Castle of the Week 105 – Ayasuluk Castle, Selçuk, Turkey

Or, More than You Ever Wanted to Know About Ephesus

Ayasuluk Castle

Ayasuluk Castle, or the Citadel of Ayasuluk, is atop Ayasuluk Hill in Selçuk, Turkey, in the foothills of the Aydin mountains. Selçuk is the present-day name for Ephesus, and the history of the castle is closely tied to that of the city. The location of Ephesus changed over the years, for various reasons, including the changing course of the Cayster River as well as the need to defend itself against invasions. The history of Ephesus is a fascinating one, as it had great religious and military importance to many different people throughout the changing of empires.

As the site of Ayasuluk Castle has been settled for thousands of years, this Castle of the Week will explore its history (and that of Ephesus) both in antiquity and post-antiquity times. If you would like to jump ahead to the medieval period, click here.

Ephesus in Antiquity

Excavations on Ayasuluk Hill have found artifacts from the indigenous tribes going back to 6000 BC. The Mycenaeans (the Greeks who fought Troy) also left behind artifacts. Around 1050 BC Ionian Greeks moved into the area, settled at the base of Mt. Pion, and named the city Ephesus. The legend has it that they were led by Androcles, son of the last Athenian king. The Oracle at Delphi told him a fish and a wild boar would lead him to the location in which to build his city. As Androcles was cooking fish on an open fire one day, sparks lit nearby bushes, and a wild boar ran out. He chased the boar and killed it, then established the colony on that site.

Temple of Artemis

The Lydians conquered Ephesus in 560 BC, and they brought about important changes in a short time. The Lydian king Croesus moved the location of the city to the Artemission, where, in 550 BC, he built the Temple of Artemis, the largest building in the ancient world. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple was designed by the Greek architect Chersiphron. It had 127 Ionic marble pillars each sixty feet tall, and a wooden roof. It also served as a bank, and attracted visitors. In 356 BC it was burned down by Herostratus, who wished by his action to preserve his name in history. Later, Alexander the Great passed through Ephesus on his way to Persia and offered to rebuild the Temple, which ironically enough had been burned down the day he was born. Not really caring to have Alexander’s name inscribed on it as the donor, the people of Ephesus politely declined, saying, “It is not fitting that one god should build a temple for another god”. It was eventually restored, only to be looted and burned by the Goths in the next century. When it was torn down entirely in 401 AD, most of the Ephesians had already converted to Christianity. The site became a stone quarry, and the marble was taken for use in other sites in Ephesus. Now all that remains are the foundations and a single column.

theater at Ephesus

One of Alexander’s generals, Lysimachus, ruled Ephesus from 301 BC to 281 BC. He moved the city to the mouth of the Cayster River, between the Pion and Koressos mountains. This location is the largest of all the sites of Ephesus, and the one that most people think of when they consider the ancient ruins of the city. St. Paul visited Ephesus at this location on his second and third missionary journeys (staying for 2 years on his third journey), preaching at the theater which held 24,000 people. The Artemis cult was still going strong at that time, and the people weren’t about to abandon their goddess or the revenue that it brought. Toward the end of his time there Paul said, “…gods made by human hands are not gods at all”, referring to the silver statuettes of Artemis sold to pilgrims visiting the Temple. Demetrius, one of the silversmiths, riled up his fellow artisans with “…the sanctuary of the great goddess Diana will cease to command respect; and then it will not be very long before she who is worshipped by all Asia and the civilized world is brought down from her divine pre-eminence.” Thus stirred up, and facing the loss of revenue, Demetrius and a group of merchants rushed the theater where Paul was, shouting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” Paul left soon after, and went around Ephesus on his next trip.

Virgin Mary House

Early Christian tradition held that St. John moved to Ephesus, living there before and after his exile to Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelations. Upon his return to Ephesus, he wrote the Gospel of John as well as his three letters. He died in Ephesus and was buried on Ayasuluk Hill. Also according to tradition, John brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Ephesus with him, then built her a house nearby. The Virgin Mary’s House is today a site of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims. Other biblical people who lived or spent time in Ephesus include Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila.

ruins in Ephesus

After the death of Lysimachus in 281 BC, the city changed hands several times, from the Seleucids to the Ptolemies, and back again. The Romans defeated the Seleucid king in 189 BC and gave the area to the king of Pergamum in gratitude for his aid. When the last Pergamene ruler died in 133 BC, the land came under Roman possession and soon became the capital of the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus’s location along three major trade routes (roads to Colossae/Laodicea, Sardis and Galatia, and Smyrna), as well as its harbor, led to great prosperity. At its peak in Roman times, the population reached about 250,000 people. The city had several problems, however: the flow of the river caused continual silting of the harbor which had to be dredged, the land became marshy which led to malaria, there were earthquakes, and being on the routes and Aegean made it open to invasions.

Seven Sleepers

One famous legend regarding Ephesus is that of the Seven Sleepers, which began during the reign of Decius (201-251 AD). In an effort to unite the various factions of the Roman Empire, Decius organized sacrifices to the state gods in all the cities and towns. In Ephesus, with its growing Christian base, seven young men declined and went to live in a cave in the hills near the city. Decius learned where they were and had the entrance to the cave walled in. Nearly 300 years later, a man took the stones from the entrance to build a stable, and the next day the seven awoke. One went into town to buy food and was amazed to discover signs of Christianity everywhere. He caused a great commotion when he tried to pay with centuries’ old coins. After a lot of confusion, he led the townspeople back to the cave, and the miracle of the seven sleepers was discovered.

Ephesus ruins

In 286 AD, Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two halves, eastern and western, each with its own emperor. In 476 the last western emperor abdicated. The Eastern Empire retained Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Greece, and the Balkans. Over the next half century, the Eastern Empire acquired the artistic and architectural characteristics that separated it from the Roman ones that came before, leading to its modern day identification of Byzantine. The Byzantines were the heirs to Greek culture, and spoke Greek. Under the Byzantines, Ephesus was called Theologus.

Emperor Justinian I came to power in 527. In Ephesus he had St. John’s Basilica built on Ayasuluk Hill, over a site of an earlier 4th or 5th century church. The earlier church was itself built over the Roman necropolis in which St. John is by legend buried. The Basilica became a destination for pilgrims, much like the Temple of Artemis had been.

Post-Antiquity Ephesus

At the beginning of the Byzantine era, Ephesus was still predominantly at its harbor location. Around 614, however, part of the city was destroyed, most likely from a combination of an earthquake and an attack by the Sassanian Persians. This devastating blow would “represent a break in the life of the city, and the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages.”* It also resulted in the splitting of the city. A wall was built to enclose the old city at the harbor, reducing its size to about half the previous size. This was because a smaller wall and city would be easier to defend against attacks. The parts of the city that were destroyed, the Upper Agora and Embolos, were abandoned outside the new wall. Ayasuluk Hill, meanwhile, was now looked to as a defensive site.

Gate of Persecution

The citadel on Ayasuluk Hill, with two sets of walls, was built around this period. From the 7th to the 9th century, the city of Ephesus was divided between the harbor town and the citadel on the hill, a mile away. Both were designed for defense against constant attacks by Arabs and pirates. The walls around St. John’s were reinforced, using marble blocks from the previous site of Ephesus. The combination of the marble façade and the mortared rubble made the walls 4m thick. The citadel walls are 1.5 km around with 15 towers. Entry to the citadel from the south is through the Gate of Persecution, which leads into the Basilica. The Gate used to have a frieze of Odysseus discovering Achilles, and when it was mistakenly thought to depict the persecution of Christians, the gate acquired its name. In the 8th century the square towers on either side of the gate were made pentagonal, aiding in their defensive capabilities.

Following the upheaval of the invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, Ephesus again enjoyed a time of prosperity. The harbor was re-dredged, making it a major port and a military and naval base, defending against pirate attacks. The city was a popular destination for pilgrims, both in and of itself, as well as for people stopping by on their way to the Holy Land. Over the years, however, people from the harbor site gradually migrated towards the citadel on the hill as the harbor continued to silt up and they battled malaria. By the end of the Byzantine period the harbor was abandoned, and Ephesus was centered around Ayasuluk Hill.

Citadel as seen from the hill of the Seven Sleepers

During the mid-9th century the Empress Theodora set out to persecute a dualistic heretical sect, the Paulicians, who were centered in Eastern Anatolia. Thousands were killed. In retaliation, the Paulicians carried out raids from their base at Tephrice. In 867 or 868 they reached Ephesus with a force evidently strong enough to capture the castle, as their leader, Chrysocheir, used the Basilica as a stable for his horses. Their time in Ephesus was short-lived, however. In 873 Emperor Basil I killed Chrysocheir and captured Tephrice.

In 1071 the Byzantines fought the Seljuk Turks in the battle of Manzikert, and were defeated. It was not a complete disaster for the Byzantines, but it signaled that they were not invincible, and afterwards the Turks began to overrun western Asia Minor. When Alexius Comnenus became Emperor in 1081, the Byzantine Empire was facing attacks by the Turks from the East, and by Normans in the West. He turned to Venice for naval support, signing a treaty with them that allowed them free trade in the major ports, including Ephesus. Meanwhile, independent Turkish states were arising on the Aegean coast as they conquered cities. Ephesus itself was taken by Tengribirmish around 1090. When Alexius turned to Rome for help in battling the Turks in western Anatolia, the result was more than he asked for – the First Crusade. The crusaders drove the Turks back to the high plains, and Tengribirmish was captured outside Ephesus.

Castle, Isa Bey Mosque, ruins of St. John's Basilica on the right

The crusaders of the Second Crusade passed through Ephesus, arriving there shortly before Christmas in 1147. The remnants of the German contingent arrived first, followed by the French. While there, one of the French crusaders, Count Guy de Ponthieu, died and was buried in St. John’s Basilica. Emperor Manuel warned the crusaders to turn back due to the threat of Turkish attacks, but they pressed on. On Christmas Eve, the French defeated the Turks in an attack in the valley outside the Citadel. From there, the crusaders moved on to the Holy Land, arriving with their numbers decimated after fighting the Turks across Anatolia.

marshy land at Temple of Artemis, citadel in the background

In 1176 there was another decisive battle which determined the course of western Asia Minor, the battle of Myriocephalon. Emperor Manuel Comnenus wanted to push east to regain land lost following the battle of Manzikert, while the Seljuk Sultan of Rüm, Kilij Arslan II, wanted to push his territory westward. Despite the tension, they maintained a peace for several years. That peace ended when the sultan refused to give up territory won from a common enemy. The emperor gathered a force of perhaps 50,000 and marched on the border. Manuel’s troops were slaughtered, and the Byzantine Empire lost control of Anatolia.

Following the battle of Myriocephalon, small independent states arose again, and in 1206 Ephesus came under the control of Theodore Lascaris. This was another good time for Ephesus as the fortifications were rebuilt. The upper walls were separated from the lower ones to form a separate citadel, and the lower walls were repaired. The population of Ephesus at this time was more than could fit within the citadel, and the people lived on the sides of the hill and in the valley, including on top of the former site of the Temple of Artemis, the ruins of which were by then covered in silt.

Ephesus’s importance as a trade city increased again when the Genoese acquired free trade rights. It was the result of a treaty made with the Lascarids when they attacked Constantinople. It was similar to the earlier deal with the Venetians – naval support in return for free trade. After Constantinople fell in 1261, the attention of the Lascarids turned to the west, leaving the eastern provinces to the Turks. Anatolia again became unstable.

Isa Bey Mosque

The next great upheaval came in 1304 when Ephesus surrendered to the Seljuk Turks, who called it Ayasuluk, which is the translation of the Byzantine name Theologus. While ultimately good for the city itself, it was disastrous for the people living there at the time of the invasion. St. John’s Basilica was plundered, then converted to a mosque. Most of the Ephesians were deported to Thyraea when it looked like they might revolt, and many of the remaining people were killed. Over the ensuing years, the Greeks were sold into slavery, and Ephesus played host to a slave market. The harbor was dredged and put into use again, for piratical raids on nearby Christian states as well as for legitimate trade with the Viennese and Genoese, leading to another time of prosperity. The walls of the citadel were repaired and large new structures were built (for the first time in centuries), including the Isa Bey Mosque in 1375. Ephesus continued to be a destination for pilgrims, and the Turks charged entry fees to view St. John’s tomb.

When the Ottomans came to power in the 15th century (in Ephesus), Ephesus went into a slow decline from which it didn’t recover until the end of the 19th century. After the harbor again silted over it was abandoned, and the resulting swamps again led to malaria. Tax money was sent to the central government rather than used locally for upkeep of the city, so buildings fell into disrepair. Nomadism increased and the land lay uncultivated. By the mid-15th century, the population of Ephesus was down to around 2000 people. The fortress was still garrisoned, with 40 soldiers in attendance in the mid-17th century. Most of the people were living in great poverty by this time, and the population kept decreasing. The Turks lived in the castle and parts of the town, while the few remaining Greeks lived near the Aqueduct. By the mid-18th century the Greeks were gone. Soon after, the citadel itself was abandoned. The population fell to 20 households, and by 1824 Ephesus was deserted except for the wild animals.

Castle above modern Selcuk

The resurgence of Ephesus with its modern-day name of Selçuk is owed in large part to the efforts of archaeologists and the resulting tourism. British archaeologist J.T. Wood began excavating Ephesus in 1863, unearthing the site of the Temple of Artemis in 1869. Austrians, under W. Wiberg, began excavating in 1894. Today only 25% of the ancient city has been unearthed. The activity surrounding the excavations (also helped by the introduction of rail travel) have led to a renewal of the city. Today the population is over 30,000, with the town primarily at the southeastern base of the citadel.

*Ephesus After Antiquity: a Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City, p. vii, by Clive Foss.

A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, by Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish.
The Ancient Cities of Western Anatolia, by Rustem Duyuran.
Ephesus After Antiquity: a Late Antique, Byzantine and Turkish City, by Clive Foss.
The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, by Colin McEvedy.

Write-up and pictures by Kester.

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