Ephesus Revisited

Friday, 7th December 2012

For all photos for 7th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site.

I woke this morning to the sound of crashing waves below us. And thunder. And rain. And hail against the window. Not a good omen for the day. I looked at the weather on my iPhone, and saw that the hourly breakdown was 70% chance of rain all day. Well, I thought, that leaves a window of 30% that we might have fine weather for our visit to Ephesus. Having learnt a lesson from our visit to Perge, I did not put on fresh clothes today, and instead of wearing my suede leather runners (which got soaked through in five minutes last time), I put on my black leather shoes (my “good” shoes), polished up to be extra water repellant. I packed the large plastic bag that my washing came in a few days ago, to wear as extra protection around my waist and trouser legs. Unfortunately, the umbrella which I had bought at Perge had been left behind in the hotel at Antalya, but if I needed to, I would buy another.

Besides the inclement weather, I had mixed feelings about the day ahead. I had been to Ephesus once before, in 2007 on the Australian Intercultural Society. That trip introduced me to the area, but left me with a number of questions, some things I did not get to see, and some things I wanted to have a second look at. In many senses, Ephesus had been a kind of half-finished visit: I was hopeful that today would sew up a few loose ends.

Our first port of call, “The House of Mary”, is one of those places I have mixed feelings about. One of the things I have been reflecting upon during the entire trip is the role of tradition in both our Christian stories and the lands connected to our stories: what is the relation of tradition to “history”? This has come out especially in conversations with our tour guides. In general, it is my rule to give the benefit of the doubt to tradition (the older and more widely attested the better), and if the tradition happily fits with other “evidence” of a more scientific or documentary nature, well and good. My problem with “The House of Mary”, is that the “tradition” for this particular place is a bit shaky, to say the least. There is a row of large signs in about ten different languages at the entrance to the site detailing the “evidence” for the site:

1) Mary was given into John’s care by Jesus at the crucifixion
2) The tomb of St John is in Ephesus
3) Ephesus is the site of the first Church in the world to be dedicated to “Saint Mary” (and the place where the Ecumenical Council pronounced her “Theotokos”)
4) The continuous tradition of the local Orthodox community that this was the place of the Dormition

Now, the last one seems to me to conflict with the other tradition that Mary’s Dormition took place in Jerusalem (we had recently visited the great church built in Jerusalem in honour of this event), but I can live with that. The rest points to the fact that Ephesus in general was thought of as the place where Mary lived into her old age with the apostle John, whether or not it was here or in Jerusalem that she finally concluded her earthly life. But as for this place on top of the mountain, and the “house” that is said to have been the “House of Mary”? Well, the source for that is the visionary account of “The Life of the Blessed Virgin” by none other than the very same 19th Century German nun who provided Mel Gibson with his overly dramatic version of the Passion of the Christ, Blessed Katherine Emmerich. Now, Blessed Katherine had never left Germany in her entire life, yet she had a vision which described the “House of Mary” on a hilltop outside Ephesus, and a priest with rather more faith in her visions that I would have had, packed his shovel and his copy of “The Life of the Blessed Virgin” and headed off to Ephesus to go looking for the a “house” that matched this description. Of course, he found one: the foundations of a two room building from somewhere between the first and fourth century. And, voila, a new Marian site has been established. A small chapel has been built upon these foundations, which is now the focal point for the pilgrims.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful place, very peaceful. It has attracted many pilgrims – Catholic, Orthodox, and even Muslim – to prayer. Even popes have graced the place with their presence – most recently Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass here when he visited Turkey in 2007. And since Mary is well and truly associated with Ephesus, it is good that visitors have somewhere specific to honour her. I just wish we could simply call the place a shrine to Mary, and not get to worked up about Blessed Katherine’s dreams regarding this building being the actual “House” that Mary lived in while she was in Ephesus. And a place is sanctified by the prayer offered there, so that is something too, and over time the sanctity of the place will only increase. We celebrated mass here this morning, in the chapel of the Franciscan monastery attached to the site. It was Fr Chris’
30th anniversary of his entry into the novitiate, so it was appropriate that he be the celebrant. It is also the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We seem to be doing this regularly: 2 days early at Myra for the Feast of St Nicholas, and a day early at “Mary’s House” for the Immaculate Conception.

It was still raining – but lightly – when we came out from mass, so Rosemary and I sat in the verandah of the cafe on the site and she shouted me an apple tea. We then got back on the bus and headed around to the principle attraction of the area: the largest site of Roman ruins in existence, the ancient town of Artemis the Great, in which St Paul preached and taught for three years and St John the Apostle lived out his final days – Ephesus.

By the time we arrived, the rain had cleared away and the sun was shining in blue skies. Deo Gratias! Again, there were things I was looking forward to here after a rather disappointing visit the first time. I was very ill prepared for my first visit, and this lack of preparation was not enhanced by a tour guide who knew nothing (much) of the Christian significance of the site. So he did what many tour guides do: he brought people in at the Eastern end, and ended in the middle of the town at the “climax” of the tour, the Library. He thus completely failed to direct us either the great theatre in which the riot over Paul’s gospel took place (cf. Acts 19), or to the Church of St Mary in which the 3rd Ecumenical Council was held in 431AD (and in which Nestorianism was condemned and Mary declared the “Theotokos”, or “Bearer of God”, as an assertion of the divinity of Christ). You may ask, how is it possible to miss the theatre? We had spent ages at the odeon at the other end, which I thought WAS the theatre, and then, from the Library, we were told that we had five minutes to get to the bus at the Western entrance, and then my attention was attracted by the Harbour, so I simply did not notice until I turned around at the exit that there was a thumping great theatre behind me. The Church, on the other hand, is very easy to miss. It is often not even on maps of Ephesus – which routinely stop at the Theatre and the Harbour, without showing any features of the other, western half of the town.

So, given all that, I was keen to see what I could this time. As in 2007, we entered via the east. Hakan did a much better job of introducing the various buildings and ruins here than my previous guide, for instance, pointing out the place where there was a great temple to the Emperor Domitian (the one who traditionally is supposed to have exiled St John). This temple has been entirely demolished – the work of Christians after Christianity became the state religion – although its foundations remain, and the storerooms under the temple were used by the Christians to store archival material. There was evidence of a few features along the street toward the library being put in place since my last visit: a mausoleum, a pediment for the statue of a god, the Heracles Gate barring the way to through traffic (this may have been here last time, but I don’t remember it). Before we reached the Library, we came to the large roofed structure that covers the south side of the hill at that point. Under this roof is an excavation of a series of about half a dozen large houses and luxury units belonging to some of the more wealthy citizens of ancient Ephesus. This had been closed on my last visit, so I was really very excited when Hakan declared it an “optional extra icing on the cake” for anyone who wanted to pay the 15 lira to go inside. “But don’t do it if you have weak knees – there are over 200 steps!” Well, that deterred everyone in the group except myself, so Hakan said that I had twenty minutes, and to meet them back down by the library.

This was a real highlight of today’s tour. The excavation is a work in progress, but they have progressed a long way. As I said, about six separate dwellings of different sizes have been unearthed, and they all have different characters. One has a large peristyle garden with columns around the rim; the same house had a large “basilica” style meeting room. Most of the excavated houses had bare brick walls, but restoration work was being done to show the original appearance. Many thousands of pieces of tile and marble have been found and are all laid out on tables ready to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle. A large number have already been re-affixed to the walls, to show how the houses were decorated. But the plaster walls in some of the houses have been perfectly preserved along with their decorative frescoes – not pictures as such, but floral and plant and animal designs, in rustic reds and pale greens. And in many of these houses are some of the most fantastic floor mosaic work I have seen on the whole trip – including a beautiful lion, a Medusa head, and one of Neptune and Aphrodite(?). The whole place gave me the best sense I have ever had about how the Romans lived together in large numbers in cramped quarters, some in great luxury. It was so vivid that I half expected to bump into a Roman walking around in the corridors below me.

I made it on time down to the Library, which I had seen very well on my earlier trip, but I did check out the Agora on that side, which I had not really seen before. There are some displays in the niches around the agora, including one with a statue of Artemis (I don’t know if it was original – I suspect not). Then Hakan, pointed out to us where the Theatre, the Harbour and the Church were to be accessed and left us to our own devices for another half an hour or so. I tramped around in the theatre, having a good look about. Much of theatre isn’t there anymore – although a lot of it has been rebuilt. But it was never, as far as I could see, a solid marble job, and much of the marble cladding is now missing. In the incident related in the story in Acts 19, Paul did not enter the theatre, because the rioting crowds filled it shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for two hours. I climbed to the top and then came back down to the base, to find Fr Peter there with his arm in the air (doing a good impression of Michael Palin in a Monty Python skit) shouting a little half-heartedly “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (This got a giggle out of a passing tourist, who turned out to be from Melbourne!). I should have taken a picture, but the rain had begun again, just lightly, and I didn’t want my camera to get too wet.

I had wished to explore the Harbour area, but this was blocked off. Nearby, Hakan was standing, pointing the way to the Church of St Mary. The way led over a piece of barrier tape that had obviously been put there to keep people off a brand new cobbled pathway which was under construction (I presume he had talked to the management about this and made a special arrangement for us). This led down to the Church ruins, where there were more workmen about their business. It seems that the Austrian team in charge of the excavation is on their way to making the Church of St Mary the next big item on the standard Ephesus tour, and too right they should too. Paul VI really put this place on the map when he visited on the 26th of July 1967, and left behind a plaque saying that, effectively, “The Pope was here”.

The church appears to have two apses, but the sign nearby indicates that the building went through a number of reconstructions, and in the 6th century was actually divided into two churches (it was originally quite long). Adjoining the western courtyard is an octagonal baptistery (four walls between four doorways on a north-south/east-west orientation). The baptistery has steps going down into it on the east-west axis. Fr Peter gave a mock demonstration of adult baptism in the font (mercifully empty of water after the rain) using Irene as a mock-catechumen. The font itself is around about hip-deep.

We then had to make haste back to the bus, and bid Ephesus farewell. We lunched at a road-side buffet before heading up to the hill at the back of modern day Selcuk where the Crusader fortress still stands. When we got out of the bus, the rain had cleared completely and all was nice and dry. The fortress is not accessible to tourists – I believe it is under the control of the military or something like that – but Hakan said there were plans to reopen it to the public. That will be something worth coming back for. But I was coming to this spot with different questions, also left over from my visit five years ago. For a start, I should say that the ruins of the Basilica of St John are a real marvel, and an excellent example of 6th Century liturgical building. Oriented on an almost perfect East-West axis, the building sports a well preserved baptistery – smaller, but somewhat neater than that at St Mary’s and also within octagonal walls (in case you do not know, the octagon was significant for baptism because of the ‘8th Day’ symbolism, the day of resurrection being the day after the 7th day of the Sabbath). It also has a side chapel oriented on the north-south axis, but with the altar still oriented toward the east.

But of course the real attraction here is the “Tomb of St John the Apostle”. This caught me completely by surprise on my last visit – the location of St John’s tomb is not a well known fact among Western Catholics. Well, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, right here in the apse of the Basilica of St John, which is why, of course, the Emperor Justinian built such a whacking great church on the spot in the 6th century. But on my last visit I asked myself why, if this is the burial place of St John, it isn’t teaming with pilgrims? The answer is that, like the tomb of St Philip which we visited a few days ago, St John’s relics are not here. There is no scientific proof of this, but there are at least half a dozen different legends explaining the disappearance of his bodily remains. All the legends agree that John knew he was going to die, had the tomb dug for him and willingly entered it before preaching a sermon and dismissing his disciples. After that, there is some disagreement about what happened. At one end of the legendary spectrum is something very close to a bodily assumption, at the other end there is just the mysterious absence of his remains when his disciples came to dig him up at a later date. Hakan was somewhat incredulous about these traditions, but I pointed out that all the traditions agree that his body is, for one reason or another, not there, and it would be odd for such a body of tradition to grow up if there was a concrete body interred at this spot. He asked me “Have you been down the crypt?” No, I replied, I didn’t even know that there was a crypt. Well, there is, and I didn’t notice it the first time I was here. There is a well-like hole with a grate over it just behind the altar spot in the apse (ie. right over the tomb itself), and, also covered with a grate, there are steps going town below the altar area, ie. right down to the tomb. I need to find out more about this, and when these entrances were dug. Or excavated.

But I had another unanswered question from long ago yet to solve. From the western courtyard of the ruins, you can look down and see the Isa Bey Mosque, a 14th Century Seljuk Turkish construction, built from stone from Ephesus and (to a large extent) St John’s (which had been destroyed by earthquake). Hakan pointed out that it is the first mosque ever to be built with a courtyard – most likely an architectural feature that was borrowed from the Church of St John (as were the double dome feature on the roof of the mosque). But now to the problem: On my last visit, I had noticed that the mosque is strangely aligned. If the church was east-west, then the mosque was facing, not south east toward Mecca as it should, but just west of south, in completely the wrong direction. However, I find my general sense of direction is often out when travelling in the northern hemisphere, and I needed to double check this. I asked Hakan and he said that I could go down there and they would pick me up in twenty minutes. So down I trotted, and happily entered into the garden courtyard of this very beautiful building. It isn’t beautiful in the sense of highly decorated, just pleasing and peaceful in its general arrangement. The Mosque was empty at this time of day, and I went in with my iphone compass app to check it out. I took off my shoes, entered and knelt down for a few quite moments before taking out my “compass” and camera. Sure enough, the Michrab faces 188 degrees South – that is, just a few degrees west of south. “Well, they didn’t have compasses in those days”, protested Hakan, when I spoke to him about it. No, but the Church of St John is perfectly East-West orientated, and you can’t tell me that the Seljuk Turks were not able to do astrology at least as well as the Byzantine Christians. While I was doing my measurements, another tourist guide came in with just a single couple. He looked at me a bit quizzically, and I explained that I was intrigued by the orientation of the place. He just smiled as if to say, “Yes, I know”. So that is one little mystery answered. Or perhaps not. I still have to find out why it is orientated away from Mecca. As a side note, “Isa Bey” means “Lord Jesus” in Turkish – but it doesn’t refer to our Lord. It is dedicated to a local Muslim leader at the time of the construction. His name was “Isa” (which is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus), and so this is really “Mr Isa’s Mosque”.

Well, that was the visit for the day. We drove away from Selcuk passing the single remaining standing column of the temple of Artemis the Great. Poor old girl. She has been supplanted by two major religions already since her day…

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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