debated by many philosophers by the 2nd century CE when the library was built.

From the evidence of the decorations in the portico of this building it seems that the family of Polemaenus was superlatively rich. There are complete epigraphs on the facade which have been studied quite extensively. A little search brought me to extensive modern historical literature on the career of Celsus. He was born in Sardis, into a rich family, studied law, did military service in Alexandria in the legion commanded by Vespasian (who soon became emperor). Then in quick succession Celsus became a senator, a judge (Praetor) in Rome, an imperial Legate in Cappadocia, Bythina and Cilicia, then a Consul, a Curator (responsible for the finance and organization of imperial building projects in Rome), and finally Proconsul of Asia.

The library burnt down in 262 CE. In the intervening years Ephesus, the capital of Roman Asia, was a bustling cosmopolitan port city. There is evidence of early Christians living here (including the apostles Paul and John), an Egyptian quarter with temples of the ancient Egyptian gods, and, from the evidence of a menorah carved into the steps of the library, clearly also an orthodox Jewish population. The Mediterranean was a diverse place two thousand years ago.

The unfashionable end of town

Far off towards the receding sea, a set of warehouses in Ephesus was converted to a church, probably in the 2nd century CE. That’s what archaeologists seem to believe lies below the ruins of what could be one of Christianity’s most important churches. The very long nave that one sees today was later called St. Mary’s church. If this was unfashionable in the 2nd century, it apparently remains so in the 21st. The Family and I met only a young Japanese trio examining these ruins. Signboards had pointed us along a path which brought us to the very impressive apse of the church.

Sighting down the nave I saw a baptismal font, and a door a long way off. The original church was probably rebuilt for the Third Ecumenical Council, called in 431 CE by the Byzantine emperor, to settle a fine doctrinal point. My audio guide told me that opinion came down in favour of the view that Jesus was simultaneously man and god (but this simplification could possibly have gotten me killed 1500 years ago). As a result, Mary would be called the mother of god, Theotokos in Greek. This also laid the seed of the doctrinal dispute with Islam which, when it rose about two centuries later, recognized Jesus only as a prophet. Long before that, the church was rebuilt into a grand basilica 260 meters long, and probably renamed after Mary. Over the years one part or the other of the grand church would collapse, and worship would shift to an intact part.

I walked down the long nave and past the standing doorway, and the columns which would have been just outside the old basilica. The grand looking apse which I’d entered looked really far away. There was another council held in Ephesus later to decide upon even more subtle questions arising out of such reasoning, but its conclusions were negated by later church doctrine, and led to centuries of schisms and strife. I wasn’t about to delve further into these abstruse questions. I marveled at the extremely thick brick walls and wondered how high a roof must have been held up by walls of such thickness. I couldn’t find an estimate.

There were other ruins around the church which were covered with grass and weeds. Now, in the middle of spring poppies had sprung up everywhere: pink poppies. I don’t remember having seen this colour of poppies before. The eastern Mediterranean is the original home of poppies, so it is possible that there is more variety here than anywhere else in the world. I wondered whether differences in the colours of petals are due to pigments or some other genetic changes, or due to the soil the plant grows in. I found later that poppy petals contain higher concentration of pigments than most other flowers, and that microscopic structures on the petals strongly influence the colours that we see. But whether these effects are controlled by genes or the environment is something I haven’t managed to track down. The world has so many mysteries!

The emperor comes back

The Roman emperor Hadrian was an inveterate traveler, and visited Ephesus at least twice, once in 124 CE and again in 129 CE. The carefully restored structure on the street of Curetes, which you can see in the featured photo, is said to commemorate this visit and is now called the Temple of Hadrian. The open-fronted porch with its four columns and arched entrance leads, through an inner door, into the inner chamber where, it is thought, that a statue of Hadrian once stood. An epigraph found here says that the temple was built by Publius Quintilius Galeria in 138 CE and dedicated to Hadrian, Artemis of Ephesus, and the people of the city by the Asiarch Publius Vedius Antoninus Sabinus.

The reason that this building is so carefully reconstructed is that it was disinterred in 1956, after the Turkish government passed laws against removal of archaeological remains from the country. The Austrian Archaeological Institute was involved in uncovering the structure, as well as the restoration work which ended in 2014. The keystone of the arch at the entrance is decorated with a carving of Tyche, goddess of fortune and prosperity. She is crowned with the walls of the city, in a style that dates from the high Hellenic period, but apparently popular during the era of the Roman empire.

Above the inner door is a semicircular relief featuring a woman who is now called Medusa, surrounded by scrolls and Acanthus leaves. The same leaves decorate the capital of the columns at the front. The four empty pedestals in front of the temple (see the featured photo) would have held statues of four emperors, going by the names carved on the bases. These statues have not been found yet. The structure was refurbished in the 4th century to honour the emperor Theodosius, and the reliefs along the walls were built at that time. On the day I was there, the structure was cordoned off, so I could not get a good look at them. The originals are in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.

I could use my camera to take a close look at two of the four panels. In the one you see above, there is an altar at the center. The figure to the left, in Roman military clothing, probably depicts an emperor. The winged figure of Victory (Nike) stands behind him. To the right are figures from mythology. The first one could be Theseus and the bearded figure next to him is Hercules. Four Amazons are shown running from Hercules. The founding myth of the city is that it was built by Amazons, but the story being told here somehow implies that they were driven away.

On the other side of the so-called Medusa was another equally enigmatic relief. Amazons are again shown in flight. This time they are probably fleeing from a figure identified with Dionysius, behind whom stands a Satyr, in front of a figure seated on a small elephant, with a dancing Menead bringing up the rear. I didn’t get a good view of the side panels. One showed the other founding myth of Ephesus: Androclus killing a boar where the city was built. The fourth apparently shows the Christian Theodosius, who banned the worship of the old gods, with some of the banned entities. On my next visit I must go to the museum in Selçuk to see the originals.

A Seljuk Mosque

We had to pass through the town of Selçuk on our way to the ruins of the Roman town of Ephesus. A quick look at Wikipedia confirmed a vague memory of reading Ibn Batuta’s account of this town, and of it having an impressive mosque. A look at the map indicated that the most important mosque here was the Isa Bey mosque, situated on the slope between a Byzantine era fortress and the site of the ancient Artemision. This would be the only example of Seljuk architecture that we would see on this trip.

Several tour buses had arrived before us and parked next to the mosque. There was a blank stone wall, three stories high, facing the road. I was taken aback. Where was the “poetry in stone” which is supposed to be the hallmark of Seljuk architecture? I took a close look at the carved stone lattice work in the upper windows. Nice, but I’ve seen more intricate work before.

It was only when I walked over to the other side, where the entrance was, that things began to make sense. The main gate was an imposing portal, topped by a beautiful design in two colours of stone, above a beautiful arch with the stalactite vault called muqarnas. This was no less elaborate than the examples I remembered from the Alhambra of Granada. The windows next to the main entrance were beautiful, and each one was decorated differently. You can see two of them in the photo of the entrance. The photo below shows details from a third.

Seljuk Turks won Anatolia from the Byzantine empire in the 11th century, and a succession of Seljuk principalities held it until the Ottoman invasion of the 14th century. Herrin writes about the gradual decay of the Byzantine empire during this time, most enduringly captured in the gradual debasement of their gold coins through the addition of increasing amounts of silver. Towards the end of this period, Isa Bey, a sultan of the Aydin dynasty, caused this mosque to be built. A little plaque in the courtyard told us that the architect was Mushaimish Dımışklıoğlu, and the church was completed in 1375 CE. Since Ibn Batuta had passed through here a generation before, this wasn’t the mosque he wrote about. Our visit was completely serendipitious!

We passed through the door into the courtyard. Otto-Dorn writes that this is the first mosque in Turkey to have an enclosed courtyard and a colonnade. We could see the its remnants in the columns around the courtyard. The plaque told us that the colonnade was destroyed in two earthquakes that occurred in 1653 and 1668. We saw a single minaret above the entrance, covered in a wooden frame for restoration. Apparently the mosque was built with two minarets, and the other had collapsed after these earthquakes. Extensive restorations were done and the mosque was reopened in 1975.

I walked into the cool interior of the church mosque. The wooden minbar looked small and ordinary; apparently the original grand minbar has been taken away to a museum. Looking up at the octagonal base of one of the domes, I saw the tile work which is supposed to be special to Seljuk mosques. Some of it had fallen off, perhaps the work on the minaret will eventually extend here. There was a round of restoration work in 2005. I wonder whether it reached the interior of the mosque. This wall shows other characteristics of the Seljuk style: the use of bricks, the use of rubble as filling in the walls, and its decoration with a layer of finely prepared stone. A closer look at the tiles (featured photo) showed the painted work, known today as Iznik tiles, from before it developed the current repertoire of Ottoman motifs. We left the carpeted and cool interior, back through the courtyard and its fountain, through the arch of the entrance and the scaffolding enclosing the minaret, to our car.

Goodbye to Cappadocia

At first sight Göreme was charming. The village emerged from caves carved into cliff-sides, fairy chimneys dotted about the town! After spending a few days in Cappadocia, I thought it wasn’t nearly as lovely as I’d first thought. The town was a typical tourist hub, full of cheap things, lots of hotels and tour agencies. But then on my last evening I was charmed again by the cars I saw while walking around town.

The parked one was a beauty. But earlier in the evening, while searching for a place where could taste the Cappadocia wines, we’d come across another beauty. A 1953 Studebaker Starlight coupe? Not quite that classic, but a beauty nevertheless. I passed another classic convertible. I may sometimes miss a car, but a convertible makes The Family stop and look every time. This was no exception. I also admired the look of the Göreme Cafe; there was not a single person there below the age of seventy. This wasn’t the place we were looking for.

Later, after a tasting a couple of wines we walked back to our hotel. Most shops had closed. We passed one of the many carpet shops in the town, just as it was about to shut. The next day would be the beginning of the month of Ramazan, a time when nights become more lively. Very early the next morning I heard drums on the road announcing the approach of sunrise. This is an old Turkish custom, warning people during Ramazan that they have to finish their pre-dawn breakfast, Sehri, before the sun rises.

I could get another hour of sleep before leaving to catch our flight on to Izmir and the Aegean coast. I caught a breakfast at a small kiosk (a word which changed meaning as it came into English from Turkish through French) at the airport. After choosing a freshly pressed orange juice, a coffee, and a fresh-baked pretzel I stepped back to take a photo. The shop had everything that a traveler might need: food, souvenirs, even some luggage. I clicked a photo of a charming piece of luggage elsewhere in the airport and sent it to the Youngest Niece. Her instant response, “Cute!” She’s at the age when this word is over-used.

Seven wonders of the ancient world

The tourist guide books of ancient Greece took the form of a list of wonders to be seen. When Antipater of Sidon put together the first such list in the 1st century BCE, the Alexandrian conquests had made it possible for Greeks to travel over most of the eastern Mediterranean. From the descriptions, these seven things were wonders because of their size. Only one of them, the pyramid of Khufu, is still intact. We visited the ruins of the temple of Artemis (Artemision) in Ephesus, in the modern day town of Selçuk in Turkey.

We pulled into a car park which was mostly empty, except for a large bus. About a hundred tourists had come to see the site of this ancient wonder. From the edge of the parking lot you can see the whole site (photo above). It was not clear to me why this was a wonder. Only when I walked to the base of the single remaining pillar did it became clear why. The pillar was tall, perhaps 20 meters high. The temple could have been one of the tallest in the world of the 1st century BCE. There were earlier temples at this place dating as far back as 8th century BCE, but the wonderful one was post-Alexander. It probably continued in use, despite mishaps, until the worship of Greek and Roman gods was banned in the 5th century CE by the Byzantine emperor. In the 6th century rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia some of the columns came from the Artimesion, and eventually the whole ancient wonder was dismantled.

The site was rediscovered in the late 19th century, and most of remnants were taken off to the British Museum. The memorial column was put together out of disjoint pieces of columns, up to a height which reproduced what we know from old records. A White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) nests there every year. White Storks are winter visitors to India, but from a different subspecies which breeds further to the east. This was my first sighting of the subspecies Ciconia ciconia ciconia. Apparently the temple lies inside a major corridor for migratory birds. Spring and autumn in this area are great times for bird watchers.