Story and photos by Bob Schulman
EPHESUS –There’s an unremarkable 25-foot-high column standing all by itself a little off the tourist-packed walkways of this ancient city on the coast of Turkey. I’d spent hours shooting images of the Greco-Roman city’s eye-popping sights, snapping everything from its iconic library (with an adjacent brothel for scroll-weary scholars) to its 25,000-seat amphitheater (where the Apostle Paul was booed off the stage by the Ephesians). But the lone column was so featureless I didn’t even bother to take a picture of it. Nor did I see anyone else taking a shot of it.
Big mistake. Had I read up on the city before my cruise down the coast from Istanbul, I’d have known the column is really something special.
It’s all that’s left of of the immense temple of Artemis, known as the greatest wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – outranking the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.
So who was Artemis? Her story goes back to 3,000 B.C., when the big buzz on Mt. Olympus was that Zeus, the Greek god of gods, was about to become a proud daddy, thanks to his girlfriend Leto.
The dad-to-be’s delight, however, wasn’t shared by Mrs. Zeus – who let it be known that anyone who allowed the shady lady to give birth on his turf would be turned into a frog.
But Zeus wasn’t the top god for nothing. He got his brother Poseidon, god of the sea, to simply push a new island out of the waters. And up came the Greek island of Delos, where Artemis and her twin brother Apollo first saw the light of the bright Aegean sunshine.
Ranking in the highest tier of the Greek pantheon, Artemis was the goddess of the hunt (equivalent to the Roman goddess Diana), wild animals, childbirth and the protector of young girls, among other tags.
At one time soaring up to the skies from a base about the size of a football field, the Artemis temple was originally built around 800 B.C.
It was destroyed and rebuilt several times until the Goths finally leveled it in the 3rd century A.D.
Getting back to that lonesome pillar, I later learned (from a TV feature on Ephesus) it was one of 127 columns circling the temple.
What’s more, historians say the original pillars could have been as high as a six-story building – a tad over double the height of the one that’s left.
Even so, the surviving pillar still serves an important function, at least to the bird that found its top to be a handy, safe place for a nest revealed on the TV show.
Think of a travel poster showing the cobbled lanes, temples, shrines and theaters of an ancient Roman city. Then make the city 10 times bigger, super-size its baths, library and amphitheater, and you’ve got Ephesus. Once home to a half-million people and spread out over a couple of square miles, Ephesus was the Roman empire’s second largest city, surpassed only by Rome itself.
The city’s end came from the double-whammy of a massive earthquake in 614 A.D. coupled with a huge buildup of silt in its harbor – so much that the shoreline edged five miles out into the Aegean, putting the city that far inland.
Without a harbor, what had been the No. 1 trading port along the coast of Asia Minor became a much less important city, its main source of revenue coming from selling statues of Artemis.