Ephesus – one of the most famous and most visited archaeological sites in the world.
The stupendous remains of what was Ephesus (that’s it’s Roman name; the original Greek version was Ephesos, in modern Turkish it is called Efes) most certainly are a key site on our itineraries in Turkey. We admire the place greatly: it is specifically named in the titles of two of our cruises (Cruising to Ephesus and From Halicarnassus to Ephesus), an accolade that is otherwise restricted to our city tours of Istanbul, Athens and Rome.
It would be utterly impossible to pay that remarkable place its dues in a single blog post – there is simply too much of it. Founded in the 10th century BC and refounded in the 3rd, the city was highly famous in antiquity, especially for the 6th/4th century BC Temple of Artemis, counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ephesus really came into its own after the Roman conquest of Asia Minor, when it became the capital of the Roman Empire’s province of Asia, essentially the western part of the Anatolian peninsula. During the first few centuries AD, Ephesus was one of the most populated and most affluent cities on our planet, with periods of great flourish especially in the 2nd and 5th centuries.
As a result of her wealth and importance at that time, Ephesus is a very grand site to visit, dominated by the well-preserved remains of numerous unusually impressive buildings that were put up during her heyday. Ephesus, as visited by tourists, is thus dominated by enormous and ostentatious structures, most of which are public buildings and monuments. They include the superb Library of Celsius and the Gate of Mazeus and Mythridates, the huge theatre, the vast Temple of Domitian, the highly ornate one of Hadrian and much else.
A Roman condominium
But as I said, we’ll have ample opportunity to write about Ephesus again. This post limits itself to one splendid part of the huge site: Terrace House 2. The name may sound prosaic, but it stands for one of the most extraordinary archaeological sights in the entire Mediterranean. Excavated from the 1960s to the 1980s, the structure is a city block of 1st-century AD (Roman) private residences, comparable to a condominium and occupying about 4,000 square metres (about an acre). The residences were clearly the homes of some of the of the city’s leading families. The significance of Terrace House 2 lies in its unusually fine preservation, with walls standing up to the height of the second floor (that’s the third floor in American English) and with a most astonishing wealth of interior detail. In many regards, the remains are on a par with the famous ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy – making them one of the world’s key sites to experience and admire the sophistication, luxury and aesthetic refinement of upper-class Roman domestic life. Surprisingly, only about one in twenty visitors to Ephesus explores this unique structure.
Terrace House 2 (a similar, but less well-preserved block, Terrace House 1, stood next to it) is located in the heart of ancient Ephesus, immediately by Kouretes Street – the major artery connecting the lower and upper parts of town – and close to some of the city’s most iconic monuments as well as to its main market. In other words, the area would have been considered a premium piece or urban real estate throughout the history of Ephesus; and indeed, excavations underneath the present structure indicate that the plot had first been terraced around 200 BC, apparently to provide space for various workshops. The earliest evidence for luxurious housing in the area points to about 100 BC, but the complex visible today was erected in the second quarter of the 1st century AD.
Overall layout and individual homes
The complex, as originally conceived, consisted of six (later of seven) separate residential units of roughly equal size, each with its own direct street access. These separate homes directly adjoined one another, but shared only few common spaces, including of course the access roads and lanes around. Due to the steep slope and its necessary terracing (whence the name), the ground levels vary considerably, giving the overall structure a “stacked” appearance, with a three units at the lowest level and two at the highest, separated by one (later two) units in between. Thus, the first floors (American English: second floors) of the lowermost homes are at a lower elevation than the ground floors of the middle set, which are in turn overlooked by the top pair.
Although the internal arrangements differed considerably in detail, the houses all fall within the typical framework of wealthy Roman city homes of the time. Each house was arranged around a large central courtyard, in some cases supplemented by a second one, open to the sky and serving as a source of light and air as well as a hub of circulation within the unit. Composed around those courtyards were large and lusciously decorated reception rooms, usually on the southern side, and rooms devoted to dining and other convivial activities to the north, also finely decorated.
These spaces reflect the social, political and financial status of the owners, with a strong emphasis on representation, formal hospitality and the unabashed display of wealth, but also of cultural sophistication. The ground levels further include various smaller and simpler rooms, most likely bedrooms, plus kitchens and (in some units) bathrooms and lavatories. Each of the houses had at least one upper floor, containing a similar arrangement of rooms. Although the upper levels are substantially less well-preserved, it is clear that they were as finely decorated as the ground floors.
Terrace House 2 retained its function as a set of upper-class residences for about 250 years. Not surprisingly, during that long period of use, various modifications were made within the individual homes. They include repairs as well as deliberate changes of décor or even of architectural layout. In at least two cases, residential units were enlarged at the expense of adjacent ones, presumably indicating that their owners were able to acquire parts of their less affluent neighbours’ homes. In one case, a single unit was subdivided into two separate homes. These changes permit us a glimpse of social changes over time and of individual family’s particular stories that cannot now be traced in detail.
Details: architecture, technology and art
What makes a visit to Terrace House 2 at Ephesus so fascinating is its remarkable preservation and its unusual accessibility. Reopened in 2006, the 2,000-year-old building is now protected by a very modern protective structure, designed in consultation with experts from the Austrian Archaeological Institute, which has been responsible for most excavations at Ephesus since 1893. A system of glass-and-steel walkways permits the numerous visitors (over 100,000 per year) to traverse and view all of the units without damaging their fragile remains. A series of very informative explanation panels is useful for those who come without a guide. Apart from the lay-out of the various units, offering a direct insight into the domestic lifestyle of those who lived in them, the visit is distinguished by the countless specific details that can be observed, ranging from structural and architectural aspects via technical features to the extraordinary wealth of decoration.
Among the architectural aspects to be explored and understood are terrace walls, the colonnaded courtyards, doorways, rooms and passageways, staircases, vaulted and flat ceilings, stone and brick house walls and so on. The aforementioned structural modifications are also visible in places. For example, in residential unit 6, the most luxurious of them all (perhaps combining the role of a private home with that of an official residence), an enlargement permitted the construction of the 178 square metre (1,915 sq ft) “marble hall”, a dining room, and next to it a very tall vaulted room with a semicircular apse, most likely an indoor bathroom.
Equally as interesting are the many technical refinements found in each of the houses, including deep wells cut down to the water table and giving each house direct access to fresh water, indoor fountains and lavatories with running water supplied by a sophisticated network of water pipes fed by aqueduct, under-floor and wall heating systems (the famous Roman hypocausts) in the bathrooms and some bedrooms, a comprehensive sewage system and many examples of inbuilt furnishings, such as storage spaces, hearths, stoves, benches, pools and domestic altars.
Most striking for the majority of visitors, however, is the breathtaking variety and beauty of the decorations embellishing many of the rooms. Floors are made of plaster, tiles set on edge to form patterns, stone flags, marble inlay or fine mosaics (about a hundred of them!) depicting abstract patterns or figural motifs. The latter include plants, animals and a vast array of mythological scenes or characters.
Even more impressive are the wall decorations. Over 75 rooms have painted frescoes, ranging from faux architecture via flowers, vegetal garlands, birds and other animals to complex themed compositions such as theatrical scenes, Greek philosophers, gods and heroes and much more. They are a very direct representation of the sophisticated and profound cultural values, connections and ideas they were meant to express, making regular reference to the Greek cultural trends that prevailed in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire.
Other, even more expensive, wall decorations include glass mosaics (considered the most superior form of that art) and extensive areas of cladding with various types of imported coloured marble, including the entirety of the “marble hall” in unit 6.
Insights into ancient domestic and soial life
It is also worth mentioning that many of the walls, both in rooms and courtyards, bear incised graffiti, a very common phenomenon in the Roman World. Besides various images, many of them caricatures, there is a vast number of written graffiti (mostly in Greek, but some in Latin), ranging from blessings and expressions of gratitude via poems and riddles to curses and obscenities – a unique insight into the lives of those who lived, worked or visited here.
There is a lot more to be said and to be seen. During the excavations, many moveable objects (what archaeologists call “small finds”) were discovered in Terrace House 2: tools, storage vessels, cooking and dining wares, items of furniture, jewellery, small and large-scale sculpture in ivory, bronze or stone, and so on. A sample of them can be seen in the archaeological museum at nearby Selçuk.
All good things…
The use of Terrace House 2 as a wealthy residential area came to a halt around AD 280, when the complex suffered substantial damage from a major earthquake. Such events had occurred in the previous centuries, too, leading to some of the observable repairs – but by the late 3rd century, the city’s fortunes were in decline and its society was changing, ruling out a reconstruction of the structure’s former glory. That does not mean it went entirely out of use: there is copious evidence of occupation lasting for another thousand years or more, throughout the Byzantine period. Part of this continuing use was residential, but industrial structures were also established within the standing remains, the most obvious example being a series of mills from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, illustrating the changing character of Ephesus at the time, from a densely occupied urban space to a still monumental semi-rural settlement.
A visit to Terrace House 2 at Ephesus is a remarkable experience, informative because of its unusually fine preservation and presentation – and enjoyable because of its many fascinating details and its sheer beauty. You can share that experience on our week-long Cruising to Ephesus or on our two-week cruise From Halicarnassus to Ephesus, as well as on In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great – the Conquest of Asia Minor.