Modern buildings often feature a cornerstone that gives the date of their construction. Archaeologists, however, have to look much more closely to discover when an ancient site was first used.
Looking at texts and artifacts from the site, it is possible to piece together timelines for when the temples and cities of the past were designed. Sometimes only a broad timeframe can be given, but occasionally a lucky find or piece of lore gives a more specific date.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus provides an example of both. The temple, described by ancient writers as one of the world’s Seven Wonders, was said to have been constructed shortly after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.
The story of the temple is not quite that simple, however. The Hellenistic temple was predated by another, which texts and archaeology can date to around 550 BC.
This temple, too, was predated. Ancient sources claimed that Artemis had a temple in Ephesus that was built by the Amazons before the first Greeks even settled the area.
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is an example of a common practice in the ancient world. While a temple’s construction may be attributed to a particular king or its destruction to an invading army, temples often served as continuous sites that were rebuilt and expanded upon over the course of centuries.
The ancient travel writer Pausanias claimed that the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus predated Greece itself. Many ancient writers said that the first shrine on the site was built by the Amazons, but Pausanias believed it was even older than the legendary race of female warriors.
Ancient writers may not have been write about the Amazons, but archaeologists believe they were correct when they said the Temple of Artemis was before their own history was written.
The ancient temple sat outside the city of Ephesus, in modern Turkey. The city had been founded in the 10th century BC on the site of an older Anatolian settlement.
The Ionic and Attic Greek inhabitants of the city are thought by archaeologists to have begun construction of a temple nearby less than two hundred years later. While this is the oldest known building on the site, it is possible that Pausanias and the other ancient writers were correct in saying the pre-Greek people had worshipped there as well.
This early temple, of course, bore little resemblance to the world wonder that would follow. It had a floor of hard-packed clay and included Syrian artistic motifs like the Tree of Life and the griffon.
It did have one important aspect of later Greek temples, however. It is the oldest known example of the peripteral building style that would come to define Greco-Roman religious architechture, in which the building was surrounded on all four sides by a portico and columns.
This temple did not survive for long, however. Floods in the 7th century BC destroyed the Bronze Age building and buried its art under a thick layer of silt and debris.
In about 550 BC Croesus, the founding king of Lydia, commissioned the rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis on the site. The Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes were hired to make a newer, grander place of worship.
The second Temple of Aphrodite is believed to have been one of the first Greek temples constructed entirely of marble. At 115 meters long and 46 meters wide, the building was a massive undertaking.
The massive temple began the tradition of pilgrimage to Ephesus by worshippers of Artemis. Tourists, merchants, and kings all visited the holy site and gave offerings of gold and jewelry in honor of Artemis.
In the belief that the temple had been founded by the Amazons, it also provided sanctuary for criminals and outcastes. Artemis had twice given refuse to the Amazons in legend, so her temple offered a safe haven for those forced from their homes as well.
In 356 BC, however, the temple was destroyed. A man named Herostratus, seeking fame by any means, set fire to the wooden roof.
Later writers linked the destruction of the temple to the birth of Alexander the Great. The great midwife Artemis, they said, was so preoccupied with the momentous birth to save her own temple from destruction.
Alexander of Macedon never saw a temple on the site. He offered to pay for the building of a new sanctuary by the Ephesians refused, saying it was improper for one god to pay for another’s temple.
Instead, construction began at the site a third time in 323 BC, after his death. The Ephesians paid for the new building themselves.
The third Temple of Artemis was even bigger, 137 meters by meters, and had over 120 columns around its portico.
This Temple of Artemis was regarded as one of the world’s architectural marvels. Writers reported that the columns were gilded with silver and gold while sculptures and paintings by the world’s most famous artists decorated the interior.
In 162 AD, a Roman edict expanded the city’s festival of Artemis to cover a whole calendar month. Roman sources continued to marvel at the great structure, which they called the Temple of Diana.
The temple was so famous it was even included in the New Testament of the Bible. The first Christian missionary in the city supposedly caused controversy because the people of Ephesus feared the temple would be dishonored by the new god’s presence.
The story of the temple’s destruction through the expulsion of its demons in the Acts of John, however, is apocryphal. The Temple of Artemis continued to stand through the 2nd century AD, well into the Christian era.
It is known that the temple was damaged in 268 AD during a raid by Germanic Goths. The site is believed to have continued to be used, however, and may have even been converted for a time into an early Christian church.
In the mid-5th century, a writer from the region mentioned the temple’s permanent closure with the suggestion that it had happened in his own lifetime. In a final push to eradicate paganism in the Roman Empire, the temple was closed and Artemis was removed from inscriptions in the city.
Its unknown exactly when the disused building was entirely destroyed. Like many other great sites of the ancient world, its ruins were used as sources of stone for later buildings and the site was lost.
Excavations in 1869 rediscovered the temple’s location and its artifacts found their way to the British Museum. Today the site of the great Temple of Artemis is marked by a single reconstructed column.
The construction of the Temple of Artemis shows the way in which religious sites were reused and rebuilt through the Greco-Roman era.
Although the temple was rebuilt several times, the site was dedicated to Artemis for over a thousand years.
When an ancient temple was damaged or destroyed, it was rarely abandoned entirely unless the location had to be abandoned for practical purposes. Instead, it was rebuilt to be more grand than before.
Temples were not only religious sites in the ancient world. They were both symbolically and economically important to the cities that housed them.
Rulers like Croesus dedicated temples and rebuilt damaged sites as symbols of their own power and authority. The construction of a temple was a costly operation that required abundant access to materials and manpower.
Building temples not only showed the dedication of a ruler or city to the gods, but also showed their ability to harness these resources. The larger the building, the more resources and political power needed to construct it.
Costly temples like that of Artemis were the sites of architectural innovation. When a grand material like marble was used for the second building of the temple, for example, architects elsewhere were inspired to emulate it lest their own designs seem less impressive.
While major amounts of resources went into the construction of the Temple of Artemis, it also provided economic benefits to Ephesus.
Great temples like that at Ephesus brought visitors to the city. Not only did they make offerings to the temple itself, but they also spent their money at local inns, taverns, and shops.
The wondrous art and design of the temple not only served the goddess, but also attracted more people. The Temple of Artemis served not only as a holy site, but also as a type of museum at which visitors could see marvelous works of art by well-known creators.
Temples and holy sites like the Temple of Artemis provided the basis of the world’s earliest tourist economies.
The city of Ephesus was important in the Greek world, but reached its height under Roman rule. Expanding the festival of Artemis was one way in which the Empire recognized the cultural and economic significance of the temple in the city.
While the city of Ephesus was inhabited by Greek-speaking people for roughly 1,500 years, it quickly declined after its great temple closed. The cultural and economic hubs of ancient cities, the closure of great temples was a triumph of Christianity but a blow to the surrounding area.
After the year 500, Ephesus suffered the loss of its harbor due to river silt, a major earthquake, and sacking by Arab armies. While a Christian basilica was built there, it never matched the Temple of Artemis in its ability to bring people to the area.
By the time the Crusaders arrived, the city they read about in the New Testament was little more than a rural village. The Temple of Artemis and the bustling streets of the great trade center were nowhere to be found.
The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, known for its impressive architecture and collection of art. Written records and archaeology have shown that the site was built in three distinct phases.
The first temple was built during the period known as the Greek Dark Ages. While ancient writers claimed the holy site had been established by the Amazons, the first Greek temple was built sometime in the 8th century BC.
Even this earliest temple is archaeologically significant. It is the first known example of the use of porticos and columns that would become standard for Greco-Roman religious structures.
When flooding destroyed this temple, a second Temple of Artemis was begun in about 550 BC. A reflection of the power of King Croesus, it was said to have been the first temple built entirely of marble.
This temple was well-known in the Greek world, but was destroyed by an arsonist in 356 BC. Within a few decades, a new temple had been constructed that became one of the Wonders of the World.
The Temple of Artemis was one of the central features of the city of Ephesus. Its art and impressive size brought visitors from around the Mediterranean, forming a tourist economy in the harbor city.
The temple, and Ephesus, gradually declined after reaching their height under the Roman Empire. Christianity and natural disasters made the temple less important until it was finally closed in the 5th century AD.
For over a thousand years, the Temple of Artemis served as the center of religious life in the city of Ephesus. While its site is marked today only by a single column outside a rural village, archaeology and written records remind us of the long history of one of the ancient world’s most marvellous buildings.