Ephesus—the Great City of Asia
TEEMING with a population of at least a quarter of a million, Ephesus was one of the most outstanding cities of Asia in ancient times. It ranked in importance with Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. Commerce and religion were the principal factors that contributed to its prominence.
Blessed with a fine harbor and lying astride the main trade route from Rome to the east, Ephesus was constantly bustling with commercial activity. Two great roads headed east from the city, with one passing through Galatia to the northeast and the other passing through Iconium and through the Taurus Mountains to connect with roads to Syrian Antioch and to the Euphrates River. It also was joined to a coast road that headed north to Smyrna and south to Miletus. By sea trade the city was linked with Rome in the west, and by these land routes it was connected with much of Asia as well as faraway Mesopotamia.
Situated three miles from the Aegean Sea on the Cayster River, its fine harbor made it the chief center for trade in Asia for many centuries. But this commercial lifeblood gradually slowed down as silt carried down by the river began filling up her harbor. Even in the first century this was becoming a problem. Throughout the centuries alluvial matter has accumulated to such an extent that Ephesus today is seven miles from the sea. The loss of its sea trade through the silting up of its harbor contributed to its becoming a dead city, a heap of ruins.
The large population of Ephesus and the large flow of travelers passing through it made it a fine place for spreading the dynamic religion of Christianity. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, recognized this fact and therefore gave the city more personal attention than any other city on his missionary tours. For three years he stayed in it preaching and teaching the life-giving truths of God’s Word. He could preach to people of many cultures here, for in this city, which was to Asia what Rome was to the West, Jews, Greeks, Romans and Orientals mingled together.
In addition to being the principal center of commerce in Asia, Ephesus was a famous religious center. So renowned was it for its magical arts that Greek and Roman writers referred to magical formulas and incantations as “Ephesian writings.” The magnificent temple of Artemis or Diana that stood at the head of its harbor was famous throughout the ancient world, being regarded by the ancients as one of the seven wonders of the world. Ephesus was called “Warden of the Temple of Artemis,” not only because of this great temple, but because of the zeal of the Ephesians for her worship. These religious factors contributed to the importance of the city and its ability to draw to it travelers from many parts of the ancient world.
The temple of Artemis was an imposing structure made of cedar, cypress, white marble and gold. Skilled artisans and workmen labored on it for 220 years. So sacred was it that treasures could be deposited in it without any fear of thievery. The local people as well as people elsewhere, including kings, used it somewhat like a bank for the safekeeping of their valuables. Gifts of gold and silver statues of the goddess further increased the great wealth contained in the temple.
An inscription found during the excavating of Ephesus by archaeologists relates how a man by the name of Vibius Salutaris made a gift of twenty-nine statues of silver and gold to the goddess. The route of the procession as described in the inscription helped archaeologists to locate the temple. When the altar was uncovered at the turn of the twentieth century, a large collection of statues of the goddess made of bronze, gold, silver and ivory was found. In view of such gifts, we can appreciate why Ephesian craftsmen were greatly upset when they saw Christianity growing in Ephesus. Regarding their feelings, Acts 19:24-28 says:
“For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, by making silver shrines of Artemis furnished the craftsmen no little gain; and he gathered them and those who worked at such things and said: ‘Men, you well know that from this business we have our prosperity. Also, you behold and hear how not only in Ephesus but in nearly all the district of Asia this Paul has persuaded a considerable crowd and turned them to another opinion, saying that the ones that are made by hands are not gods. Moreover, the danger exists not only that this occupation of ours will come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be esteemed as nothing and even her magnificence which the whole district of Asia and the inhabited earth worships is about to be brought down to nothing.’ Hearing this and becoming full of anger, the men began crying out, saying: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”
Another interesting feature about the temple of Artemis is the right of sanctuary accorded to criminals who fled there. They could find protection from arrest in an area that extended around the temple for a distance of about 600 feet. The practice of having an area of asylum for criminals around temples was a common practice in connection with a number of pagan Greek temples.
By realizing the commercial and religious importance of Ephesus, we can better appreciate why the apostle Paul spent so much time there. A strong, thriving Christian congregation could be very effective in this crossroads of the ancient world. The zealous preaching by it would bring the steady flow of travelers passing through Ephesus in touch with Christian truth and spread it to other places.
Today Ephesus is a heap of ruins, a city long dead. Remains of its famous temple, its great stadium, its theater and its marketplace can be seen by travelers, but it is difficult for them to conclude from what they see that this city was once perhaps the greatest metropolis of Asia.
[Picture on page 60]
Temple of the Ephesian Diana