Near the town of Selcuk, about 50 km south from the modern port city of Izmir in Turkey, a single column is erected to mark the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Temple of Artemis once stood there, tall and majestic, located in the ancient city of Ephesus, and served both as a religious institution and a marketplace, attracting multitude of pilgrims, merchants, tourists, artisans and kings from far and near.
The Ephesus goddess Artemis was a goddess of fertility and was sometimes called Diana, but we need to keep in mind that she was different from the Greek goddess Artemis, who was the goddess of the hunt.
The temple of Artemis existed on the marshy site since the Bronze Age, and was destroyed many times and rebuilt on the same site until the advent of Christianity in the region around 401AD when it was destroyed by a Christian mob and rebuilt no more.
Philon of Byzantium, an architect and engineer, who was also one of those who drew up lists of the wonders of their times, praises this temple in these words, “I have seen the walls and Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mighty work of the high Pyramids and the tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade.”
The first temple of Artemis was built there around 800BC, but there are no details of it. Over the next couple of centuries, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Around this time, the city of Ephesus was a major trading town and the construction of a larger and more magnificent temple was decided upon to suit the importance of this ancient city.
Chersiphron, a renowned architect of the time, was selected to design and supervise its construction.
But this temple too didn’t last long as a legend has it that it was destroyed in 550BC when King Croesus of Lydia conquered Ephesus. However, Croesus was a gracious ruler and he ordered the construction the temple that started in 550BC.
A man named Theodorus is credited to be the architect of the new temple. It was about 300 feet in length and 150 feet wide, with more than a hundred stone columns supporting a massive roof. A good number of these columns had bases that were carved with figures in relief. Remains of one of these columns in the British Museum is a testimony of the craftsmanship of the people of that time. But, like its predecessors, this temple too did not last for too long as in 356BC a young Ephesian named Herostratus, set fire to the wooden roof of the building and soon the whole structure was destroyed. Incidentally, it is thought to have been the day when Alexander the Great was born, and, according to a legend, the goddess Artemis was so busy supervising his birth that she could not save her temple.
Herostratus was put to death and a new temple was commissioned and this time architect Scopas of Paros was appointed. The ground on which the temple was built and rebuilt all through the centuries was marshy and wet, but it was considered to be safer than other sites as the area was prone to earthquakes. Each time the builders chose the same location so that it would escape destruction but the temple would be destroyed by other means than an earth shaking event, and each time the temple would be built on a bigger scale.
The new temple, the first building to be completely constructed with marble, was grander than the last one and according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, it was a “wonderful monument of Grecian magnificence, and one that merits our genuine admiration.”
It had 36 columns, and like in the last structure, lower portion of the columns was carved with figures in high-relief. The length of the new temple of Artemis was 377 feet and the width 225 feet and 127 ionic-style columns, 60 feet in height, supported the roof.
The construction took 120 years and the temple housed some of the masterpieces of art of the time, such as sculptures by renowned Greek sculptors Polyclitus, Pheidias, Cresilas, and Phradmon, as well as paintings and gilded columns of gold and silver. There were many sculptures were of Amazons, who are said to have founded the city of Ephesus.
The temple was surrounded by marble stairs that ascended to a terrace over four hundred feet in length. The temple had pilgrims coming from far away places and it the city flourished for the next few centuries until the advent of Christianity in the region.
As Christianity spread, the temple was viewed as a symbol of paganism and during a raid by the Goths in the year 268AD, it was destroyed. Though it is said to have been rebuilt to some extent, Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great shut it down completely in 391 when he made Christianity the state religion and the temple was destroyed, for the last time, in 401 by a Christian mob.
The decline of the city of Ephesus had started by this time and it started losing its economic importance. Silt from the river also pushed the bay away from the city, which slowly turned into a dissolute swampy land. The remains of the temple, including the priceless sculptures, were ruthlessly used as building material by the locals, and only a few ruins remained for excavators to discover in 1869, led by John Turtle Wood. He was an architect sent by the British Museum to locate the temple site and after trying for a few years, he finally came upon the ruins of the temple by at the bottom of the Cayster River. Another British expedition, in 1904, located five temples layered one on top of the other.
Thus only a single simple column reminds us today of the presence of a wonder at the site many hundreds of years ago. At least the exact location of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is not a mystrey known to just people of the ancient world, like other mysteries of the ancient wonders.