“This land was given to us by God, forever.” is a phrase that you often hear while traveling in the Middle East. The irony is that while God may or may not assign real estate ownership, it is left to “God’s Chosen” to take up arms and defend their title. Inevitably the “infidels” invade and attempt a land grab in the name of a “new god”. So the chosen on both sides must take up arms an defend the turf.
In Turkey, we expected to find a long history of tribal conflict in that ancient land. What is history if not countless wars. Tribes settle, drive housing prices up so high and build such ugly shopping malls that they too get pushed out. It is the normal sequence. What we did not expect to find in Turkey, was that gods also come and go.
The magnificent city of Ephesus, once among the trendiest cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, supported a growing population of 50,000 moneyed citizens. Their god, Artemis (Diana to the Greeks) had lavished unbelievable affluence on her citizenry. She arrived about the time of Homer and must have put a chicken in everyone’s pot.
During the centuries leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire, Ephesus continued to prosper. Endless tour groups of pilgrim tourists jammed the streets seeking blessings from Artemis. They would send postcards, line up for restaurants and kept the cash registers ringing all over town. They crowded into her towering temple. And was it ever stupendous! The temple stood six stories high and three times the size of a football field. Artemis had done so much for the townies they felt an obligation. Building her a big temple was the least they could do. Her temple was listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
According to the Father of that list, a Mr. Antipater of Sidon, when he first saw the in 140 B.C., gasped:
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty the Babylon … hanging gardens, and the huge labor of the high pyramids;… but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, … the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.
With a publicity endorsement like that, no wonder teaming hordes of tourists flocked to town. Souvenirs-purchasing travelers commingled with free-spending worshipers. This was prosperity made in heaven. During early Roman times, the Ephesus merchants scrambled to keep up with tourist’s demand. On every street corner, you could find stone statuettes of the goddess as well as poor quality T-shirts saying “I LOVE ARTIMES” that shrank at the first washing. If that were not enough, the goddess had given the town a deep-water port that made Ephesus the leading Roman center of trade on the eastern Mediterranean. What could go wrong when you had a goddess like that? How could such the sweet and generous Artemis wake up one morning and skip town?
It would sound biblical to say that all those people disappeared, their rich metropolis crumbled and just vanished. But vanish it did. Artemis left the scene. Why?
An early hint can be seen in the Christian Gospel written in Ephesus by St. John. John’s scripture hints that not all the citizens in town were devoted exclusively to their local goddess. Who knows? Maybe the townies got to thinking “What has she done for us lately?” or maybe after all those centuries they got tired of the old girl and were looking something new. But for the solid conservative block in town, John’s message of Christianity threatened not only the existing divinity but those statuette carving capitalists as well. The capitalists got that one right.
The more Christianity spread the more Ephesus went to hell. Then things got even worse. St Paul came through on a proselytizing lecture tour. He got everyone cranked up by stirring the religious pot. For this he was tarred, feathered and sent home with no complete absence of Christian love. Yes, there were other non-religious contributing factors to the city’s demise. But as word of Jesus spread around the neighborhood by 324 A.D., the fickle tourists stopped visiting Artemis and her temple.
Instead, they began booking pilgrimages to the new god in his new Christian temple of St. Sophia in Constantinople. Soon after that, the worshipers stopped coming to Ephesus all together and the city became a ghost town. Think Palm Beach in the summer when the snow birds have gone North. The great metropolitan area was reduced to a small village backwater during the time of the Crusaders. By the 15th Century the last resident of Ephesus packed his bags and retired to the Italian Riviera. The town was abandoned; covered with dust. It was buried and lost.
The old merchants knew what they were doing when they imprisoned St. Paul and finally ran him out of town. They should have acted sooner. Paul and his teaching of the new new thing was going to wipe out their city. Ephesus was a glorious town before Christ. Then still another new god Allah arrived in 1453 pushing the Christians out. The great cathedral of St Sophia in Constantinople became the great Mosque. The city of Constantinople changed its name to Istanbul.
This makes one reflect on the transience of Gods over the longer term. It gives me pause to think of the transience of man’s beliefs and ideas. The manufacturers and merchants of Ephesus were real people living good lives in a city of industrious citizens. The tall buildings were not just real, they were, in their day absolutely magnificent. Then one day they were not. Nothing was left but toppled, un-excavated stones.
I try to imagine my own beloved city vanishing and becoming forgotten. Boston is a glorious metropolis located in the Super Power of our day. We Boston chauvinists will not admit it but Ephesus in its day occupied an equal or higher rank within the Roman Empire (The Empire was nothing to sneeze it its day). My town at 385 years is ancient by comparison to some. Among the New World, that makes us almost eternal, or so we think. We have outstanding institutions of education, brain power and innovation that will guarantee our city for hundreds more years into the future. We will be OK- Won’t we? Or will “artificial intelligence machines” wipe out our institutions of education like Christianity swept away Artemis?
Ephesus had divine intervention. She had more than 2,000 years of history from start to peak. Didn’t that give her an unshakable claim on the eternal?
So there it is: Transience is eternal and the eternal is transient. Artemis for all her longevity, adoring pilgrims and temples could do little to preserve her splendid city.