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The Temple of Artemis: The Great Wonder of Ephesus (That Kept Getting Destroyed)

Claiming its immortal place among the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis, also called the Temple of Diana, was an architectural masterpiece. Worship of Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt, childbirth, and wildlife, was practiced at this site for almost an entire millennium. And even though it has been rebuilt not once but twice throughout the ages, today, sadly, only rubble remains of what must have been a breathtaking sight. Join us today as we explore the history, secrets, and potential conspiracies surrounding the Temple of Artemis.

First Version

The temple was constructed in the ancient city of Ephesus, a Greek colony in modern day Turkey which Greek historians believed had been inhabited as early as 1200 BC. Interestingly, in the third century BC, the Alexandrian scholar Callimachus claimed that early worship rituals were performed at the site by the Amazons. Not to be confused with the package delivering megacorporation, the Amazons were a group of warrior women in Greek mythology that were revered for their strength and bravery in combat, as well as their fearsome use of bows and arrows. Greek mythology says that the Amazon tribe stayed in Ephesus while hiding from Hercules. This is the reason many historians believe the temple was first dedicated to Artemis, who is also often depicted wielding a bow… Unfortunately, not much is known about this first version of the temple, except for its fate.

the temple of artemis
This model of the Temple of Artemis, at Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey, attempts to recreate the probable appearance of the third temple. By
Zee Prime, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Sometime around 700 BC the area was severely flooded, damaging and burying the original temple in layers of sand and silt over two feet thick. These layers of sediment only grew thicker through the years as the site was flooded regularly. Anton Bammer, an Austrian archaeologist and foremost expert on the site says that the location must have had some special meaning as to not convince the Greeks to build their temple in a different location even after this repeated flooding. These deep layers of silt have been excavated in the modern era, revealing dozens of artifacts such as elaborate ivory animals which were likely brought to the temple from nearby regions such as northern Africa and the middle east.

Second Version

In the sixth century BC, reconstruction and renovation began with ambitious plans. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that the temple was nearly 380 feet long (115 meters), 180 feet wide (55 meters), and furnished with 127 columns, each towering at 40 feet high (15 meters), and many of these columns were intricately carved. For comparison this means it had the approximate size of a soccer field, while almost 4 stories tall … though there is some dispute as to the actual dimensions of the temple, especially its height, the overall size was immense regardless.

Even more impressively, the entire temple was to be made from white marble, for supposedly the first time in Greek history. Roman author Vitruvious later wrote that this marble was cut from quarries and wheeled to the temple site using oxen. The marble was laid on a foundation of wood, compact charcoal, and various animal skins. This softer foundation was chosen instead of pure rock because the area was prone to earthquakes, and earlier construction attempts had shown that seismic activity had a greater effect on harder foundations. Because of its massive size and expense, the project took a staggering 120 years to finish, placing its date of completion at about 440 BC.

The finalized temple was one of the most impressive engineering feats not only in the region, but in history, and as news of the new temple spread, kings and travelers from neighboring nations would often visit the temple to leave offerings to Artemis.

Second Destruction

This redesigned temple held up quite well. And though its soft foundation had begun to sink a little, the overall architecture was a lasting success. That all changed, however, in the year 356 BC, when in a desperate act to achieve fame at any cost, a man named Herostratus set fire to the wooden support frame in the roof of the temple, causing serious structural damage to the temple, collapsing much of the roof, and turning the cedar wood statue of Artemis to ash. He said he believed that by destroying a building of such beauty, his name would be spread around the world forever, sparking the modern term Herostratic Fame. The Ephesians not only executed Herostratus for his crime, but seeing that he committed this crime in the hope of fame, they outlawed even speaking his name. Though, as you may have guessed, this was a law not everyone obeyed and today we know his name through the works of historians Strabo and Theopompus.

The fame of the Temple of Artemis
The fame of the Temple of Artemis was known in the Renaissance, as demonstrated in this imagined portrayal of the temple in a 16th-century hand-colored engraving

Legend says that this fateful night coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great, and Artemis was not defending her temple because, as was her duty as the goddess of childbirth, she was watching over the birth of the boy who would conquer Asia.

Modern historians, however, view the story of Herostratus as dubious at best. For example, Aristotle claims that a lightning strike was the cause of the fire. Another suspicious part of the narrative is that for one man to set fire to the wooden support frame, he would have had to not only sneak past the several guards stationed around the site, but also raise himself up 10-15 meters to reach the wood while remaining unnoticed. This casts some doubt on the legitimacy of the trial of Herostratus, and some even wonder if he was framed for the heinous act. But why?

It was known that the temple foundation was deteriorating, and the earthquake and flood prone land was continually battering the temple. Perhaps the religious leaders at the temple wanted to relocate to a safer place but couldn’t simply tear the building down as it had religious and historical significance. However, sufficient structural damage might be enough to influence the decision to rebuild the temple in another location.

Whether it was arson, lightning, or a conspiracy, the temple was in desperate need of repairs. But those repairs would be massively expensive and would take decades, so the Ephesians continued to use the building in its current state.

Years later, Alexander the Great rose to power and arrived in Ephesus after liberating it from the mighty Persian Empire at the Battle of Granicus. He offered to pay for the reconstruction of the temple, but historian Strabo tells that the offer was declined on the grounds that “it would be improper for one god to build a temple to another.” The Ephesians opted to fund the reconstruction on their own, a project which would take several more decades. The final product, however, was well worth the wait.

Third Version

The third version of the temple was even larger than the second. Coming in at 450 feet long (137 meters), 225 feet wide (69 meters), and 60 feet high (18 meters), the final structure dwarfed its earlier models. The temple now featured even more intricate sculptures and depictions of Artemis, but now also included some other deities, such as Nyx, the goddess of the night and mother of the god of darkness. Many of the pillars were now not only sculpted and carved, but also lined with gold and other precious metals. Several sculptors, such as Phradmon, Pheidias, and Scopas carved figures such as the founders of the city Ephesus, the Amazons, and other mythological beings. This temple was once again an icon of the area’s wealth and influence, and remained a beacon of Greek power for several centuries.

Final Destruction

In the following years, the city of Ephesus found itself at the center of several wars. Following the death of Alexander the Great, the city was under the jurisdiction of one of his generals, Lysimachus, who actually renamed the city after his wife, Arsinoe. However, during an Ephesian revolution in 281 BC, the Macedonian leader Seleucus Nicator, who was also king of Syria, killed Lysimachus, and the city was once again called Ephesus under the Seleucid Empire.

The site of the temple in 2017
The site of the temple in 2017. By FDV, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Around 250 BC, the Egyptians also wanted a slice of the hot Mediterranean pie, and their navy invaded much of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Many towns and colonies in Asia Minor didn’t have the capabilities to defend against such a powerful fleet, leaving many of them to be conquered by Egypt, including Ephesus. Ephesus remained under Egyptian rule until the Seleucid Empire returned and recaptured the city in 196 BC. This rule only lasted a few years though, as Ephesus was soon taken again, falling under the rule of the Roman Empire.

The Temple of Artemis stood strong throughout these years and was still a religious hub in the first century AD, and after such long period of instability and war, Ephesus was beginning to prosper. Around the year 30 AD, Roman emperor Agustus declared Ephesus the Roman capital of Asia Minor, and the city saw more trade and more visitors to the temple. Historian Strabo even said that the city became second in importance only to Rome.

It was around this time that Christianity had begun to spread throughout the area, and several accounts tell of a visit by St John to the city. These stories are written mostly in The Acts of John, an apocryphal account written around 200 AD. These apocryphal texts, even though they are not firsthand accounts, and likely exaggerated, are important in piecing together the timeline of the area. It is said that St John prayed in the temple, declaring Artemis a false idol, which burst the main altar into many pieces, miraculously destroying and crumbling half of the temple.

Though this is a fun story, what actually happened was the Goths invaded Ephesus in the 3rd century AD and ransacked the Temple of Artemis, burning the wooden supports for the second time. The extent of the damage done is not precisely known, but even after the invasion the temple remained in partial use for years until it was closed (and likely damaged again) by Christian authorities.

This incredible story of perseverance finally came to an end when the Byzantine empire turned the temple ruins into a quarry and used much of the marble to construct its own city at Ephesus. The temple was never reconstructed.

Rediscovery

The Temple of Artemis remained in obscurity for more than a thousand years, until it was rediscovered in 1869 by archaeologist John Turtle Wood from the British Museum. While excavating in a nearby site, an ancient theatre at the center of Ephesus, Wood unearthed pottery with Greek inscriptions describing the transport of gold and silver to the theatre from the temple. Wood then found traces of an ancient road leading away from the theatre and followed it right up to the exact place the temple was constructed. Wood’s team discovered the temple buried underneath 20 feet (6 meters) of sand. Sadly, all that remained of the ruins was wall fragments and the bases of the pillars. Excavations continued for decades and revealed many fascinating objects, including coins dating all the way back to 800 BC. One set of coins was found to be the oldest known example of electrum, a gold and silver alloy known as white gold.

Modern comparison of recovered Ephesian and Greek statues show that the Ephesian depiction of Artemis was influenced heavily by its location, and as time passed, the depictions of the goddess more and more resembled an Egyptian deity rather than a Greek one.

Today, these statues, coins, and other artifacts, such as pottery fragments and sculpted marble, are on display in the British Museum in the Ephesus Room.

Conclusion

And so ends the story of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Once a symbol of wealth and culture so impressive that it may have even topped the list of the seven wonders. The poem On the Seven Wonders says, “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.” But perhaps the rediscovery of the temple should give us hope that other missing legends of the past are still waiting to be discovered, like the hanging gardens of Babylon or the Ark of the Covenant. After all, who knows what else is lying just 6 meters beneath us?

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