Byzantine Ephesus: Life in the city after Empire

3 mins read

The grand architectural monuments of Ephesus attest to its glory days as a sophisticated metropolis of the Roman Empire. But what happened when the Empire ended in the 4th century AD? Following recent excavation, Sabine Ladstätter and Michaela Binder reveal new evidence of life in the city during the turbulent days of Byzantine rule.

The Basilica of St John, on Ayasoluk hill in nearby Selçuk, was built in the 6th century AD, and is said to lie on the burial place of St John.

Visitors flock to Ephesus to see the impressive remains of flamboyant architecture commissioned by self-promoting emperors whose extravagant monuments reflected the glory of their triumphs, and trumpeted the long reach of Imperial power. Yet what they see belies the site’s long and colourful history which not only stretched back centuries to its Archaic origins, but continued forward in time, well beyond the disintegration of Imperial Rome. In particular, past study has largely ignored the period following the 4th century AD. Now new research by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna at the Austrian Academy of Sciences can reveal how the people of Ephesus adapted to the eventful years of Byzantine rule.
In Late Antiquity, Ephesus faced both environmental and political challenges. In the 3rd century AD, a series of earthquakes left deep scars that are visible in the archaeological record, and certainly contributed to the economic decline of the city. Its troubles were compounded by the relentless accumulation of silt in the harbour basin and associated channels, with the maintenance of these waterways becoming a constant battle. Meanwhile, Constantine the Great adopted Constantinople as his residence and capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, lavishing money on major building projects to expand and embellish the city. As a result, resources in the form of private and public patronage, under Constantine and subsequent emperors, was now concentrated on the new capital, so Ephesus, the once great Imperial metropolis, had to reinvent itself as a regional centre, and look for alternative means of income. Fortunately, the Ephesians had a valuable asset: their large number of places of worship.

Plan of Ephesus during the Byzantine and Turkish periods.


Holy effort

The Church of St Mary – the venue of the Church Council – along with the Basilica of St John, the Cemetery of the Seven Sleepers, and the so-called Tomb of Luke were developed into major religious centres, attracting flocks of the faithful, and sealing Ephesus’s reputation as a centre of Early Christian pilgrimage. The financial advantages associated with these enterprises were enormous: not only did visitors require accommodation and provisions, but they also made endowments and donations. turkey Furthermore, this new-found pilgrimage industry not only brought economic revival to the region, but it also provided the motivation for increased efforts in creating a functioning network of roads and connections to the sea to guarantee viable visitor traffic.

For any port city, direct access to the sea is a prerequisite for commercial prosperity, and here Ephesus had a problem. The continuous and increased silting up of the harbour basin, compounded by contamination created by the city itself, meant the harbour required constant maintenance and cleaning to ensure unrestricted access for ships. This was a well-known issue since the early Imperial period, and up until the late 2nd century considerable manpower and technical ingenuity were employed to keep the problem at bay: a short channel linking the harbour basin with the sea was built during the early Imperial period, and was continually lengthened as the sea retreated. Archaeological evidence also shows that outer harbours were created where ships with deeper draughts could anchor. From there, people and goods would be transferred onto smaller craft that could safely negotiate the shallows of the channel.

This unique harbour landscape grew over centuries, and encompasses the large hexagonal harbour basin of the Roman Imperial Period, a long channel, signal towers, and at least two outer harbours. Clearly, the people of Ephesus did not shy away from the toil – nor from the considerable costs – required to maintain direct access to the sea, and thus enabled themselves to remain a competitive trading hub for as long as was possible.

This is an excerpt from an article published in CWA 82.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.


An aerial view of the harbour of Ephesus and the channel providing access to the Aegean Sea.

Images:  N Gail/OEAI; Ch Kurtze/oeAI; L Fliesser/OEAI

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