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.