Sanctuary and Temple of Artemis


All cities worship Artemis of Ephesus, and individuals hold her in honour above all the gods. The reason, in my view, is the renown of the Amazons, who traditionally dedicated the image, also the extreme antiquity of this sanctuary. Three other points as well have contributed to her renown, the size of the temple, surpassing all buildings among men, the eminence of the city of the Ephesians and the renown of the goddess who dwells there.


Ephesus is inseparably associated with the goddess Artemis, as noted by the Greek travel-writer Pausanias in the later 2nd century AD (above). Her sanctuary lay a short distance outside the city, oddly sited in the marshy ground of the valley of the river Cayster. Two massive temples, each surrounded by a double row of columns, were built on the site. The first, dating to the mid-6th century BC and subsidized by Croesus, tyrant of Lydia, was burnt down two centuries later by an arsonist named Herostratus, in order that his name should be eternally remembered. The councillors of Ephesus, by officially condemning it to eternal oblivion, ensured that it was. Construction of the replacement temple, on an even larger scale, began in the late 4th century BC.

The view down Curetes Street to the restored Library of Celsus, the burial place of the Ephesian magnate and Roman consul, Tiberius Iulius Celsus Polemaeanus. To the right is the Mazarus Gate, leading to the city’s lower agora. Behind is the flood plain of the Cayster valley, leading to the Aegean Sea.

© Brian Jannsen/agefotostock.com.

The cult image of the goddess was uniquely arresting. Artemis of Ephesus was a statuesque female figure with an impassive oriental face surmounted by a high crown; she holds her arms out in front of her torso, which is covered with egg-shaped protrusions, and wears a long skirt decorated with stags, lions and bees, the last a characteristic Ephesian symbol. Whether the protrusions in fact represent eggs, supernumerary breasts or, as some believe, the testicles of sacrificial bulls is disputed. Artemis of Ephesus, mistress of animals, was not the virgin huntress of Greek mythology, but a primal mother goddess belonging to an Anatolian tradition that can be traced back to the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük.

The importance of the goddess to Ephesus in many different ways is underscored by the famous passage in the Acts of the Apostles (19:24–28), which describes the causes of a riot against Paul:

A certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, was bringing no little business to the craftsmen; these he gathered together with the workmen of similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all. And not only is there danger that this trade of ours fall into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis be regarded as worthless and that she whom all of Asia and the world worship should even be dethroned from her magnificence.’ And when they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

Statues of Artemis of Ephesus, such as this one of the Roman period, presented one of the most familiar and enigmatic images of the classical pantheon. The goddess, wearing fantastic garments decorated in relief with images of wild animals, bees and a girdle of eggs, breasts or possibly bulls’ testicles, was evidently in origin an Anatolian deity, who was identified with the Greek Artemis, or Roman Diana.

Gianni Dagli Orti/Ephesus Archaeological Museum Selçuk, Turkey/The Art Archive.

This famous vignette has important things to say about Ephesus. The temple of Artemis, much like the mosque of a traditional Islamic city, was embedded in an urban community of craftsmen and traders. Pilgrims and worshippers were a rich source of income. The temple was both a cause of civic pride and an economic hub for the city and the wider province.

Beyond the Artemis sanctuary there are few notable remains of the pre-Roman period apart from the grim 10 km (6 miles) of fortification walls and towers built by the Hellenistic ruler Lysimachus at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, when he refounded the city and peopled it with enforced population transfers from surrounding settlements. A new epoch began when Rome created the province of Asia in 129 BC and Ephesus became its capital. The city flourished under Roman rule. It became the entry point to Asia for Roman officials and a trading entrepôt at the head of an overland route, the ‘common road’, which ran into central and eastern Anatolia. Italian traders flocked to the city, settled, intermarried and created a new commercial bourgeoisie. Thus old Anatolia confronted new Rome and became plugged into the wider Mediterranean economy.

The emperor Augustus brought peace to Asia. In 29 BC Ephesus became a centre of the provincial ruler cult when a temple on the civic agora, dedicated to Rome and the divinized Julius Caesar, was designated for use by Roman citizens in the province – at this date they consisted primarily of the Italian traders and immigrants. Over the next three centuries the city acquired two further imperial temples, and combined with that of Artemis, these enabled the city to claim in the 3rd century AD that it was ‘four times a temple warden’, thus outshining all its rivals in the province.

Mosaic floors, delicate marble columns and coloured marble wall cladding were part of the luxurious decorated interiors of the lavish Terrace Houses which adjoined Curetes Street in the city centre and were occupied between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD by leading Ephesian families.

Therin-Weise/DPA/Press Association Images.

However, it was not the temples but secular buildings that shaped the architectural face of the city. The 40,000-seat theatre, the scene of the riot against Paul, looked down across a broad colonnaded street leading to the commercial harbour. A stadium north of the theatre was the location for chariot-racing and other lavish spectacles into late antiquity. Ephesian sports fans packed the seats not only of their own stadium but also those of the neighbouring cities of Magnesia, Tralles and Nysa in the lower Maeander valley, a great concentration of vernacular urban culture in late antiquity. Aqueducts built by Roman grandees in the early empire brought abundant water to the city’s fountains and gymnasia. Three palatial bath-houses, built with funds provided by local leading commercial families, occupied no less than an eighth of the urban landscape. The shopkeepers and tradesmen of Ephesus, and their families, could luxuriate in urban amenities funded by their patrons. A grand gate to the commercial agora was constructed by wealthy ex-slaves of the emperor Augustus. The brash new money of early imperial Ephesus gradually bought status and respectability. More than a century later the city’s touristic jewel, the Library of Celsus, was built around AD 135 by Ti. Iulius Aquila, a Roman senator of Italian descent but long resident in the city, for his father, Celsus, twice a Roman consul. It served not only as a library, celebrating Celsus’ devotion to high culture, but also as his burial place. Urban life, rather than the leisure and quiet of country estates, was attractive to the members of the Ephesian elite. An entire block of sumptuously decorated and fitted town houses, the largest certainly belonging to a family that produced Roman senators, adjoined the main street that linked the commercial with the civic agora.

The theatre at Ephesus, one of the largest in the ancient world and the location of St Paul’s famous address which led to a riot, looks out along the colonnaded street later called the Arkadiane towards the city’s harbour.

© Omer Genc/Dreamstime.com.

Ephesus suffered a commercial decline as its harbour became blocked by the silt of the Cayster river, despite determined attempts to preserve the environment and keep the waterways clear. However, the city’s role as a centre of administration, and its diverse and growing service economy, ensured that its vitality continued long into the Christian empire. In the 5th century the city hosted the ecumenical Church Council of 431, which repudiated the ‘two natures’ theology of Nestorius, affirmed Mary’s right to be called Theotokos, Mother of God, and established the Virgin as a central object of worship in the Eastern Church. Christian tradition claimed that Mary had spent her declining years at Ephesus. It is hardly a coincidence that one virgin goddess took the place of another in the transformation of the ancient world. Mary’s house has been identified on the basis of the early 19th-century visions of a Catholic nun, Catherine Emmerich, which meant that Ephesus once more became a place of pilgrimage. A more authentic and defining relic of the Christian heritage is the huge basilica of St John the Evangelist, constructed around AD 550 by Justinian on the hill of Ayasoluk above the ancient Artemisium.

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