Selcuk, a small town along the Turkish coast of the Aegean sea, packs in just as much legend and lore as the mega city that is Istanbul. From exploring Greco-Roman ruins, to roaming one of the seven ancient wonders, and following the footsteps of Biblical celebrities, Selcuk packs quite the historical punch.
Brief History of Selcuk
Selcuk is actually the modern Turkish town that has developed around the ancient sites and city that lay nearby. To go back in time, we have to shift our focus from modern Selcuk towards the ancient metropolis known as Ephesus.
Ephesus was founded in the 10th century BCE by a group of Ionians led by Androclus. Ionians were one of the four major tribes of ancient Greece and occupied the region along the Aegean sea on Asia Minor. Under the Ionians, Ephesus became a major pilgrimage site for the worship of Artemis and a massive temple was built in her name. The city also became a major maritime trade center, bringing the city great wealth and fortune.
The city would fall to the Kingdom of Lydia in 560 BCE and eventually to the Persians in 547 BCE. Over the next centuries, Ephesus would be involved in many wars and revolts that would conclude with Alexander the Great entering the city, having defeated the Persians. Alexander would have the Temple of Artemis reconstructed, which became the largest building at the time and was named one of the seven wonders of the world.
Due to the heavy silting of the harbor, the city was moved closer to the sea to the where the city stands today. In 133 BCE, a new conqueror would show up in town, the Romans.
Emperor Augustus would quickly make Ephesus the Roman capital of Asia Minor and the city’s wealth and influence exploded. The city became the fourth largest in the Roman Empire and was a very diverse metropolis at the time, with people from all over the world living in the city. The city would also attract a large Christian population which meant the steady decline for the funding of Artemis Temple. Some of Christianity’s most important people lived in this city including Mary, St. John, and St. Paul.
With the port continuing to silt up, the port was lost for good by 150 CE. With the decline of Rome the city was destroyed by Germanic tribes in 263 CE who destroyed the Temple of Artemis for the final time.
Due to the city’s significance for Christianity, Byzantine emperors sought to preserve what they could of the city and constructed massive churches to commemorate John and Mary. Many of Ephesus’ old buildings were reconstructed in the 4th century CE and Selcuk’s fortress like basilica of St. John was constructed in the 6th century.
In modern times, the city of Ephesus lay mostly lost until excavations began in 1863. Only about 20% of the city has been recovered and the site is still active today.
What to See in Selcuk
There are five major places to visit while in Selcuk and all are very easy to visit independently. Here I will detail the sites and how to get to them on your own.
Ephesus is one of the world’s greatest collections of Greco-Roman ruins as the ancient city really comes alive between the two hills the town is nestled in between. With so much to do and see, you need to dedicate a minimum of three hours while here. If you are using public transportation, you will start your journey through the city at the Lower Gate to the North. We will guide your through the ruins starting at this gate.
As you enter the complex there will be a large area of ruins to the east which are the remains of the Byzantine Church of St. Mary which dates back to the 4th century CE. Not much remains of the church but it is still a nice place to walk around before getting to the Greco-Roman ruins.
From here you will make your way to Harbor Street which used to be the impressive gateway into the city of Ephesus. The path led all the way to Ephesus’ port and was lined with marble columns that went all the way to the sea.
As you make your way down the marbled street, it is hard to miss the site’s largest structure, the Great Theater. It is estimated that the theater could once hold 25,000 people and is also believed to be the site where Paul preached during one of his trips to Ephesus. During one of his trips it is said that his words sparked a riot to occur which began in this theater.
From the theater, Marble Street will lead you down to Ephesus’ most famous site, the Library of Celsus. The beautiful facade before you today was heavily restored in the 1970s by a team from Vienna. The intricately carved niches and pillars is the signature monument of Ephesus and at its time was the third largest library in the ancient world.
In front of the library is the main artery of Ephesus, Curetes way. There are many worthwhile sites to see along this route and we will explain them in the order you will come across them.
You will notice a large covered building nearby the library which protects the Terraced Houses. This is still an active archaeological site and what has been uncovered is magnificent. These terraced houses were once the homes of the Ephesus elite during Roman times. It’s not hard to figure out how wealthy these people were as most of the rooms are covered in artwork and the floors detailed in mosaics. You need an extra ticket to get in but it is really worth it while here.
Across from the Terraced houses is one of the more amusing structures to explore, the public toilets. Working your way up Curetes Way, you should notice the gorgeous Hadrian’s Arch which depicts Ephesus origin myths. Also along the way, keep a lookout for Trajan Fountain which is just a shadow of its former self today.
Up at the top of Curetes Way is the mainly ruined Domitian Temple. Domitian had the temple built here and was so unpopular, that locals tore the temple down upon hearing of his death. There are a few reconstructed arches here and it tends to be quieter than the main thoroughfare.
Back on the main pathway you will pass Pollio Fountain before making your way to the Prytaneum which was one of the most important buildings in the entire city. Back in its prime, the building held the eternal flame of the city that was never allowed to go out.
Next to the Prytaneum is the Odeon which served as a small theater for performances as well as for government meetings. Much of the area near the upper ticket office is still being excavated where you can see a sprinkling of columns and terracotta piping spread across a wide area.
There is no right or wrong way to do Ephesus and the site is rather linear, making it easy to explore on your own. The cheapest way to get here is to take one of the mini van buses that leaves from the central station in Selcuk. Buses leave frequently and will pick you up and drop you off anywhere along the route. Public transport only services the lower gate of Ephesus. The bus continues all the way to the Aegean Sea if you are looking for a beach day.
St. John’s Basilica
St. John’s Basilica was one of the largest and most holy churches during the Byzantine era and was an ancient site of pilgrimage for Christians. Emperor Justinian decided to build the massive church here in the 6th century on the hill where St. John was believed to have written his gospel from.
Not much of the church remains today as earthquakes and foreign invaders have taken their toll on the structure. The hilltop itself offers wonderful views and there is enough of the church remaining to make out what this impressive mega church must have looked like back in its glory days.
There is still plenty to explore while here, with many columns displaying ancient christian carvings that are of interest. The baptistry is still well intact as well as one room that contains the only surviving mosaics that are still on site. The supposed tomb of St. John is marked by a large white marble slab on the western end of cruciform. Most of the southern section of the church is off limits as it is still an active archaeological site.
House of Mary
The most important Christian pilgrimage site in the area, the House of Mary is the believed site of Mary’s final years on earth. Nestled high on a hill above the ancient city of Ephesus, there is a small chapel built upon the original foundation of the structure that Mary is believed to have lived in. You can see the original foundation as the brickwork is different from the newer structure that was built on top of it.
The exact site is based on the visions of a German Nun who lived in the 18th century. The foundation was discovered in 1881 and immediately became a site of pilgrimage. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II have visited the site, further cementing the sites status to the Christian world.
Outside of the small chapel there is a wishing wall where visitors tie their prayers with any little piece of cloth they have. You can also fill your water bottle from the spring here that is blessed and is said to have healing properties.
Christian groups from all over the world come here to pray and pay their respects to the late Virgin Mary. Appropriate dress is required and your behavior should remain reverent while visiting the site.
A taxi up and down from the site is quite expensive (70 Lira) so your best option is to hitch a ride from the southern gate of Ephesus. It makes sense to visit Ephesus first and then make your way up to Mary’s house. As there is a parking fee (20 Lira) up at the top, it is best to offer some money to whoever you share a ride up with.
The Ephesus museum contains all of the prized artifacts that have been discovered in the ancient city. The highlights of the museum is the phallic statue of Priapus and the multi breasted statue of Artemis. The museum is located in the town of Selcuk, making it easy to get to on foot.
Temple of Artemis
Not much remains of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world as only one pillar stands alone in the grassy field. The temple was the most important part of the ancient city of Ephesus as it was rebuilt in all its former glory four times during its 1,000 year life span. Each time the temple was constructed larger than the previous which cemented its status as one of the greatest structures of the ancient world.
The most famous destruction of the temple was committed by the Greek arsonist, Herostratus, who destroyed the temple in the 4th century BCE. He wanted to destroy the most beautiful thing int he world so that his name would be known forever. The city of Ephesus had Herostratus executed and decreed that anyone who mentioned his name to also be executed. Despite their efforts, Herostratus’ name lives on as a figure of speech for someone who will go to any means to become famous.
As there is only one of the original 127 columns to see, you could spend as little as five minutes at this site. The area however is quite peaceful and atmospheric, making it a nice place to walk around and relax for a while. You can still make out some of the foundation of the temple as you walk around.
The Temple of Artemis is within easy walking distance of Selcuk. The minibus that heads to Ephesus also passes by the site.
Where to Stay and Eat
After trying out two guesthouses in Selcuk, we highly recommend staying at Artemis Guesthouse. Rooms are clean, staff are friendly, and the location can’t be beat. For good cheap eats, head to the pedestrianized Siegburg Street in the middle of town. There are a few good kabob places that line the street here.
How to Get There
There are two main ways to get to Selcuk from Istanbul and all require a transfer at Izmir, the main transport hub in the area.
The one hour flight between Istanbul and Izmir is dirt cheap, averaging between $20-$40 for a single flight. Once you get to the airport, you can walk to the train station where you can then catch a train to Selcuk or head to the bus station where mini buses depart regularly.
There are a few direct buses to and from Istanbul (120 lira) which take ten hours to complete the journey, but you are more likely to find a bus to Izmir (100 lira) from where you can transfer to a minibus in order to complete the journey.
From Slecuk, there are several buses a day that head east towards Pamukkale, Cappadocia, Erzurum, and Ankara. All depart from Selcuk’s central bus station.
Selcuk: The stuff of Legends
Selcuk has all the history and lore that could match mega cities like Istanbul but in a much more condensed package. First timers to Turkey have to make their way down to this epicenter of Asia Minor history and explore the legendary city of Ephesus. It is a town you that will be hard to forget once you take in all that is here to see.