Ephesus (Efes in Turkish), the showpiece of Aegean archaeology, is probably the most evocative ancient city in the eastern Mediterranean, and one of the grandest reconstructed ancient sites in the world. The remarkably preserved ruins were rediscovered in the late 1800s and excavations have been going on for nearly a century. The site is a pleasure to explore: marble-paved streets with grooves made by chariot wheels lead past partially reconstructed buildings and monuments. The remains are especially appealing off-season, when the place can seem deserted. In the summer it's packed with tourists, many of whom pour off the ships that cruise the Aegean and call at Kuşadası, 20 km (12 miles) to the south. (Cruise ships have been known to organize rather campy "historical" shows inside Ephesus itself, complete with polyester togas and fake trumpets.) Go early or late in the day, if possible. Guides are available at the trinket stands ringing the parking lot, but be sure to gauge their qualifications and English before you strike a deal. Many travelers find the portable audio guide available inside the site (20 TL) a convenient, inexpensive, and definitely reliable substitute—it even comes with a map. Alternatively, join a tour from Selçuk, Kuşadası, or İzmir.
Ancient Ephesus grew from a seaside settlement to a powerful trading port and sacred center for the cult of Artemis. Its fame drew the attention of a series of conquerors, among them Croesus of Lydia and 6th-centuryBC Cyrus of Persia. After a Greek uprising against the Persians failed, the people of Ephesus, exercising effective diplomacy, managed to avoid conflict by appeasing each side, both of which took turns controlling the city until Hellenistic times. The city was visited by powerful leaders such as Alexander the Great, who aided the city in its efforts to rebuild.
Like most Ionian cities in Asia Minor, Ephesus was conquered by the Romans, and eventually became Christian. St. Paul is believed to have written some of his Epistles here, and was later driven out by the city's silversmiths for preaching that their models of the goddess Diana (the Greek Artemis) were not divine. The artisans were "full of wrath, and cried out, saying 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians'" (Acts 19:24–40). St. John visited Ephesus between AD 37 and 48, perhaps with the Virgin Mary, and again in 95, when he ostensibly wrote his gospel and then died. In 431 Ephesus was the scene of the Third Ecumenical Council, during which Mary was proclaimed the Mother of God; the ruins of the basilica that housed the Council are near the Lower Gate of the site.
Ephesus was doomed by the silting in of its harbor. By the 6th century the port had become useless, and the population had shifted to what is now Selçuk; today Ephesus is 5 km (about 3 miles) from the sea. The new city, then known as Ayasuluk or Ayasuluğ, was surrounded by ramparts, and a citadel was built on the mound still known as Ayasuluk Hill. In the year 1000, Crusaders came from the west, Turks from the east. The first Seljuk invaders were fought off in 1090, and the Byzantines held out until 1304. The town was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 15th century.