About the Celsus Library in Ancient Ephesus

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Roman Ruins in Turkey

Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey
Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis HistoricalGetty 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 110 AD. The library was completed by Julius Aquila's successors in 135 AD.

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.

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Optical Illusions at the Library of Celsus

Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey
Ancient Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Chris Hellier/Corbis Historical/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.

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Grand Entrances at the Library of Celsus

Entrance to the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey
Entrance to the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis Historical/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, Austria when the library was excavated.

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...."

Source: Roman Imperial Architecture by J.B. Ward-Perkins, Penguin, 1981, p. 290

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Cavity Construction at the Library of Celsus

Facade of the Celsus Library ruins showing how staggered porticos are supported by each other
Facade of the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Chris Hellier/Corbis Historical/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.

Source: Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 116-117

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Ornaments at the Library of Celsus

Low angle looking up the facade of the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey
Reconstructed Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Brandon Rosenblum/Moment/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 262 AD, and in the 10th century, an earthquake brought down the facade. The building we see today was carefully restored by the Austrian Archaeological Institute.

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The Brothel of Ephesus, Turkey

Footprint shows way to the Brothel in Ephesus, Turkey
Brothel Sign in Ephesus, Turkey. Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis Historical/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.

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Main Street looking toward the library, the ruins of Ephesus are a major tourist attraction
Main Street Looking Toward the Library, the Ruins of Ephesus Are a Major Tourist Attraction. Photo by Michelle McMahon/Moment/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 4th century AD Byzantine architecture, which emanated from present-day Istanbul, the coastal town of Ephesus was "laid out on orderly lines by Lysimachus soon after 300 B.C." It became an important port city and a center for early Roman civilization and Christianity. The Book of Ephesians is part of the Holy Bible's New Testament.

European archeologists and explorers of the 19th century rediscovered many of the ancient ruins. The Temple of Artemis, considered one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, had been destroyed and pillaged before English explorers arrived. Pieces were taken to the British Museum. 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 European cities.

Source: Roman Imperial Architecture by J.B. Ward-Perkins, Penguin, 1981, p. 281