The Church of the Virgin Mary was the first of churches dedicated to the mother of Christ. It is also the most significant building from Christian times in Ephesus. It was erected in the 3rd century within an earlier building. Architecturally, the structure can be described as a basilica with a nave and two aisles. The aisles were divided into shorter parts, which could serve as shops. Today, the best-preserved section of the structure is a cylindrical baptistery, located in the northern part of the atrium. In the central part of the baptistery, there was a pool, where the baptised people could be fully immersed in water.
St. Mary at Ephesus - fact or myth?
Mary, the mother of Christ, was not the first woman honoured in Ephesus. The city had a long tradition of religious worship of female deities. The first of them had been a local Anatolian goddess Kybele who was later merged with the Greek goddess Artemis. The temple erected to the latter – the Artemision of Ephesus – was once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Sadly, only a single column and a bit of rubble have remained from this magnificent building. The Artemision, 115 meters long and 55 meters wide, covered the area 1.5 times larger than the Church of Mary. The Artemision also had much more elegant proportions, because the unusually elongated plan of the Church of Mary resulted from its construction inside an earlier building.
There was a very special reason why the church in Ephesus was dedicated to Mary. According to the local tradition, the mother of Christ arrived at Ephesus together with St. John and spent here the last years of her life. Although there is no decisive historical evidence to support this belief, there are some premises supporting it. The most significant one is the documented presence of St. John in Ephesus, where he started writing his gospel. He was also buried in this city, and the basilica was erected in his name. As Christ entrusted him to take care of his mother, before dying on the cross, as it is explained in the Gospel of John. John the Evangelist stated that Jesus, during the crucifixion, declared the adoption of him as the son of Mary: "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, 'Woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home."
According to a tradition recorded by Irenaeus and Eusebius of Caesarea, John later came to Ephesus where he worked and finally died; it is assumed that he brought with him his adopted mother. These faint hints provided the basis for the early belief that Mary also lived in Ephesus with John. However, the evidence that St. Mary actually stayed there is not very strong, and there are much better indications that her permanent house was in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the tradition that St. Mary resided and died in Ephesus has been alive until the present times.
The evolution of the Church of St. Mary
In the 3rd century CE, the times of economic crisis began in Ephesus. During this period, the local Christian community built its first church. However, its builders used an older structure clearly related to the pagan cults of the city's past. The spacious area to the north had been occupied by the Olympieion, erected around 130 CE for the Imperial Cult of Emperor Hadrian as Zeus Olympios. The porticoes surrounded the temple sanctuary, and the Church of Mary was inserted into the southern one. This fact explains the unusual dimensions of the building – it was 145 meters long but only 30 meters wide. An atrium on the square plan and a narthex paved with mosaics led into the church. In later times, two more churches were built inside the ancient building, arranged one behind the other.
One of the most significant events in the history of Ephesus – the third ecumenical council also known as the Council of Ephesus – was convened in 431 by Emperor Theodosius the Younger in the great church of St. Mary. The delegates arrived from as far as Rome, Alexandria or Antioch, and their number reached 250. The purpose of this council was to settle the dispute, caused by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the understanding of the person of Jesus. Among other issues discussed, there was a dispute concerning the title of Mary as the Mother of God or the Mother of Christ. The council opted for the first version, establishing an extraordinary theological relationship between Mary and Christ. Thus, Mary has always been strongly linked to Ephesus through the decision of the council.
While the seat of the bishop was transferred from this church to St. John's Basilica, possibly in the 7th century, the Church of Mary functioned later as a cemetery church only. The church was rebuilt several times, so the structure we can see today does not reflect the appearance of the church from the time of the Council of Ephesus or the later 8th-century building. Instead, it represents the late Byzantine period when the domed church fell into ruin and was eventually abandoned. It was replaced by the new basilica, of much smaller dimensions, built into the space of the old church. The new church had the entrance through the apse of the old one, where the opening was cut. This new structure did not have colonnades but walled-up arcades. It was constructed with reused material of various kinds.
The small new church was reconstructed with two additional rows of columns supporting the roof, and the building gained the shape of a five-ailed basilica. Finally, the whole structure collapsed and was turned into a cemetery. It is not known when the collapse happened, but there are mentions of the 'old church' with the icon of the Virgin Mary from the 12th century so it must have survived at least until this period.
When visiting the ruins today, one may feel lost of confusion resulting from these rebuildings and transformations. For instance, the old baptistry was used as a profane space where ovens were installed while the diaconicon of the old church was transformed into the baptistry for the new one. In the northern colonnade of the atrium, a small bath was erected, with several rooms and a hypocaust system. In fact, the significant part of the great church may have been transformed into a residential district while a graveyard surrounded the church.
Today, the best-preserved part of the structure is a cylindrical baptistery, located in the northern part of the atrium. In the central part of the baptistery, there was a pool, where the baptised people could be fully immersed in water. The reconstruction efforts are ongoing in the baptistery that as of 2019 was closed to the public.
Buildings near the church
The building to the east of the Church of St. Mary was possibly the seat of the bishop, i.e. episkopeion, but currently the archaeologists prefer to call it simply the Byzantine Palace. This spacious residence is distinguished by the complex architecture and the size, as its total area was astonishing 3750 square meters. It consisted of a large bath complex of several rooms and a latrine to the north, a colonnaded courtyard 14 to 8.5 meters, and a prestigious southern wing with grand reception rooms and audience chambers. At the southern side, a chapel was later added to the complex and in time, a cemetery developed around it.
One possible explanation of the function of this complex is that it functioned as a palace of a bishop because of the location very close to the Church of St. Mary. A most peculiar history is related to this residence because it was remodelled under very suspicious circumstances. According to the local legend, the resident of the palace, Bishop Antonius, redecorated his dining room with the columns taken from the Church of Mary and his bath was equipped with marbles from the baptistery. The outrage he had created resulted in his deposition from the office in the year 400.
Alternatively, due to the lavish decorations and the presence of many reception chambers, the palace may have been the residence of the Proconsul of the Province of Asia and, at the later times, the strategos of the Thracesian theme. This version seems to be partially confirmed by the archaeological finds such as numerous seals from the 8th and the 9th centuries, testifying to the administrative function of the building. However, the villa above the theatre is the alternative location of the governor's offices. The palace was abandoned and systematically demolished in the 10th century, and a lime kiln was set up directly at its southern entrance. Sadly, as of 2019, almost nothing was visible of the Bishop's Palace, with only the aerial photographs displayed on-site to offer any idea about its appearance. The ruins, excavated in the 20th century, are now completely overgrown with bushes.
To the south of the church, there is a large building identified as the early Byzantine residence, from the early 5th century CE. This spacious residence, described as an urban peristyle villa, covers an impressive area of 1600 square meters, and it has been excavated very recently. The archaeologists discovered that this building was renovated numerous times and its functions varied. In the 6/7th century, the workshops were added to a prestigious wing, such as stoves, an oil press, and hand mills. Simultaneously, an open courtyard was added to the south of the villa, most probably to function as a grazing ground or a vegetable garden. The close connection between living quarters, handicraft spaces, and agricultural activities was apparent in this period. While the building itself was damaged in an earthquake that occurred in the 6th century, as testified by deformed floors, it continued to be occupied in the first half of the 7th century. The complex was destroyed most probably in the second half of the 7th century, as evidenced by the find of more than 3,500 thousand coins.
The Church of Mary is open for visitors, but due to its location, off the main tourist trail of Ephesus, it is rarely visited by organised groups. It is worth your while to make a short detour and enjoy splendid isolation in the otherwise crowded Ephesus. To get there, turn sharply to the north at the junction of the roads in front of the theatre gymnasium and walk for about 300 meters.
Want to know more about Ephesus? Buy our book "The Secrets of Ephesus"!