There is evidence that Ephesus was inhabited as long ago as 6000 BC. During the Classical Greek era, which covered the 4th and 5th centuries BC, it was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League, and in 546 BC it was occupied by the Persians, but because Ephesus did not join the Ionian Rebellion against the Persians, the city was spared from destruction. After the defeat of the Persians it came under the guardianship of Athens, although Ephesus had rebelled against Athens in 412BC and supported Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
Later, Ephesus was to join against Sparta, resulting in Sparta capturing the city and giving it back to the Persians. The successes of Alexander the Great included the city being captured by him in 334 BC and in a resulting period of prosperity for Ephesus. In the Roman period, it was for many years the second largest city of the Roman Empire, second only to Rome, reaching its zenith under the Emperor Augustus in the first century AD with a population of more than 250,000.
In ancient times, Ephesus was situated by the sea with a natural harbour. It was this that led to it becoming a great trading and religious city. It was a centre for the cult of Cybele, the Anatolian fertility goddess who became Artemis, the virgin Greek goddess of the hunt and the moon. It was for Artemis that a great temple was constructed which was to become one of the ancient wonders of the world and was to make Ephesus famous. The original Temple of Artemis was constructed on the site around 650 BC, although the famous marble one was completed around 550 BC. This was destroyed by fire in 356BC and was rebuilt in 334BC.
Ephesus played a significant role during the early days of Christianity and it was these religious ties that finally led to the destruction of the temple in 401AD by a Christian mob. Today only a single column remains although the Temple was at one time four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. The importance of Ephesus as a commercial centre declined as the harbour slowly silted up, which resulted in its abandonment in the 15th century.
The site still clearly shows the layout of the city with its streets and public areas, although much has still to be excavated. It contains many buildings including houses, gateways, temples and theatres and the Library of Celsus, a Roman mausoleum and library built between 110 and 135 AD. This was commissioned by the Consul Julius Aquila as a mausoleum for his father, Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, Roman governor of the Asian Provinces. The library originally had three storeys, with galleries in the upper two storeys. 12,000 scrolls and codexes were stored in the niches. The lower niches of the facade contain four statues, which are thought to represent Wisdom, Knowledge, Destiny, and Intelligence. The building was damaged by fire and fell into disuse before being destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century AD. Its reconstruction to its present state took place from 1970 to 1978.
Nearby can be seen the Isabey Mosque, the oldest known example of a Turkish mosque with a courtyard; the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, where seven young men retreated to avoid making sacrifices to the Roman Gods and the House of the Virgin, which is believed to be the last residence of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to Christian tradition, Mary was brought to Ephesus by the Apostle John after the Resurrection of Christ and lived out her days there.