As I walk down the rocky path toward the remains of the Library of Celsus, an impressive, two-story building façade of crumbling stone columns and pediments, I can almost imagine what life must have been like here in ancient Ephesus. Built in 125 AD, the library was funded by a Greek, Tiberius Julius Caesar Polemaenus, who was serving as a governor of the Roman Empire. The building apparently once held nearly 12,000 scrolls; interestingly, the reading rooms faced east so scholars could make best use of the morning light. That’s the kind of detail that brings a place like this alive for me – that this is not just a musty old ruin, but a functioning town where actual people were living and working, making actual human decisions like “what’s the right angle for the best light?”
As I’ve said before, I love ruins – and Ephesus, about 2 miles southwest of Selcuk in Izmir Province, Turkey, boasts some of the best ruins in the world. Although a Roman city by the time of the library, the Greek town of Ephesus goes back to the 10th century BC. One of the 12 cities in the Ionian League, it’s perhaps most famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ephesus has a Christian connection as well; one of its churches was mentioned in the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John may have been written here. It’s no surprise that the Ephesus ruins were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Exploring ruins is certainly an act of imagination. Even a well-preserved site like Ephesus is, essentially, a cluster of broken columns and fractured architectural fragments. Even the amphitheater, in quite good condition, only features a small part of the seating tiers in decent repair. Fortunately, the best ruins (like Ephesus) include placards with an artist’s rendition of what the site must’ve looked like in its heyday. Here you can see the buildings with rooves and doors! Here you can imagine a city with theaters and shops, with temples and baths — a living, breathing “modern” city of its time, with inhabitants in togas hurrying to meetings, lingering at a market, or standing on some version of a soapbox, orating about the decay of democracy (which they invented!). That’s the image I hold in my head as I wander amongst the ruins: that over 3 thousand years ago, an advanced society operated here, including some of the greatest philosophers, playwrights, poets, statesmen and scientists of any era. Western civilization, for all its many flaws, began in places like this. A visit to Ephesus is a reminder of where we started, how far we’ve come, and what we might lose if we forget the lessons of the ancients.
(What’s your Ephesus? What is the activity in your life that requires an act of huge imagination? Perhaps it’s envisioning the big picture of your career. Or imagining the kind of house you want to someday live in. Or even putting yourself into the shoes or the mindset of your partner. The key is to carve out a quiet place in your schedule for “imagination work.” I know, there’s never enough time. But if you don’t imagine it, it’ll never come into the world.)