I was the first to arrive at the Lower Gate of Ephesus; in fact, the site wasn’t even open yet. I’d planned this on purpose. Ephesus is arguably the most famous and popular of all the ancient Roman ruins on the Mediterranean, and on a Saturday in high season – as it was today – 10,000 visitors could pass through its gates. After weeks in Turkey of having beautiful ruins essentially to ourselves, I didn’t want to share Ephesus with such a crowd.
I’d done my research the day before. I’d read up on the history of Ephesus, and picked out the sites I expected to be the most popular – the amphitheater, the Library of Celsus, the Temple of Hadrian. I’d studied the map and plotted my course: I’d go through the back entrance, wander briefly through Lower Ephesus, then head for the top three sites. I was going to make the most of the early-morning calm before the storm.
By the time I found myself in Selcuk village studying my Ephesus map and guide, I’d visited over a dozen ancient ruins throughout Turkey. This number, though astounding, was significantly less than it could have been if I’d popped in on all the ruins we’d passed nearby on roads or in villages. I’d learned early on that I needed to pick and choose my sites – not only did we lack the time needed to visit them all, but both Bruno and I would be seriously ruined out.
How, though, to choose among the plethora of ancient ruins listed in guide books and identified on brown roadside signs? How to decipher between the ones worth visiting and the ones worth skipping? How best to enhance one’s understanding of the Ancient Greeks and Romans without taking away from other worthy experiences in Turkey? Where is the fine line between seeing enough ruins and seeing too many?
These were questions I asked myself each time we drove past another village or brown sign boasting yet more ruins. There were always many reasons to visit – because the guide book called it a regional highlight, to be able to say I’d been there, the fear of missing out on a great site (it’s called FOMO, and it’s actually a thing!), curiosity, or just because it’s there and, well, why not?
And so, often, we went. For all of these reasons, I dragged Bruno to a lot of ancient ruins. I dragged him through a snowstorm because I wanted to see the Greek ruins of Nemrut Dağı and to the bustling town (two words Bruno hates) of Diyarbakır so I could walk on the ancient city walls. I’d made him bush-camp next to a cemetery to visit the Lycian ruins of Kalekӧy, and sleep in a field filled with roosters beside a disco and a mosque so I could see the ancient Lycian capital of Patara. I even dragged Bruno up a 5km hill to the hilltop ruins of Pergamon after a full day’s drive.
Poor Bruno. It’s no wonder he sent me to see Ephesus on my own.
I didn’t expect Ephesus to live up to its name. Especially after having had the seaside ruins of Anemurium to ourselves and having shared the picturesque Lycian ruins of Phaselis with Phil and Angie. I expected that sharing my experience of an ancient site with so many people would feel lackluster.
But when I walked through the back gate and strolled down the shaded main street toward the biggest amphitheater I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Doubly so because I had Ephesus to myself. For a full forty minutes I wandered past a crumbled city of sparkling white marble and found myself continuously amazed at its scale and obvious grandeur. The decorated tops of columns were scattered all over the ground. Images recreating the massive fountains and temples helped me picture their former scale. Decrees written in Ancient Greek were still deeply carved into rock.
The Library of Celsus, with its intricate detail and elegant columns hiding a modest room behind, was the most beautiful ancient building I’ve seen in all of Turkey. But I knew I only had a few more magical moments to myself – I could see the hordes of people marching down Curetes Way, Ephesus’ main street, straight toward me. And so, I sat down in front of the library that had housed 12,000 scrolls in a climate-controlled environment almost 2,000 years ago and marvelled at the civilization that had created this beautiful building.
Admittedly, after Ephesus, no other site in Turkey could compare. Pergamon’s Acropolis, a comparable ancient city that some prefer due to lack of crowds, failed to impress me. Its marble was dull grey, its amphitheater felt small, and its ruins were a little too ruined. Only the temple of Trajan wowed me – and probably because its gigantic white marble columns reminded me of Ephesus.
When we drove on to Troy – yes, the Troy – to visit the ruined layers of its eight ancient cities, we felt so unimpressed that we decided not even to enter the site. I simply took a photo of the reconstructed Trojan Horse – my “I was there” photo – and left.
It appeared that Ephesus had ruined me (pardon the pun!). I didn’t want to visit any more ancient sites in Turkey. I’d seen many ruins: I’d seen them without crowds; I’d seen unknown ones on the side of the road and ones that would soon disappear under water; I’d hiked down cliffs and over hills to see them; I’d uncovered them among jungly-tall grasses, spiders and snakes; I’d seen them in the hills and by the sea, in the beating sun and the freezing rain.
And now I’d seen ruins that sparkled white – after thousands of years – from head to toe.
I’ve learned a thing or two about visiting the ancient ruins of Turkey (which can, I think, be applied to any other country with a multitude of sites to see):
- Don’t try and visit every site. Don’t travel too far off your route for a site unless it’s something you really want to see. Don’t let FOMO get the best of you!
- Do visit whatever is literally right next to you – sometimes you can be surprised by sites you’d never even heard about.
- See a mixture of types of sites – a few big “must-see” sites, a Lycian ruin or two, and a few lesser-known sites to have the experience of a ruin to yourself. (My personal top-five recommendations are Ephesus and Hasankeyf for must-see sites, Phaselis Lycian ruins, and Adamkayalor and Anemurium, lesser-known sites worth the trip.)
- Leave Ephesus for last, if you can. Working your way up from tiny, less-impressive sites, to larger and more important sites is a great way to be continually impressed.
Lastly, here are a few Ephesus-specific tips for beating the crowds and making the most of your visit:
- Be there for 8:00am on the dot if you value having a peaceful, solitary visit (which I highly recommend).
- Visit the most important sites first (if you’ve arrived early). The Library of Celsus and the Temple of Hadrian are the two most-visited sites. Save the side-streets, harbour, and little ruins scattered along the main streets for when you need to duck away from the crowds marching down the Curetes Way.
- Consider entering via the Lower Gate because all the groups start their tours from the Upper Gate. The only problem with this tactic is that eventually you’ll run directly into the onslaught.
- Finish your visit with the Terraced Houses (they are well-worth the extra $7!). Not only do they show a fascinating glimpse of home life in the city (complete with excellent mosaics and frescoes), but because they are covered, you’ll be able to get out of the hot sun!
- Visit the Ephesus Museum in Selcuk after your visit to Ephesus. All its objects come directly from Ephesus, so it’s a great way to fill in the gaps of some of the artistic elements missing at the actual site.