Selcuk is 81km (50 miles) south of Izmir; 20km (12 miles) northeast of Kusadasi.
Nobody comes to Turkey to visit poor overlooked Selçuk, relegated since ancient times to a secondary position in the shadow of Ephesus, its more illustrious neighbor. But the histories of the two cities are forever intertwined; Selçuk pre-dates Ephesus, and indeed, Selçuk was Ephesus.
The rise and fall of Selçuk/Ephesus, which for the purposes of this chapter refers to the combined area between and including present-day Selçuk and Mount Koressos (Bülbül Dagi; where the remains of the original city wall still stand), was directly related to the ebbs and flows of the sea. In the 7th century B.C., Cimmerian invasions relegated the Ephesians to the area around the Artemesian, at the base of Ayasoluk Hill. (Selçuk’s castle occupies this hill.) Because the neighborhood of the Artemesian lies below sea level, archaeologists have been unable as of yet to excavate beyond the temple’s remains. When, with the death of Alexander the Great, General Lysimachos took control of the whole of Ionia, the city of Ephesus was reestablished adjacent to the harbor. The expansion of Christianity in the 4th century A.D. saw the construction of many important religious and state buildings in Ephesus, including the castle on Ayasoluk Hill and of St. John’s Basilica. The silting up of the harbor resulted in the gradual decline of Ephesus as a major commercial port, leaving it vulnerable to subsequent invasions, namely the arrival of the Selçuks in the 10th century.
Today a visit to Selçuk seems only to be a necessary sidebar to the main attraction at Ephesus, just 3km (1 3/4 miles) away. Nevertheless, the presence of a number of noteworthy ruins, including the representative remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the nearby winemaking village of Sirince, the whole of which has been declared a historic preservation site; and a beautiful stretch of beach just minutes to the west, make Selçuk a perfect base for a well-rounded holiday.
The exhibit opens with the Roman Period House Finds Room, displaying items recovered during excavations of the terraced houses of Ephesus’s entitled class. Here you’ll find examples of household items, including the bronze statue Eros with the Dolphin from a 2nd-century fountain, a 3rd-century fresco of Socrates, and finally the inspiration for all of those cheesy souvenir-shop models, the original statue of Bes attached to his exaggerated uncircumcised erect penis. Contrary to popular thought, Bes, actually of Egyptian origin, was not the god of the brothel, but the protector of everything associated with motherhood and childbearing. A faded fresco of Socrates recovered from one of the homes indicates the importance of philosophy in the daily life of the citizens.
During the Roman Empire, Ephesus housed an important school of medicine; here you’ll also find a collection of medical and cosmetic tools (two inseparable sciences at the time) along with a wall of portraits of several famous Ephesian physicians.
Recovered from several monumental fountains are a beautiful representation of a headless Aphrodite and a bodiless head of Zeus dating to the 1st century A.D. Nearby is a narration of Polyphemus’s mythological attempt on Odysseus’s life. From the Fountain of Trajan are a statue of a youthful Dionysus with a satyr, and additional statues of Dionysus with members of the imperial family. The list goes on and on. Among the mind-boggling treasures displayed in the museum, keep an eye out for the Ivory Frieze, discovered in an upper story of one of the Terraced Houses, which depicts the emperor Trajan and his Roman soldiers in battle against “the barbarians.”
Many monumental artifacts are displayed in the courtyards, including the pediment from the Temple of Augustus (Isis Temple), reassembled with statues that had been moved to the pool of the Fountain of Pollio after the destruction of the temple; the Sarcophagus with Muses, dating to the 3rd century A.D.; and the Ephesus Monument, inscribed with the Customs regulations as issued by Emperor Nero in A.D. 62 and detailing the process of tax collection, typically undertaken by a third party, rather than as a state activity.
One of the most impressive and illuminating sections in the museum is dedicated to the mother goddess and dominated by two colossal statues of Artemis. Both statues are represented with rows of bull testicles, previously thought to be breasts or eggs, but all symbolically related to the idea of fertility.
The final exhibit contains numerous sculptures from Roman times, mostly overshadowed by a frieze recovered from the Temple of Hadrian (sections of which are in Vienna). The frieze narrates the founding of Ephesus, the birth of the cult of Artemis, and the flight of the Amazons.
Built in 1375 at the direction of the Emir of Aydin and using columns and stones recycled from the ruins of Ephesus and Artemision, the Isabey Mosque is a classic example of Selçuk architecture. It is also the oldest known example of a Turkish mosque with a courtyard. It is fitting that Isabey translates into “Jesus,” as the structure owes its existence to the temples of other religions, and possibly testifies to the religious tolerance exhibited by the Selçuk Turks.
Located on a hillside surrounded by apple and grape orchards is the neighboring village of Sirince. Originally settled by Greeks, the village was inhabited by the Ephesian Christians, who, displaced during the Selçuk conquests, moved up into the surrounding hills. In the Greek exchanges of 1924, Muslims from Salonica resettled here, creating a farming community highly adept at winemaking. Apple wine is a local specialty, particularly refreshing when sipped at Artemis, an old, restored schoolhouse converted into a wine house and terrace restaurant (on the left as you enter the village; tel. 0232/898-3240). Several years ago a couple of Turkish journalists and entrepreneurs restored several of the village’s houses, which now rent out as guesthouses. A few native villagers followed suit. Despite these developments, and because the entire village has been declared a historic preservation site, it’s unlikely that the essential character of the village will change anytime soon — chickens still have the right of way on these pockmarked cobbled lanes.
By day, the village attracts tour buses and aggressive lace-peddling fiends. By night, however, the village settles down, the candles get lit, and several restaurants and wine houses open up.
St. John’s Basilica
After the death of Christ, St. John came with Mary to Ephesus, living most of his life in and around Ayasoluk Hill and spreading the word of Christianity as St. Paul did before him. John’s grave was marked by a memorial, which was enclosed by a church of modest proportions in the 4th century. During the reign of Justinian, the emperor had a magnificent domed basilica constructed on the site. The tomb of St. John located under the main central dome elevated the site to one of the most sacred destinations in the Middle Ages. With the decline in importance of Ephesus and after repeated Arab raids, the basilica fell into ruins until the Selçuk Aydinoglu clan converted it into a mosque in 1330. The building was completely destroyed in 1402 by Tamerlane’s Mongol army.
The current entrance leads into the basilica through (or near) the southern transept. Originally, entry was through the oversize exterior courtyard atrium to the west of the nave, which led worshippers through the narthex and finally into the far end of the nave. The basilica had six domes.
The brick foundations and marble walls have been partially reconstructed; if they were fully restored, the cathedral would be the seventh largest in the world. More recent excavations east of the apse have revealed a baptistery and central pool, along with an attached chapel covered in frescoes depicting the saints.
The Temple of Artemis (Artemision)
In a marshy basin just on the outskirts of town are the pitiful remains of yet another plundered Wonder of the Ancient World. Rising out of the marsh, a lone surviving column suggests the immensity of the structure, four times as large as the Parthenon and the first monumental building to be entirely constructed of marble. As an illustration of its immensity, consider that the one remaining column stands an incredible 4m (13 ft.) below the point of the architrave. This ancient temple, built around 650 B.C. to the cult of Artemis, was constructed on a site considered to be sacred to the Mother Goddess, Kybele.
In 356 B.C. (the year Alexander the Great was born), a psychopathic arsonist intent on immortality set fire to the temple. Twenty-two years later, during his sweep through Asia Minor, Alexander the Great offered to reconstruct the temple. In a famous refusal related by Strabo, the Ephesians thought it unfitting for one god to build a temple to another god. The temple was eventually rebuilt remaining true to the original except for a raised platform, a feature of classical architecture adopted in the construction of later temples. By A.D. 263, the temple had been plundered by Nero and destroyed by the Goths. The temple was reconstructed in the 4th century, but the strengthening of Christianity condemned the structure to that of a marble quarry for St. John’s Basilica and the Ayasofya in Istanbul. The site is best appreciated in the summer months, when the marshy waters are at their lowest, and the foundations of previous structures are recognizable.