A Church of Brick and Marble: Christianity in Ephesus

Ephesus is an ancient city, well known for the extensive excavations done there over the past decades. These have exposed the reconstructed facade of the library of Celsus, the luxurious terraced apartments of the urban elite, and even an advertisement directing foot-traffic to the local brothel. The city, however, continued to be a site of importance well into the Middle Ages, graced with an imperially patronised basilica and, later still, a Turkish castle.

Key to the city’s early mediaeval identity were its connections to the Christian past. St John the Apostle had reputedly come to preach in Ephesus and was subsequently buried in the city. This tradition was continued through the building of a chapel on the site of his alleged grave. Then, in the 5th century, Ephesus played host to three ecumenical councils–meetings of ecclesiastical figures from across the Christian world that deliberated on the most important of theological questions.

Carved marble niche in the Basilica of St John, Ephesus.

In 431, the church met to deliberate over the teachings of Nestorius, eventually declaring him a heretic and precipitating the formation of a separate Nestorian Church. Then, barely more than a decade later, ecclesiastical figures met again in 449 to define the orthodox belief over the nature of Christ. This debate raged throughout the century, as reflected in the Third Council of Ephesus, in 475. This council met to cast down the conclusions of still another council–the Council of Chalcedon of 451–and uphold the widely condemned findings of Ephesus II.

These councils, however, are assumed to have taken place in the Church of St Mary, near the ancient harbour of Ephesus. Perhaps because of the city’s claim to the relics of St John and its strong presence in the theological debates of the foregoing century, however, the Emperor Justinian decided to patronise a new basilica in  the 530s. Construction relied upon the highly developed brickwork techniques the Byzantines had inherited from their Roman predecessors, and took inspiration from the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (now lost.)

Although built predominantly of brick, marble columns were used to beautify and support the domes that graced the basilica.

A display of imperial piety, the new basilica also exalted the bishops of Ephesus and allowed both parties to benefit from the tradition of pilgrimage to St John’s tomb. The saint, celebrated every year on the 8th of May, was popularly held not to have died at all. According to legend, his body merely slept, and the pattern of his exhalations caused a holy dust, manna, to rise from the tomb. Miracles of this type were common at most saints’ tombs, but the status of John ensured his church an uncommonly large following of pilgrims, who often took souvenirs of manna with them to cure ailments or act as talismans of luck.

In the following centuries, the basilica was adapted to the changing circumstances of Asia Minor. Defensive walls were added to protect against the raiding of the Arab Conquests, which penetrated deep into Byzantine territory. Even in the 10th century, the basilica received new interior frescos celebrating the church’s patron saint John. When the Turks took over the area, however, the basilica was converted into a mosque before its destruction in an earthquake in the 14th century.

In so many ways, the fate of Ephesus and its basilica reflect the wider trends of history in Asia Minor. The theological debates which came up for discussion at Ephesian councils  were part of broader sectarian clashes in the East Roman world, and contributed to the highly sacral nature of Byzantine imperial legitimacy. The sponsorship of pilgrimage and the increasing focus on religious donations also captures a shift in urban life away from the grand civic buildings that characterised ancient Ephesus. Even the material fabric of the basilica itself–employing classical marble as well as brick, the main material for later Byzantine churches–alludes to the transitions made in religion, society, and politics both in Ephesus and in the eastern Mediterranean at large.

Learn More: 

Clive Foss,  ‘Pilgrimage in Medieval Asia Minor‘ Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 56, (2002), pp. 129-151

4 thoughts on “A Church of Brick and Marble: Christianity in Ephesus

    • You’re welcome! The question of urban continuity in the Byzantine lands is a complicated one, but Ephesus, with it’s bishopric, seems to have fared quite well. The only thing that saddened me about this post is that I couldn’t include my dozens of photos of the ancient city–as you say, it’s a wonderful place.

      • I went there on a school trip; maybe it was the Classics teachers with (ahem!) a slightly different agenda who kept that continuity secret?

      • Perhaps. I found that in Turkey, the ancient period was best represented, and the Byzantine sites were reasonably well advertised, but the Seljuk and beylik periods, before the Ottomans take over, were very poorly promoted. I would have liked to visit the Seljuk castle at Ephesus, but it was closed when I went.

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