“This land was given to us by God, forever” is a boast and challenge you often hear in the Middle East. The irony is that while God may or may not assign real estate titles, it is left to “God’s Chosen” to take up arms and defend their land. Then inevitably new “infidels” invade and grab the land in the name of the “new god”.
Traveling in Turkey’s ancient land we expected to find a long history of tribal conflict. What’s history if not countless wars. What we didn’t expect to find in Turkey, was that gods also come and go. The magnificent city of Ephesus, once the trendiest city in the Eastern Roman Empire supported a growing population of 250,000 moneyed citizens. Their god, Artemis (Diana if you are Greek) had lavished unbelievable affluence on her citizenry. She had been there since the time of Homer and must have put a chicken in everyone’s pot. They worshiped and adored her.
Up to the fall of the Roman Empire, Ephesus continued to prosper. Pilgrim tour groups jammed the streets seeking blessings from Artemis. They would buy postcards, line up for restaurants and kept cash registers ringing all over town. Disciples crowded into her towering temple that was one stupendous structure! It stood six stories high and was three times the size of a football field. Artemis was so open handed with the townies that a temple was the least they could do for her. The Temple of Artemis is listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
According to the author of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, a Mr. Antipater of Sidon, when he first saw the place in 140 B.C., he gasped:
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty 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”.
God. What could go wrong?
With a publicity endorsement like that, no wonder teaming hordes of tourists flocked to town. Souvenirs-purchasing travelers commingled with free-spending worshipers resulted in prosperity 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 250,000 people disappeared, the metropolis crumbled and just vanished. But vanish it did. Artemis you might say, took a powder. She left the scene.
During his visit to Ephesus, Bible author St. John wrote all was not well with the citizens in town and their devotion to Artemis. Who knows why? Maybe the townies got to thinking “What has she done for us lately?” Or maybe they sought gender diversity in divinity. But for the solid conservative block in town, John’s message of Christianity was a threat to their god and business. The tourist industry and stone carving capitalists saw the existential threat Christianity posed.
But as word of Jesus spread…
In 52 A.D., St Paul came through on a proselytizing/baptizing tour. He got everyone cranked up by stirring the religious pot. For this he was tarred, feathered and sent home with complete absence of Christian love. Yes, there were other 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. 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 ancient metropolitan city was reduced to a small village backwater by the time of the Crusaders. In 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. Ephesus had been a glorious town before and Christianity did nothing to help.
Then still another new god, Allah arrived in 1453 pushing the Christians out. The great cathedral of St Sophia in Constantinople became a Mosque while the city of Constantinople became Istanbul.
This makes one reflect on the longer term and the transience of man’s beliefs. Transience is eternal and the eternal is transient. Artemis for all adoring pilgrims and temples could do little to preserve her splendid city.