A recent visit to Pompeii was a sobering experience. That’s as it should be. Twenty thousand people died in these same eerie, sun bleached streets when Vesuvius erupted back in AD79. But I couldn’t help but compare the sad ruins of this petrified Roman flesh pot turned charnel house to another ruined city I had visited at the other end of the Mediterranean. Ephesus.
For sure, Ephesus was one of the great trading ports of the ancient world; a centre of trade and commerce for everyone from the Phoenicians onwards. And it has history in spades; Saint Paul preached to the Corinthians there. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony walked it’s marbled streets. It is also claimed that the Virgin Mary lived out her last years here.
Unlike Pompeii, it did not exist principally to serve as a kind of first century Las Vegas. Ephesus was a cultured city; even now, the sun bleached facade and portico of the Library of Celsus is surely one of the most awe inspiring sights on the mainland of Asia. The ampitheatre is vast in comparison to that of Pompeii. And it is still in use for outdoor concerts to this day.
But it goes far deeper than simply buildings, and the purposes they might have served. Ephesus simply faded away and died quietly when the mouth of the river leading into it silted up over the centuries. Built near swamp land, it was just left to gradually wither and decay on the end of the vine that had nurtured it for centuries. There was no fiery immolation as such.
Of course, Pompeii died screaming, and then spent twenty centuries entombed under seven metres of ash and pumice stone. That ancient immolation destroyed most of the upper layers of it’s shops. brothels and dwellings. Today, it’s stunted remains reveal a tightly packed together warren of houses of all kinds; the streets are relatively narrow. Some of the principal thoroughfares still bear the ruts left by literally thousands of Roman chariots.
Ephesus, by contrast, feels much more open and spacious, and a good deal bigger and grander in scope. It is a city set among arid, gentler countryside, though rows of pine trees cover the approaches on the slowly rolling hills. And, while it has toppled, stunted columns and porticos that instantly put you in mind of those at Pompeii, the ones at Ephesus do not bear the blackened scorch marks left by a tidal wave of fiery death.
What both cities have in common is an air of silence that seems to want to scream at you. There’s a sense of stillness and decay to both. But even that needs to be quantified. The air around Ephesus is serene; tranquil and peaceful. Ephesus does not feel uncomfortable.
Not like Pompeii, with its uneasy retinue of restless ghosts still clinging in disbelief to the ruined husks of their former dwellings and businesses. The shattered remnants of doric columns point up at the cobalt Neapolitan sky like serried ranks of accusing, skeletal fingers. The very air seems to hang around you like lead weights.
Pompeii wears the scars of its tragic destruction like a funeral shroud; one that not even the presence of thousands of chattering summertime tourists can penetrate. A silent, oppressive heaviness blankets it as completely as the fallout from Vesuvius did in those black days of AD 79.
The two cities share a link in the common theme of their own deaths. But, where Ephesus accepted and acceded to her fate with calm. resigned serenity, Pompeii went down like the Titanic; assured of its own invincibility, clad in the finest of everything and awash with the best of food, wine and debauched, decadent fun, they never saw it coming at all.
Today, the remains of both of these marvellous, once magnificent cities are worth a day or two of anyone’s life. If you hit the right cruise itinerary, chances are you might end up with the chance to sample the remains of both.
Above all, the Library of Celsus in Ephesus offers one of the best photo opportunities anywhere in Europe, one that Pompeii cannot even begin to match.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who famously said that ‘he who does not learn from the mistakes of history is doomed to repeat them’. Bonaparte was a man who knew a bit about monstrous, swaggering architecture. And he knew a hell of a lot about destruction. But in the silence that hangs over these once magnificent cities, his words still ring true.
The ancient, sun bleached remnants of both Ephesus and Pompeii have much to tell us about life, vanity, loss, and the sheer magnificence and stupidity of the human condition. Never was the old phrase ‘if walls could only talk’ so perfect in application to these once colossal monuments to human greed, vanity and yes, ingenuity, too.