About Ancient Ephesus and the Celsus Library

Exploring the Ruins of Ephesus Turkey

low angle view of ancient ruins with people walking about
Reconstructed Ruins of the Ancient Library at Ephesus, Turkey. Michael Baynes/Getty Images

Built at the crossroads of Greek, Roman, and Persian influences, the Ephesus Library is but one of the sights to see on a trip to this ancient land. Founded as an important port city as far back as the tenth century B.C. Ephesus became an affluent center of Roman civilization, culture, commerce, and Christianity in the first centuries A.D. The Temple of Artemis, a perfect model of the Greek temple long destroyed by earthquakes and marauders, was built in Ephesus around 600 B.C. and is one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Hundreds of years later, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have lived in Ephesus at the end of her life.

The first civilizations of the Western world dwelt in areas around the Mediterranean Sea and at one time Ephesus, off the coast of the southern Aegean Sea, was a center of civilization. Located near today's Selçuk in Turkey, Ephesus remains a vibrant tourist attraction for people intrigued with ancient human activity. The Library of Celsus was one of the first structures excavated and reconstructed from the ruins of Ephesus.

Roman Ruins in Turkey

aerial photo of rocks and ruins amidst green hills
Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey. Michael Nicholson/Getty Images (cropped)

In the land that is now Turkey, a wide marble road slopes down to one of the largest libraries of the ancient world. Between 12,000 and 15,000 scrolls were housed in the grand Library of Celsus in the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus.

Designed by the Roman architect Vitruoya, the library was built in memory of Celsus Polemeanus, who was a Roman senator, General Governor of the Province of Asia, and a great lover of books. Celsus' son, Julius Aquila, began the construction in A.D. 110. The library was completed by Julius Aquila's successors in 135.

The body of Celsus was buried beneath the ground floor in a lead container inside a marble tomb. A corridor behind the north wall leads to the vault.

The Library of Celsus was remarkable not only for its size and its beauty, but also for its clever and efficient architectural design.

Optical Illusions at the Library of Celsus

view of ruins, archways of stone, facade of columned pediments
Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey. Chris Hellier/Getty Images (cropped)

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus was built on a narrow lot between existing buildings. Yet, the design of the library creates the effect of monumental size.

At the entrance to the library is a 21-meter wide courtyard paved in marble. Nine wide marble steps lead up to a two-story gallery. Curved and triangular pediments are supported by a double-decker layer of paired columns. The center columns have larger capitals and rafters than those on the end. This arrangement gives the illusion that the columns are farther apart than they really are. Adding to the illusion, the podium beneath the columns slopes slightly down at the edges.

Grand Entrances at the Library of Celsus

facade of ruined ancient building with columns and pediments, two stories
Entrance to the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Michael Nicholson/Getty Images (cropped)

On each side of the staircase at the grand library in Ephesus, Greek and Latin letters describe the life of Celsus. Along the outer wall, four recesses contain female statues representing wisdom (Sophia), knowledge (Episteme), intelligence (Ennoia) and virtue (Arete). These statues are copies — the originals were taken to Vienna in Europe. Austrian archeologists, beginning with Otto Benndorf (1838-1907), have been excavating Ephesus since the late 19th century.

The center door is taller and wider than the other two, although the symmetry of the facade is kept in tact. "The richly carved facade," writes architectural historian John Bryan Ward-Perkins, "illustrates Ephesian decorative architecture at its best, a deceptively simple scheme of bicolumnar aediculae [two columns, one on either side of a statue niche], of which those of the upper storey are displaced so as to straddle the spaces between those of the lower storey. Other characteristic features are the alternation of curved and triangular pediments, a widespread late hellenistic device...and the pedestal bases which gave added height to the columns of the lower order...."

Cavity Construction at the Library of Celsus

low angle of two story ruins, second story bays offset on first story entablatures
Facade of the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Chris Hellier/Getty Images (cropped)

The Ephesus Library was designed not merely for beauty; it was specially engineered for the preservation of books.

The main gallery had double walls separated by a corridor. Rolled manuscripts were stored in square niches along the inner walls. Professor Lionel Casson informs us that there were "thirty niches in all, capable of holding at a very rough estimate, some 3,000 rolls." Others estimate four times that number. "Clearly more attention was paid to the beauty and impressiveness of the structure than to the size of the collection in it," bemoans the Classics professor.

Casson reports that the "lofty rectangular chamber" was 55 feet across (16.70 meters) and 36 feet in length (10.90 meters). The roof was probably flat with an oculus (an opening, as in the Roman Pantheon). The cavity between the inner and outer walls helped protect parchments and papyri from mildew and pests. Narrow walkways and stairs in this cavity lead to the upper level.

Ornamentation

Low angle looking up the ruined facade of the columns and pediments of the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey
Reconstructed Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Brandon Rosenblum/Getty Images (cropped)

The vaulting, two-story gallery in Ephesus was lavishly decorated with door ornaments and carvings. The floors and walls were faced with colored marble. Low Ionian pillars supported reading tables.

The interior of the library was burned during a Goth invasion in A.D. 262, and in the tenth century, an earthquake brought down the facade. The building we see today was carefully restored by the Austrian Archaeological Institute.

Signs to the Brothel of Ephesus

Footprint in stone shows way to the Brothel in Ephesus, Turkey
Brothel Sign in Ephesus, Turkey. Michael Nicholson/Getty Images

Directly across the courtyard from the Library of Celsus was the Ephesus town brothel. Engravings in the marble street pavement show the way. The left foot and the woman's figure indicate that the brothel is on the left side of the road.

The Great Theater at Ephesus

stone amphitheater built into side of a hill
The Great Theatre in Roman Ephesus. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Ephesus Library was not the only cultural architecture in the affluent Ephesus. In fact, well before the Library of Celsus was built, the grand Hellenistic amphitheater was carved into the side of an Ephesian hill centuries before the birth of Christ. In the Holy Bible, this theater is mentioned in conjunction with the teachings and letters of Paul the Apostle, who had been born in present-day Turkey and lived in Ephesus from around 52 to 55. The Book of Ephesians is part of the Holy Bible's New Testament.

Houses of the Rich

covered archeological site revealing mosaic flooring
Ephesus Terrace Houses. Ayhan Altun/Getty Images (cropped)

Ongoing archeology at Ephesus has revealed a series of terrace houses that pique the imagination of what life might have been like in an ancient Roman city. Researchers have uncovered intricate paintings and mosaics as well as more modern comforts such as indoor toilets.

Ephesus

high angle looking at people walking amongst stone ruins of ancient architecture
Main Street Looking Toward the Library, the Ruins of Ephesus Are a Major Tourist Attraction. Michelle McMahon/Getty Images (cropped)

Ephesus was located east of Athens, across the Aegean Sea, in an area of Asia Minor known as Ionia — home of the Greek Ionic column. Well before the fourth century Byzantine architecture from present-day Istanbul, the coastal town of Ephesus was "laid out on orderly lines by Lysimachus soon after 300 B.C." Ward-Perkins tells us — more Hellenistic than Byzantine.

European archeologists and explorers of the 19th century rediscovered many of the ancient ruins. The Temple of Artemis had been destroyed and pillaged before English explorers arrived to take pieces back to the British Museum in London. Austrians excavated other Ephesian ruins, taking many of the original pieces of art and architecture to the Ephesos Museum in Vienna, Austria. Today Ephesus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great tourist destination, although pieces of the ancient city remain showcased in the museums of European cities.

Sources

  • Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 116-117
  • Ward-Perkins, J.B. Roman Imperial Architecture. Penguin, 1981, pp. 281, 290