A glimpse of home life in an ancient Roman city…

Quite possibly my favourite part of the Efes experience, and one I nearly missed, was seeing the terraced houses which are being excavated not far from the Library of Celsus. They are enclosed in a huge tent/building, to protect the excavation site, and you have to pay an extra admission fee to see them, so I sort of automatically decided I’d just skip it. However, Richie told me I should go have a look, while he waited outside in the scorching sun. He said he’d studied this sort of thing before, so it was more important for me to see it. I’m certainly glad he pointed me in the right direction. I absolutely loved wandering around in the remains of these Roman homes, imagining what the inhabitants’ lives were like thousands of years ago.

I took some photos and a couple of short videos to try and capture the feel of the place, but I really don’t think they do the site justice at all. In this portion of the city, you could see eight adjoining houses built up on the side of the hill. They were in two rows of four houses back-to-back; four had their doors facing onto the street that we walked down as we headed away from the impressive library, while the other four would have faced out onto a street behind the current excavation site. On the walls of some of the rooms you can still see the beautiful painted frescos, giving a small glimpse of the artistic and cultural tastes of the people who lived in these homes. In one of the homes there were paintings of the Muses, the goddesses of the arts and music. In another, a portrait of the great philosopher Aristotle was painted on the wall. There were lovely plant motifs and other designs. Mosaics decorated many of the floors; you could see a Medusa, the god Dionysus and a roaring lion, in addition to colourful geometric patterns and designs. One room was a great dining hall with huge blue, green and purple marble slabs decorating the walls. You could see bits of floor work that indicated underground heating systems that would have warmed these these houses in the colder winter months, as well as toilets and fountains that would have had running water. As was the style at the time, each home had its own enclosed courtyard, with many stone columns around the outside, and these were often paved with mosaics too. I think it was common practice for there to be a clear division between the public and private areas of homes, perhaps not too different from the much later Ottoman custom of public and private areas, including the famous ‘harem’. I think I read that the courtyards would have been places for men to greet guests and entertain visitors. The inner portion of the house would have been the private, domestic domain, where the women would have spent most of their time, out of the public eye.

These houses were built and re-built a number of times over the years. Turkey is, and was, prone to earthquakes, and these houses were basically levelled a few times in various earthshaking disasters, and then new houses were built again on the old sites.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering around looking at the various rooms of the houses. There weren’t too many people around at that particular moment, so it was nice to escape from the noisy horde of tourists for a bit, and have plenty of time to take it all in and try to imagine what the place would have been like in more prosperous days.

More than any previous visit to a historical site, this visit to Efes really struck a cord with me. Thanks to reading a good bit about the classical world in the last year or so, and even watching things like the HBO series Rome, I felt like I had a decent mental image of what things would have looked like and what life may have been like when these houses were still occupied by living people. I’ve rarely had such an experience of feeling connected to the past.

It makes me think of an essay I recently read by the late great American scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, about the famous cave paintings of Chauvet in France. He talks about the impact of looking at these thirty-thousand-year-old paintings, with their magnificent animal imagery, and how when you are looking at these paintings, you know for certain that you are seeing the work of an artistic genius. Through these paintings you can feel a connection to our ancient ancestors who lived so long ago. As he says so beautifully, ‘these paintings speak to us so powerfully today because we know the people who did them; they are us.’

The same is true when considering the people who lived in the old Roman world that Ephesus was a part of. The people who lived in these houses on a hillside in Ephesus may have lived two thousand years ago, but they lived under the same sun, they gazed up at the same stars, listened to the same breeze blowing in the trees, and walked on the same earth as we do now. They fell in love, raised children, gossiped about their neighbours, sang and danced, worked and struggled and tried to make a place for themselves in this world. They felt joy and fear and sorrow and wonder, celebrated happy events, and mourned for things lost, just as people have always done, and just as we do now.

As I walked around the houses in Efes, it was as if I caught a brief glimpse of the people and the lives once lived within them. I felt, despite the distance of time and culture, our common humanity. It was a very humbling experience; I felt like one very small person in the very big human race, and I felt in awe of the passing of time.

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