Detailed History of Ephesus : Rise and Fall

The history of Ephesus begins the following the invasion of ancient Greece by the Dorians there were three major migrations across the Aegean to the west coast of Anatolia. The second group, the Ionians, settled the coast from modern Izmir southward to the valley of the Menderes river about 1000 B.C., establishing enclaves that developed into powerful City-States. One of the twelve major Ionian cities was Ephesus.

Ephesus and 12 Ionian City-States in Asia Minor
12 Ionian City-States in Asia Minor (from south to north): Miletus, Myus, Priene, Ephesus, Colophon, Lebedos, Teos, Erythrae, Clazomenae, and Phocaea, together with the islands of Samos and Chios.

Foundation of the First Ephesus Settlement

It is believed that the first Ionians, a rather small group, settled on what was then an island (now Kurutepe). As more migrants arrived, more space was needed so they moved to the mainland which was inhabited by native Lydians and Carians. The leader of the Ionians was Androclus, son of the legendary King Codrus of Athens. The selection of the site of their city was supposedly decided by the Oracle of Delphi. This first Ephesus, located on the north slope of Mt. Pion and the land at its foot, remained at this location for about 400 years. So the foundation of the history of Ephesus was laid by Androclus.

Illustration of the first Ephesus Settlement by Androclus
Illustration of the first Ephesus Settlement by Androclus

History of Ephesus: Rise of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The site had two advantages; its geographic position as a sheltered harbor in the middle of the Aegean coast of Anatolia offered access to and from the interior, and as a place of pilgrimage for the worship of the Anatolian Mother-goddess of Fertility, Cybele. The Ionians with their own goddess, Artemis, blended some of the attributes of the two in the development of the Ephesian Artemis.

Then & Now - Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
Then & Now – Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Ephesus continued to prosper as a City-State until subjugated by King Croesus of Lydia in the middle of the 6th century B.C. Although forced to recognize the sovereignty of Lydia, Croesus was regarded more as a friend than an enemy. One of his first acts was to give generously to the reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis. To maintain control over the people, he forced them to abandon their fortified city, relocating them to level ground south of the Temple. Here the city remained throughout the classical period, unwalled and militarily weak, but still with the economically important harbor and the Sanctuary of Artemis.

Statues of the Great Artemis and Beautiful Artemis in Ephesus Archaeological Museum
Statues of the Great Artemis and Beautiful Artemis in Ephesus Archaeological Museum

Ephesus is Occupied by Persians

Less than 10 years after Ephesus fell to Lydia, Croesus made the mistake of opposing the Persian Empire and was defeated, losing his empire to Cyrus. This introduced a period of two centuries of domination of Anatolia by the Persians. As was the case with the Lydians, the Persians were not oppressive and Ephesus continued to prosper, particularly since it was the seaport for the great Royal Road that stretched between the Persian capital at Susa to Sardis, the former Lydian capitol.

Lydia and Ephesus was Captured by Persians - History of Ephesus
Lydia was Captured by Persians

At about the time of the Persian conquest, Ephesus joined the other Greek cities in a secret alliance, the Ionian Confederation. In 498 B.C. a number of the cities rose in revolt but were crushed. For its part, Miletus, a commercial rival of Ephesus, was destroyed by the Persian King Darius. Taking no part in the uprising, Ephesus was spared and continued to prosper.

Alexander the Great, Savior of the Greeks, and Ephesus

Following the defeat of the Persian armies of Darius and Xerxes in their abortive attacks on Greece in 490 and 480 B.C., Ephesus and the other Ionian city-states united in the League of Delos under the domination of the Athenians. Later, during the Peloponnesian War, Ephesus switched allegiance, supporting the Spartans. Although victorious over Athens and thus gaining control of the Asiatic Greek cities, Sparta was too weak to maintain control. In a peace treaty of 386 B.C., the Greek settlements of Asia Minor returned to the control of the Persians.

Alexander the Great Mosaic, House of the Faun, Pompeii
Alexander the Great Mosaic, House of the Faun, Pompeii

The emerging military power of Greece continued to increase with the 23-year reign of the Macedonian Philip spelling doom for the Persian domination of Asia Minor. By 336 B.C. Philip had united most of Greece and was preparing to invade the Persian Empire. Assassination robbed Philip of the opportunity to lead the invasion, but in 334 B.C. his son Alexander crossed the Hellespont, defeated the Persians at the Granicus, and swept them from Asia Minor.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Virtual Reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis
Virtual Reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis

Freeing Ephesus, Alexander offered to pay all the expenses of rebuilding the Great Temple of Artemis which had been fired by the lunatic Herostratus on the very night of Alexander’s birth. In return for this generous offer, Alexander asked that the dedication of the new temple be made in his name, but the offer was courteously refused by the Ephesians on the basis that it was not fitting for one god to dedicate to another. The Temple of Artemis, eventually finished by the efforts of the townspeople, was to be ranked later as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Reconstruction of Ephesus by Lysimachus

Lysimachus' The Great Theatre of Ephesus
Lysimachus’ The Great Theatre of Ephesus

Following the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., his mighty empire was partitioned by his generals. Lysimachus, gaining control of the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Anatolia, decided to make Ephesus the main port of Anatolia. To do this he first had to re-establish the port, now a fever-ridden swamp unable to accept seagoing ships due to relentless silting by the Kayster.

Re-establishing the Port of Ephesus

New City Plan of Lysimachus' Ephesus
New City Plan of Lysimachus’ Ephesus

In addition to dredging a new seaport, Lysimachus built a completely new city sheltered by Mt. Koressos and Mt. Pion, surrounding it with a 9 km. wall. To further emphasize the importance of the port, the two neighboring port cities of Lebedos and Colophon were destroyed and their inhabitants moved to the new city named Arsinoeia in honor of his wife. Thanks to the efforts of Lysimachus, Ephesus regained its former prosperity, becoming the foremost trading center in Asia Minor, and it’s a new age in the history of Ephesus.

The Roman Period of Ephesus Begins

Celsus Library in Ephesus
Celsus Library in Ephesus

Following the death of Lysimachus in 281 B.C., Ephesus supported various Hellenistic rulers according to the interests of the city, finally erring in judgment by supporting the Seleucids against the new power in the Mediterranean; Rome. With the defeat of the Seleucids at Magnesia in 190 B.C., Ephesus and other cities of the coast were given to the Kingdom of Pergamum, supporters of the Romans. With the death of Attalus III, the last of the Pergamese rulers, the Kingdom of Pergamum was bequeathed to Rome.

History of Ephesus: Mithridates of Pontos’ Massacre in Ephesus

Memmius Monument in Ephesus, built in memory of Sulla, the general who defeated Mithridates
Memmius Monument in Ephesus, built in memory of Sulla, the general who defeated Mithridates

Unhappy with the heavy taxes levied by their masters, the Ephesians made another error of judgment, siding with Mithridates of Pontus against Rome in 88 B.C. and taking part in the “Ephesian Vespers” the massacre of thousands of Roman inhabitants of the city. When the tides appeared to be turning against Mithridates, Ephesus, true to form, switched allegiance to Rome, becoming the Roman capital of Asia. This then led to the golden age of Ephesus, a period of 300 years of prosperity. Destroyed by an earthquake early in the first century A.D.

Christianity Period in the History of Ephesus

St. Paul and St. John Come to Ephesus

St. Paul's Speech in the Ephesus Amphitheatre and The silversmith's Riot in Ephesus
St. Paul’s Speech in the Ephesus Amphitheatre and The silversmith’s Riot in Ephesus

Ephesus was rebuilt in the Roman style. Its commercial importance was maintained by continued dredging of the seaport. In ‘keeping with its importance as a religious center, Ephesus became an early center of Christianity. Although the cult of Artemis remained strong, the Christian community became one of the most powerful in the East. St. Paul spent at least two years preaching and writing at Ephesus on his third journey. St. John also settled there. The sacking of the Artemision by the Goths in 263 A.D. was essentially the end of the power of Artemis. Although the temple was restored the worship of Artemis had given way to Christianity.

Ephesus is Now a Christian Community

Church of Ephesus - (Virgin Mary)
Church of Ephesus – (Virgin Mary)

Ephesus and the rest of Asia Minor shared in the general prosperity of the Roman Empire during the 2nd century A.D. Similarly, Ephesus was affected by the crisis in the Empire during the 3rd century. Following the recovery of the Empire early in the 4th century, Ephesus again became prosperous as a leading port connecting Asia Minor with Greece and the center of Byzantium, Constantinople.

The Basilica of St. John in Ephesus
The Basilica of St. John in Ephesus

Continuing its importance as a religious center, Ephesus experienced a renewed building program of religious buildings, especially the church of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus and of the Basilica of St. John at Ephesus, during the Byzantine era. In 431 the 3rd Ecumenical Council met in the Church of the Virgin Mary to condemn the Nestorian heresy. A second Council of Ephesus followed in 449.

History of Ephesus: Fall of Ephesus

Silting of the harbor again plagued Ephesus. By the 7th century, most of the residents began moving to Aysoluk Hill near the magnificent church of St. John built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Walls and a citadel were built as protection against Slav and Arab invasions. In 1090 the settlement was occupied by Seljuks but restored to Byzantium a few years later during the first Crusade.

Modern-Day Ephesus (Selcuk)
Modern-Day Ephesus (Selcuk)

By this time the name Ephesus referred only to the city of the plains while the Byzantine settlement clustered around the Church of St. John was known as Hagios Theologos. Falling to the Turks in 1304 the settlement became known as Aysoluk and a new era begins in the history of Ephesus. By 1390 Aysoluk had fallen into the hands of the Ottoman Empire, with the growth and development of the Izmir Port (Smyrna), Aysoluk, later renamed Selcuk, was reduced to the status of a small village.

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