Inside Cleopatra’s marbled malls in Ephesus

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Walking in the footsteps of the fabulously wealthy Greeks and Romans at Ephesus.

Unseasonal rain has made the marble street glisten, adding even more glitz to what surely is one of history’s greatest shopping malls.

I am walking in the well-heeled footsteps of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt from 47-30BC, who loved the shops of the agora of Ephesus so much that when her beau Mark Antony once came here without her, she insisted he bring her gold and silver jewellery from this street.

The agora of Ephesus was favoured by the wealthy of Asia Minor, and today what were the best shops still have intricate mosaics outside — red carpet treatment for their elite customers.

As expert guide Sertan Somnez once told me: “This was the Beverly Hills of Asia Minor. They weren’t just rich, they were filthy rich.” And they lived a lavish lifestyle.

Ephesus was the gateway from Europe to Asia Minor and the exotic East.  Its geography is dramatic — we head east cross the Aegean, out of Europe from Greece, through this gateway and into Turkey. And on Turkey’s far borders, there are Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Two thousand years ago, Ephesus was the biggest city in Asia Minor.

As Christianity spread, Jesus Christ’s disciples St Paul and St John the Evangelist both walked this street in Ephesus.

Hadrian, Roman emperor from AD117-138, was here at least three times and The Temple of Hadrian is one of Ephesus’ most recognisable features. Built in the 2nd century, it was substantially repaired in the 4th century and what we see today has been re-erected from the surviving architectural fragments.

And, just as he left his mark here, he did the same with Hadrian’s Gate in Athens and Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England.

There have been several phases in the life of this city.

All-women warrior Amazons, who many historians now believe came from the northern coast of Turkey, along the Black Sea, are said to have been here in the 6th century BC.

Greeks came in the 11th century BC; it was run and developed by Romans from 300BC to AD700, and it is that period that the archaeological site shows today.

It is one of the greatest Greek and Roman archaeological sites in the world.

And throughout its history, it has been an important pilgrimage site.

Guide Can Ates says: “People might take six or eight months to come here by camel. 

“After six or eight months with a camel you don’t smell like a human, you smell like a camel.”

And so bathing was compulsory before entering the city. These were hot Roman baths, where the bathers would sweat and detox for 20 or 30 minutes ... good for getting rid of bacteria, Can points out.

He also takes delight in showing the drainage system and 1st century latrines — about 40 toilets cut in a row into marble, with greywater from the Roman baths up the hill to flush them, and musicians playing to mask noises.

The rich had slaves to warm the marble before they sat down.

Four aqueducts brought spring water from the hills. It ran through terracotta pipes into houses, and out through sewers under the main street.

Ephesus is now 5km from the sea, but once it was waterside. The Menderes River, on the banks of which it was built, silted up so much that mosquitoes bred in plagues, and malaria and other diseases spread. 

Ephesus was finally abandoned in the 7th century and the sea’s shore slowly pushed to its current position. Over the following centuries, the city was covered by dirt, which has been gradually removed by archaeologists.

My last moment in Ephesus, is in the great theatre, which could seat 24,000 people.


Fact File


Stephen Scourfield travelled courtesy of Bicton Travel and Celestyal Cruises. They have not seen this story and have not approved it.


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