Where True Worship and Paganism Clashed
THE ruins of ancient Ephesus, on the west coast of Turkey, have been the site of intense archaeological research for more than a century. Several buildings have been reconstructed, and numerous finds have been studied and interpreted by scientists. As a result, Ephesus is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey.
What has been discovered about Ephesus? What picture can today be painted of that fascinating ancient metropolis? A visit to both the ruins of Ephesus and the Ephesus Museum in Vienna, Austria, will help us understand how true worship and pagan religion clashed in Ephesus. First, some background.
A Coveted Site
Unrest and migration marked Eurasia during the 11th century B.C.E. It was then that Ionian Greeks set out to colonize the west coast of Asia Minor. Those early settlers came in contact with people known for their worship of a mother-goddess, a deity that would later be known as the Ephesian Artemis.
In the mid-seventh century B.C.E., nomadic Cimmerians came from the Black Sea in the north to plunder Asia Minor. Later, about 550 B.C.E., there arose King Croesus of Lydia, a powerful ruler famed for his enormous wealth. With the expansion of the Persian Empire, King Cyrus subjugated the Ionian cities, including Ephesus.
In 334 B.C.E., Alexander of Macedonia commenced his campaign against Persia, thus becoming the new ruler of Ephesus. After Alexander’s untimely death in 323 B.C.E., Ephesus became involved in a power struggle among his generals. In 133 B.C.E., Attalus III, the childless king of Pergamum, bequeathed Ephesus to the Romans, making it part of the Roman province of Asia.
True Worship Clashes With Paganism
When the apostle Paul came to Ephesus toward the end of his second missionary tour in the first century C.E., he found a city of some 300,000 residents. (Acts 18:19-21) During his third missionary tour, Paul returned to Ephesus and with renewed boldness spoke in the synagogue concerning the Kingdom of God. After three months, however, opposition from the Jews intensified, and Paul chose to give his daily talks in the school auditorium of Tyrannus. (Acts 19:1, 8, 9) His preaching activity went on for two years, accompanied by extraordinary works of power, such as miraculous healings and the casting out of demons. (Acts 19:10-17) No wonder many became believers! Yes, Jehovah’s word prevailed, so that a great number of former practitioners of magical arts willingly burned their valuable books.—Acts 19:19, 20.
Paul’s successful preaching not only moved many to give up the worship of the goddess Artemis but also aroused the ire of those promoting such pagan worship. The making of silver shrines of Artemis was a profitable business. With their trade threatened, a certain Demetrius incited the silversmiths to riot.—Acts 19:23-32.
The confrontation climaxed with the crowd shouting hysterically for two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34) After the uproar subsided, Paul encouraged his fellow Christians once more and then moved on. (Acts 20:1) His departure to Macedonia, however, did not check the decline of the doomed cult of Artemis.
The Temple of Artemis Totters
The cult of Artemis was deeply entrenched in Ephesus. Before the time of King Croesus, the mother-goddess Cybele was the central character of religious life in that area. By setting up a mythical genealogical link from Cybele to the Hellenic pantheon, Croesus hoped to establish a religious figure acceptable to both Greeks and non-Greeks. With his support, in the mid-sixth century B.C.E., work began on the temple of Cybele’s successor, Artemis.
The temple was a milestone in Greek architecture. Never before had such large blocks of marble been used to create a building of this kind and size. That temple was destroyed by fire in 356 B.C.E. The equally magnificent rebuilt temple was an important source of employment and a major attraction for pilgrims. Erected on a platform about 239 feet [73 m] wide by 418 feet [127 m] long, the rebuilt temple was approximately 164 feet [50 m] wide and 343 feet [105 m] long. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. However, not everyone was happy with it. The philosopher Heracleitus of Ephesus likened the dark approach to the altar to the darkness of vileness, and he considered temple morals worse than those of beasts. To most, however, the sanctuary of Artemis in Ephesus appeared as if it would never fall into decline. History proved otherwise. The book Ephesos—Der neue Führer (Ephesus—The New Guide) states: “By the second century, the worship of Artemis and of other established deities of the pantheon plummeted.”
In the third century C.E., Ephesus was rocked by a severe earthquake. Furthermore, the impressive riches of the temple of Artemis were plundered by seafaring Goths from the Black Sea, who then set the temple on fire. The book just mentioned says: “Defeated and unable to protect her own dwelling, how could Artemis be considered the protectress of the city for much longer?”—Psalm 135:15-18.
Finally, toward the end of the fourth century C.E., Emperor Theodosius I confirmed “Christianity” as the State religion. Soon the stonework of the once prestigious temple of Artemis became a quarry for building materials. The worship of Artemis sank into total insignificance. An unnamed observer commented regarding an epigram praising the temple as a wonder of the ancient world: “It is now a most desolate and wretched place.”
From Artemis to the “Mother of God”
Paul warned the older men of the congregation in Ephesus that after his departure “oppressive wolves” would appear and men would rise from among them and “speak twisted things.” (Acts 20:17, 29, 30) That is exactly what happened. Events reveal that false worship prevailed in Ephesus in the form of apostate Christianity.
In 431 C.E., Ephesus was the site of the third ecumenical council, where the issue of the nature of Christ was discussed. Ephesos—Der neue Führer explains: “The victory of the Alexandrians, who held that Christ was only of one nature, namely the divine, . . . was complete.” The consequences were far-reaching. “The decision reached at Ephesus, by means of which Mary was elevated from the status of Christ-bearer to that of God-bearer, not only provided the basis for the cult of Mary but also produced the first great schism within the church. . . . The debate persists to this day.”
Thus, the worship of Cybele and Artemis was replaced by the worship of Mary the “God-bearer” or the “mother of god.” As the book states, “the Cult of Mary in Ephesus . . . remains to this date a living tradition, which could not be explained apart from the Cult of Artemis.”
In the Dustbin of History
After the decline of the worship of Artemis came the downfall of Ephesus. Earthquakes, malaria, and the gradual silting up of the harbor made life in the city ever more difficult.
By the seventh century C.E., Islam had begun its sweeping expansion. Islam did not restrict itself to unifying Arab tribes under its banner. Arab fleets plundered Ephesus throughout the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. The fate of Ephesus was sealed once and for all when the harbor silted up completely and the city became a heap of ruins. Of that once magnificent metropolis, only one small settlement named Aya Soluk (now Selçuk) remained.
A Walk Through the Ruins of Ephesus
To get a sense of the old glory of Ephesus, one can visit its ruins. If you start a tour from the upper entrance, you will immediately be rewarded with a magnificent view of the Street of the Curetes down to the Library of Celsus. On the right-hand side of the street, the Odeum—a small theater built in the second century C.E.—will catch your interest. With a seating capacity of about 1,500, it was likely used not only as a council chamber but also for public entertainment. The Street of the Curetes is lined on both sides with buildings, such as the State agora where matters of State were discussed, the temple of Hadrian, some public fountains, and terrace houses—abodes of distinguished Ephesians.
Built in the second century C.E., the elegant Library of Celsus will impress you with its beauty. Its numerous scrolls were kept in niches in a large reading room. The four statues in the magnificent facade portrayed typical qualities expected from a top Roman civil servant such as Celsus, namely: Sophia (wisdom), Arete (virtue), Ennoia (devotion), and Episteme (knowledge or understanding). The original statues can be seen in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. Adjacent to the forecourt of the library, a monumental door leads you to the Tetragonos agora, the marketplace. On this enormous square, which was surrounded by covered promenades, the people went about their regular business activities.
Next, you come to Marble Road, which leads to the great theater. With the final extensions made at the time of imperial Rome, the theater seated about 25,000 spectators. Its facade was extravagantly decorated with columns, reliefs, and statues. You can vividly picture the great commotion Demetrius the silversmith stirred up among the crowds assembled there.
The street that stretches from the great theater to the city harbor is magnificent. It is about 1,700 feet [500 m] long and 36 feet [11 m] wide, arrayed with columns on both sides. The theater gymnasium and the harbor gymnasium, both of which were reserved for physical training, were also built along this route. The impressive harbor gate at the bottom of the street was the gateway to the world, and here our short tour through some of the world’s most fascinating ruins comes to an end. The Ephesus Museum in Vienna houses a wooden model of this historic metropolis as well as numerous monuments.
Going through the museum and seeing the statue of the Ephesian Artemis, one cannot help thinking of the endurance of the early Christians in Ephesus. They had to live in a city steeped in spiritism and blinded by religious prejudice. The Kingdom message met with bitter opposition from worshipers of Artemis. (Acts 19:19; Ephesians 6:12; Revelation 2:1-3) In that inhospitable environment, true worship took root. This worship of the true God will also prevail when false religion of our day meets its end, just as the ancient worship of Artemis did.—Revelation 18:4-8.
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Remains of the temple of Artemis
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1. Library of Celsus
2. Close view of Arete
3. Marble Road, leading to the great theater