Archaeologists Unveil Blazing Mosaics From Apostle Paul-era Ephesus

Ancient Roman city was a center of Artemis worship until her temple burned down one time too many, leading people to question the goddess' power.

Renovating a mosaic in ancient Ephesus, showing a mythic depiction.
Renovating a mosaic in ancient Ephesus, showing a mythic depiction. N. Gail / AOW

The Roman city of Ephesus was always known to be opulent. Now painstaking renovation of mosaics, murals and other marvels in a sprawling apartment complex showcases its splendor in the era when the city on the Turkish coast was visited by the apostle Paul, nearly 2000 years ago.

Now, renovated in their original hues, the wall paintings, mosaics and marble paneling once again radiate in a blaze of colors. 

Archaeologists have been digging up ancient Ephesus for some 150 years, starting in 1863 by JT Wood under the auspices of the British Museum, followed by the Austrian Archaeological Institute.

In antiquity, Ephesus was famed for its magnificent temple to Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The colossal temple was the size of a football field at 115 meters long and 46 meters wide, and had a vast 127 Ionic columns supporting the massive marble structure.

Living high on the hog

The lavish insula (housing complex) with the recovered artworks was a vast 4,000 m² in size. Nestled among public buildings and sacred monuments in the city center, its treasures aside, just its location suggests that its residents belonged to the civic élites who could afford property in this jet-set area of Ephesus.

Analysis of the remains indicates that the building was occupied for almost 300 years, allowing us to study how domestic tastes and styles changed over the centuries, from its construction in the 1st century CE, to its destruction by earthquakes in the final third of the 3rd century CE.

The complex originally consisted of six residential units surrounding a courtyard, a typical Roman peristyle arrangement. The individual houses were large, each between 400 to 600 square meters in size, and with at least one upper storey.

The complex was highly ornate. The courtyards, for example, exhibit costly marble revetment on the main and the parapet walls, built-in wells, figural polychrome mosaics and high-quality wall murals.

The homes received their water from wells and fountains located primarily in the courtyard.

The latrines were located in the courtyard as well. Sewage was diverted through a channel system into the main drain beneath the stepped side alleys.

“These are municipal residences of prominent and wealthy Ephesian citizens, whose houses served as spaces in which business was conducted and where clients and guests were received, and which, in short, promoted the prestige of their owners,” Dr. Sabine Ladstätter, head of the Ephesus Project told Haaretz.

The silver shrines of Artemis

Ephesus derived great wealth from commerce and religion. According to the bible, at least part of that came from making “silver shrines of Artemis” (also known as Diana), goddess of hunting, fertility, and childbirth, and patroness of Ephesus: "For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain unto the craftsmen... Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?" (Acts 19:24, 35)

Pilgrims would flock to Ephesus in March and in the beginning of May (the main Artemis Procession) to attend festivals honoring Artemis/Diana. The influx generated demand for cult objects, used either as souvenirs, amulets, or offerings to the goddess, or for family worship once the pilgrims returned home.

Ancient inscriptions from Ephesus speak of the manufacture of gold and silver statues of Artemis, and other inscriptions specifically mention the silver-worker’s guild: "Good Fortune! The silversmiths of the first and Greatest Metropolis of Asia, the thrice-honored temple guardian of the venerable Ephesians erected (this monument to) Valerius Festus, the flower of his ancestors, creator of many works in Asia and Ephesus…"

 The Artemis of Ephesus, 1st century AD (Ephesus Archaeological Museum)
Wikimedia Commons

Alexander the God vs Artemis

The cult of Artemis was deeply entrenched in Ephesus. Before the time of King Croesus (595-546 BCE), the central character of religious life in that area was the mother-goddess Cybele.

By setting up a mythical genealogical link from Cybele to the Hellenic pantheon, King Croesus hoped to establish a religious figure acceptable to both Greeks and non-Greeks.

With his support, in the mid-sixth century BCE, work began on the temple of Cybele’s successor, Artemis.

The Roman historian Plutarch claims that Alexander the Great was born on the same night (July 21, 356 BCE) as Herostratus set fire to the Great Temple at Ephesus in order to achieve perpetual fame, which he did manage to do: the adjective “Herostratic fame” emblazons his name even to this day.

The priests in Ephesus interpreted the temple fire as an omen, that somewhere in the world a torch had been lit, that would set fire to the whole of the Orient.  

Maybe they were right. In 334 BCE Alexander of Macedonia commenced his campaign against Persia, en route conquering Ephesus.

When he arrived, the Ephesians were in the process to rebuilding the temple to Artemis that Herostratus had burned down.

Alexander offered to cover the Ephesians' expenses on rebuilding if he was allowed to put his name on the work. His offer made the Ephesians writhe: it was a handsome offer, but they were jealous of the honor of their temple – yet feared to give him a blatant "No". Finally, they evaded the dilemma with such blandishment that anyone but Alexander would have seen through it: they told him that it was not right for a god to build a temple for another god.

Mosaic found in Pompeii showing Alexander the Great fighting king Darius III of Persia
Getti Images, Wikimedia Commons

After Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BCE, Ephesus became involved in a power struggle among his generals. In 133 BCE, Attalus III, the childless king of Pergamum, bequeathed Ephesus to the Romans, making it part of the Roman province of Asia.

In the third century C.E., a severe earthquake rocked Ephesus and, compounding the city's sorrows, the riches of the temple of Artemis were plundered by seafaring Goths from the Black Sea, who then set the temple on fire. Again.

As the Temple of Artemis had formed the high point of this invasion, the belief in the Great Goddess and her invincibility was profoundly shaken. There would be long-term consequences for the economy of the region and for Ephesus' urban appearance.

Finally, toward the end of the fourth century C.E., Emperor Theodosius I confirmed Christianity as the State religion. Soon the walls of the once prestigious Temple of Artemis became a quarry for building materials.

The Christian Renaissance

During Byzantine times, a new flourishing civic center developed around the harbor, featuring newly built palaces, boulevards and sacred structures – but Christian this time.

The archaeologists have uncovered a large residential building dating to the 6th century CE, which obviously belonged to a wealthy Ephesian. Part has been excavated, including areas of the central courtyard and a staircase in the courtyard, which attests that the house had at least two storeys.

Three of its rooms had mosaic floors. In one of these mosaic rooms, a sword was found directly in front of a wall. “It should be interpreted as a status symbol and an insignium of the house owner, put on display and shown to guests in one of these very prestigious rooms,” Ladstätter told Haaretz.

A sword found in side a house in ancient Ephesus, shown front and back.
N. Gail / OAW

Last year, in July 2015, Ephesus was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Already a focus of archaeological attention, the ancient city is now an international research platform with over 200 scientists from more than 20 countries. The power of the ruins definitely justify these endeavors.

A bird's eye view of the excavation of Byzantine houses, at ancient Ephesus.
N. Gail / OAW