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Panoramic view of Great Theatre of Ephesus at My Favourite Planet

The Great Theatre of Ephesus from the Arcadian Way. Built in the Hellenistic period and enlarged during the Roman Imperial period.
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The Great Theatre of Ephesus

Ancient Ephesus was like a jewel box of gleaming buildings and momuments, connected by marble paved streets, definitely built to impress. Among these jewels the Great Theatre was the crown.

Built into the western slope of Mount Pion (όρος Πίων; today Panayır Daği), the marble-clad theatre faced west and out to sea over the city's harbour. 30 metres high and 142 metres wide, it must indeed have been an impressive sight for visitors arriving here by ship. In the antique world it was an unabashed statement of wealth, power and cultural supremacy.

Anybody who is lucky enough to have watched a performance in such a west-facing, open-air theatre on the Mediterranean will know the magical effect of the location. Modern performances begin after the spectacle of sunset (around 9 pm in summer), so the show better be pretty good to live up to such an opening act. Tip for theatre-goers: take a cushion and a pullover. Marble seating can be hard on the behind and evenings can be cool, even in summer.

In 334 BC Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III and "freed" the Greeks of Anatolia. After his death in 323 BC, his generals and relations (Διάδοχοι, the Diadochi, successors) waged war on each other for control of parts of his empire. Eventually, in 301 BC Lysimachus (circa 360-281 BC) took control of Ionia and decided to rebuild Ephesus. At the time the city was situated around the Temple of Artemis (see photos and information in the Selcuk photo gallery), on the plain northeast of Panayır Daği (2 km from the archaeological site of Ephesus). As ever in Ephesus' history, the silt deposited by the River Cayster (Küçük Menderes, "Little Maeander") was driving the coastline further west. The old harbour was becoming untenable and the marshy plain was (and still is) prone to flooding.

And still the idea of moving the city was apparently so unpopular among some Ephesians, who were very attached to their temple (at the time still under construction), that Lysimachus is said to have had to force them to move by flooding the plain. This seems an odd move, even it was technically possible, as the area around the temple must have been a vast building site at the time. This would have definitely not endeared him to the locals. He even renamed the city Arsinoeia (Αρσινόεια), after his wife Arsinoe (316-270 BC, the scheming, daughter of Ptolemy I, she later became Queen Arsinoe II of Egypt). This never caught on, and after Lysimachus' death the city reverted to its old name.

Lysimachus' new site for the city lay between Mount Koressos (Κορησσός; today Bülbül Daği, Nightingale Mountain) to the south and Mount Pion (Panayır Daği) to the north. To the east, the valley between the two hills is only about 300 metres wide, then opens up to the north and west towards the harbour. The new king planned the city and the new harbour according to the urban development principles conceived by Hippodamus of Miletus, and this layout remained unaltered for the next 500 years. It is thought that construction of the theatre began some time after his death. The original Hellenistic theatre was built in two phases, the second around 200 BC. (These dates are still uncertain, and even controversial among historians.) Only part of the Skene (stage building) and drainage system remain of this original structure.

The theatre was situated at the junction of two of Ephesus' grandest streets, the Marble Road and the Arcadian Way. This was an important location in every day life as these streets led to the agora and the harbour, and were also used in religious processions in which the theatre took a part. Theatres had great religious significance for the ancient Greeks, drama having evolved from the cult of Dionysos. The Great Theatre was also used in public celebrations dedicated to Artemis.

Following Lysimachus' death, another series of wars and power struggles for the control of western Asia began between the Seleucids (Syria), Ptolemies (Egypt), Attalids (Pergamon), Mithridates the Great (Pontus) and the Romans. Amidst the ensuing mayhem, Ephesus became self-governing for a short time. Finally in 86 BC the Romans prevailed, and the new Roman consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed heavy financial punishments and tax burdens on the Asian cities for having taken the wrong side in the conflict, forcing them into debt.

Emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BC - 14 AD) was more generous to Ephesus. He moved the capital of proconsular Asia (western Asia Minor) from Pergamon to Ephesus, thus beginning the greatest period of the city's prosperity. It was to become the third largest city of of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in terms of wealth, population and influence.

Under successive emperors the theatre was renovated and enlarged, beginning with the increase of the diameter of the cavea (audience area or auditorium) during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD). The stage was built during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), and at the time of Trajan (98-117 AD) ornate decorations were added. Each phase of construction increased the grandeur, audience capacity and technical capabilties of the theatre, and inevitably altered its function more to suit Roman penchants for grand spectacles and gladiatorial combat, although drama, poetry and public assemblies still took place. In the last building phase, before the mid 3rd century AD, a third tier of seating was added to the cavea (audience area) and the skene (stage building) was topped with a third storey.

In its finished state, the theatre's cavea, which had originally been semi-circular had been extended to 220 degrees (see plan below) with a width of 142 metres. The highly ornate three-storey skene (stage house) was 18 metres high, with a long corridor joining 8 rooms, and 5 doors leading to a high stage, 25.4 metres wide and 5.56 metres deep. In front of and below the level of the stage, the semi-circular orchestra (performance area) was 25.8 metres wide. It was the largest theatre in Asia Minor and one of the biggest in the ancient world. It has been estimated that the theatre could hold up to 25,000 people (estimates vary) in 67 rows of seating. That is a lot of bums on seats, as Lawrence Olivier might have said.

In the 1st century AD, the theatre was the scene of drama of another kind when a large crowd gathered to protest against Saint Paul's preaching.

See also:

The Odeion, the smaller theatre in Ephesus

The Hellenistic theatre in Pergamon

The Theatre of Dionysos, Athens

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus, Athens
photos and articles:
© David John

See also:


the nearby town

galleries index

Selcuk photo gallery 1 - town of Selcuk, Turkey

gallery 1
around town

Selcuk photo gallery 2 - Ephesus Archaeological Museum, Turkey

gallery 2

Selcuk photo gallery 3 - Serbian folk dancers in Selcuk, Turkey

gallery 3
Serbian dancers
visit Selçuk

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, Turkey at My Favourite Planet

The Great Theatre of Ephesus from the Arcadian Way.

The enormous bulk of the theatre rests on the lower western slope of the 130 high Mount Pion (όρος Πίων; today Panayır Daği). In the foreground ancient achitectural parts are neatly arranged on either side of the Arcadian Way which led to the theatre of the harbour. The Theatre Gymnasium stood in the area to the left. The row of columns along the right side of the Arcadian Way mark the boundary with the Lower Commercial Agora.  
Plan of the Great Theatre of Ephesus by John Turtle Wood at My Favourite Planet

Plan of the Great Theatre of Ephesus by the British architect and archaeologist
John Turtle Wood (1821-1890) who excavated at Ephesus 1863-1874.

According to the plan, the front of the theatre was 474 feet (144.47 metres) wide.
However, in the text Wood writes: "Its diameter is 495 feet, and like most theatres
of this description, it is of a horse-shoe form. As the wings approach the proscenium, the
width is diminished by 28 feet, the measurement at the end of the walls being 467 feet.
By my computations this vast theatre was capable of seating 24,500 persons."
... "The stage, or pulpitum, was nearly 22 feet wide; the orchestra 110 feet in diameter."

John Turtle Wood, Discoveries at Ephesus, page 68. Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1877.
Photos, articles and map: © David John,
except where otherwise specified.

Additional photos: © Konstanze Gundudis

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have been attributed where applicable.

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Higher resolution versions are available on request.

Some of the information and photos in this guide to Ephesus
originally appeared in 2004 on
See also
The Cheshire Cat Blog
photo essays about Turkey:

Istanbul Essentials part 1

Istanbul Essentials part 2

Istanbul Essentials part 3
with video

Ionian Spring part 1

Ionian Spring part 2

Ionian Spring part 3
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