Ephesus, Turkey: Finding Humanity in Unlikely Places

I have visited the ancient city of Ephesus on the southwest coast of Turkey twice. Each time I have felt that another archeological layer has been stripped away and instead of just stones or pottery shards, I am feeling the humanity of the people who inhabited this once-thriving city. Ephesus is cited in the New Testament of the Bible. Nearby, the apostle Paul was imprisoned and there, he wrote letters to the Ephesians, the residents of Ephesus.


The city is known for its library with a famous double row of Escheresque columns. No one is allowed inside the structure, but it is the main identifiable structure, known to people who have never heard of Ephesus.  It once had a harbor, but as it silted up, the city shrunk and was eventually abandoned.  Unlike Pompeii, Ephesus is not frozen in a particular moment, but the humanity that once thrived here is evident in every structure.

The main street is narrow, perhaps the width of a two-car driveway.  On it you can see ruts made by chariot wheels.  Adjacent to the library is the marketplace.  Where the two roads intersect and across from the library and market, there is a most bizarre structure: an ancient public restroom.  Somehow, this spot impressed me more than the grander library or amphitheatre.  It connected me to the people who lived 2,000 years ago.  While we always think of the royalty and nobles of history, you are suddenly aware that these were people just like us—regular folk.  They ate, slept, and went to the bathroom.  They were happy, sad, jealous, petty, nosy, excitable and angry. They possessed the entire range of human emotions. Nothing in human nature has really changed. Some were educated, some illiterate. Some had a sense of decorum while others were boors. They fell in love, maybe had a thriving business.

 

For all of the grandeur, it was all brought down to one of the most basic human bodily functions. No matter how rich or smart you were, you used the Ephesus toilets.  There can be no mistake as to what the building was used for since there are nineteen holes carved into a slab with a trough for running water right under it.  Instead of toilet paper, these people used sponges, plentiful in the coastal waters.

 

More human actions can be found if one has the right tour guide.  Along the main street, there are footprints shallowly carved into the pavement.  It was a discreet way to let an out-of-town visitor find his way to the local brothel.  Another more recent discovery is a secret tunnel between the library that goes under the main road to one of the brothels.  You can almost imagine Mr. Ephesian giving Mrs. Ephesian a small pouch of gold coins and telling her to take her time in the marketplace while he catches up on his reading.

Ephesus is not wholly excavated and may never be. There may still be secrets waiting to be uncovered, both grand and plebian.  There are many sites around the world of ancient civilizations, but I found instead of a monument to some deity, Ephesus brought history down to a real level of profound examples of the quite unchanged human race.

January 10, 2011