The ancient city of Ephesus was built on the River Cayster on the Western Coast of Asia Minor. Today it sits about 80 kilometers south of Izmir, Turkey. There is no real historical data about the founding of Ephesus but there are several myths and legends that surround it. One legend points to the Athenian Prince Androkolos choosing the site of Ephesus as a place for a new settlement; another legend points to the Sesostris, an Egyptian, as having conquered the territory.
The earliest historical accounts of Ephesus date back to roughly about 560 BC when, along with other Ionian cities in Asia Minor, Ephesus was captured by the Lydian King Croesus. When Cyrus overthrew Lydia, Ephesus passed into the hands of the Persian Empire.
Over the next five centuries, the opulence and grandeur of Ephesus didn’t dim. It was one of the most vibrant and bustling cities along the Mediterranean, pulsing with trade and culture. Ephesus’ main claim to fame though was the Temple of Artemis, known by the Romans as Diana. The city was a focal point of the cultic worship of the goddess who was considered the patron deity of the hunt, childbirth, wild animals, chastity and the wilderness.
The Port of Ephesus extended four miles from the sea and was one of the greatest ports in the ancient world. It teemed with trade and commerce, buzzing with the exotic dialects of merchantmen from Greece and Phoenicia, who rubbed shoulders with each other, plying their ware and spinning their folklore of distant shores and unknown peoples.
The city was built primarily along the slope of Mount Prion and Mount Coressuss. The city wall was built by Lysimachus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. When the Romans got their hand on Ephesus they improved on it and added much of the standard Roman infrastructure, including theatres, gymnasia, and public baths which the Romans were so fond of.
When Paul visited the city Ephesus was a thriving metropolis, frequented by subjects of the Roman Empire from all corners of the globe. Commerce was booming and the city was flourishing with wealth and opulence. The Ephesian theatre undoubtedly hosted Gladiatorial games and in later years would have been the site where many Christians were martyred.
Archaeological digs have revealed that the worship of Artemis was not only widespread but also deeply rooted both in the city and beyond as well. Artemis bears characteristics of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and some scholars suggest that her name is derived from one of Ishtar’s names; Astarte.
The Ephesians were extremely proud of their patron goddess and believed that she was superior to all other gods throughout the empire. It is no wonder then that when Paul came to Ephesus declaring that Jesus was greater than Artemis and in fact the only true God while Artemis was nothing more than the works of men’s hands, that the Ephesians were incensed by it.
There were two great festivals associated with Artemis; the Artemision and the Thargelion, both were long drawn-out festivals that celebrated the goddess and included athletic competitions, a theatre festival, dancing, music, and sacrifices to the gods. The Artemision was also a time for general matchmaking where parents would arrange marriages for their children. The Artemision was significant not only for its importance in the social and religious life of Ephesus but also economically because the city hosted streams of tourists and visitors during the month-long celebrations.
In many ways, the worship of Artemis was ingrained into the very fabric of life in Ephesus. It’s no wonder then that when Paul came into the city, preaching about Jesus, baptizing people, setting up a church and a training school that was sending out missionaries to all of Asia that the Ephesians began to feel that their entire way of life was being threatened. Christianity really did turn the world upside down because it was so fundamentally different from greek religion and we get a sense of just how different it was and how threatening to established greek life it was when we see Luke’s account of the Ephesians riots.
When John penned the Revelation Ephesus was still a bustling prosperous metropolis with and it was the home of an established Christian church. It boasted a population of about 200,000 and was the largest city in Asia Minor. Ephesus was also multicultural and multiethnic and most of its citizens were peripatetic. The Worship of Artemis and the Temple of Artemis was still very much front and center in Ephesian life as evidenced by coins minted in Ephesus during this period.
Generally, coins were minted by the Empire and focussed solely on establishing the authority of Caesar but coins found during the excavation of Ephesus show Roman coins that depict Artemis and her temple on coinage indicated the centrality and importance of the cultic worship of the goddess during this period.
Over the years Ephesus passed into various hands. During the Byzantine Empire, it remained the most important city in Asia, second only to Constantinople. It was pillaged and plundered during the pre-Ottoman era and then incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1390. By the 15th century, Ephesus was completely abandoned and the once glorious city was left to slowly decay into ruin.
It’s easy to see why living in a city like Ephesus would lead Christians to lose sight of their first love. There were enough distractions to shake even the most determined believer and it would have been easy to try to escape those distractions by engaging in a constant, almost fevered round of activity.
But as Jesus pointed out to the church at Ephesus, the activity wouldn’t keep them on the straight and narrow, only a deep and devoted love for Jesus could keep them there. Today we live in a world that is as devoted to materialism, postmodernism, and pleasure-seeking as Ephesus was. The distractions are legion, the incentives to really seek God are few and far between but amidst the clamor and bustle of a glamorous pursuit of happiness and success Jesus offers each of us the chase to sit down with Him and really get to know Him.
He invited us into a deep and abiding relationship with him and in this day and age, meaningful relationships are rare. What Jesus offered the Ephesians, he offers us; communion, fellowship, and a lasting friendship that can change the direction of our lives forever.