According to legend, Androclus, son of King Codrus of Athens, consulted an oracle about where to found a settlement in Ionia. The oracle answered in typically cryptic style: ‘Choose the site indicated by the fish and the boar’.
Androclus sat down with some fishermen near the mouth of the Cayster River and Mt Pion (Panayır Dağı), the hill into which Ephesus’ Great Theatre was later built. As they grilled some fish for lunch, one of the fish leapt out of the brazier, taking with it a hot coal, which ignited some shavings, which in turn ignited the nearby brush. A wild boar hiding in the brush ran in alarm from the fire and the spot at which the fishermen killed it became the site of Ephesus’ Temple of Artemis.
In ancient times the sea came much further inland, almost as far as present-day Selçuk. The first settlement, of which virtually nothing remains, was built on the hill’s northern slope and was a prosperous city by about 600 BC. The nearby sanctuary of Cybele/Artemis had been a place of pilgrimage since at least 800 BC.
Ephesus prospered so much that it aroused the envy of King Croesus of Lydia, who attacked it around 600 BC. The Ephesians, who had neglected to build defensive walls, stretched a rope from the Temple of Artemis to the town, a distance of 1200m, hoping to win the goddess’ protection. Croesus responded to this quaint defensive measure by giving some of his famous wealth for the completion of the temple. But he destroyed Ephesus and relocated its citizens inland to the southern side of the temple, where they built a new city.
Neglecting again (or perhaps forbidden) to build walls, the Ephesians were forced to pay tribute to Croesus’ Lydia and, later, to the Persians. They then joined the Athenian confederacy, but later fell back under Persian control.
In 356 BC the Temple of Cybele/Artemis was destroyed in a fire set by Herostratus, who claimed to have done it to get his 15 minutes of fame, proving that modern society has no monopoly on a perverted sense of celebrity.
The Ephesians planned a grand new temple, the construction of which was well under way when Alexander the Great arrived in 334 BC. Much impressed, Alexander offered to pay for the cost of construction in return for having the temple dedicated to himself. The Ephesians declined his offer, saying tactfully that it was not fitting for one god to make a dedication to another. When finished, the temple was recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
After Alexander the Great’s death, Ionia came under the control of Lysimachus, one of his generals. As the harbour silted up, it became clear the city would have to move westwards. Unable to convince the Ephesians to budge, Lysimachus blocked the old city’s sewers during a downpour, causing major flooding. The Ephesians then moved reluctantly to the western side of Mt Pion, where the Roman city remains.
Little survives of Lysimachus’ city, although it finally got a defensive wall almost 10km long, which served it well as it allied itself with the Seleucid kings of Syria, then with the Ptolemies of Egypt, later with King Antiochus, then Eumenes of Pergamum, and finally with the Romans. Long stretches of the wall survive on top of Mt Coressos (Bülbül Dağı), the high ridge of hills on the southern side of Ephesus. A prominent square tower, nicknamed ‘St Paul’s Prison’, also survives on a low hill to the west.
With its brisk sea traffic, rich commerce and right of sanctuary in the Temple of Artemis, Roman Ephesus was the capital of Asia Minor and its population rapidly grew to around 250, 000. Successive emperors vied with one another to beautify the city and it drew immigrants from all around the empire. Despite the fame of the cult of Diana, Ephesus soon acquired a sizeable Christian congregation. St John supposedly settled here with the Virgin Mary, and St Paul lived in the city for three years (probably in the AD 60s).
Unfortunately, despite efforts by Attalus II of Pergamum, who rebuilt the harbour, and Nero’s proconsul, who dredged it, the harbour continued to silt up. Emperor Hadrian tried diverting the Cayster, but eventually the sea was forced back to Pamucak. Ephesus began to decline. It was still an important enough place for the Third Ecumenical Council to be held here in AD 431, but by the 6th century AD, when the Emperor Justinian was looking for a site to build a basilica for St John, he chose Ayasuluk Hill in Selçuk.