The harbour quarter of Ephesus is located to the south of the Church of Mary. The harbour itself silted up a long time ago and is now a small lake, although there are some plans of the Turkish authorities to make it functional again. The revitalisation of the harbour means that it would be possible to sail into the ancient city once again. However, these plans are very vague at the moment and the area is not accessible to visitors.
It is hard to imagine that in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods of the city's history, this marshy area was one of the best protected commercial port of the Mediterranean Sea. It was reached from the centre of the city via Arcadiane Street which opened towards the sea in the form of an ellipse. Marble piers bordered the narrow channel, and the remains of the customs building were discovered in the area. Today, the best way to visualise the shape and size of the harbour is to look at the satellite photos of the area.
When Lysimachus refounded the city at the mouth of the Kaystros River, it was located directly on the coast of the Aegean sea. Unfortunately for the Ephesians, but the river kept silting up the harbour. Attalos II of Pergamon first rebuilt the harbour in the 2nd century BCE, and in the Roman period, numerous attempts were made to improve the situation. Literary and epigraphical evidence offers us a glimpse of these repeated efforts, for example a proconsul acting on the orders of Emperor Nero dredged the harbour. Emperor Hadrian's orders were even more ambitious as he wanted to divert the river. He managed to make the harbour navigable again.
Vast amounts of money were invested in the upkeep of the harbour, for instance T. Flavius Montanus gave 75,000 denarii to outfit the port at the beginning of the 2nd century CE. In the same period, a prytanis (a chief official) C. Licinius Maximus Julianus offered 2,500 denarii for the port. All of these investments demonstrate the tricky nature of the Ephesus harbour and how desperate its citizens were to keep it operational. Naturally, as the coast moved continuously to the west, it was often necessary to relocate the harbour installations. Later, an artificial channel was dug, connecting the Roman harbour bay and the open sea. Interestingly, recent research has demonstrated that this channel enabled the prolonged use of the harbour bay, possibly even until the 7th century CE.
The knowledge that archaeologists have about the Ephesus harbour is, unfortunately, sketchy, as the area has still not been systematically excavated. However, some studies of the harbour were conducted in the past, shedding some light on the history of the Ephesian harbour. The archaeologists have recovered quays and piers of the harbour as well as many items that had been dropped into the sea. The quay wall that has been brought to light, extending from the east in a curve to a jetty that jutted out into the waters of the harbour. Then, to the west of this jetty, the quay turned back on the southern direction, and finally, it bent to the west. From the side of the water, the top of the quay was made of huge slabs, up to 1.5 meter long and 1 meter wide. These slabs were well-laid and joined but had a rough surface, and they served as mooring stones. The eastern end of the quay was built of marble, while the massive wall on the southern side, further from the centre of the city, was made of limestone. It played a protective role as it sheltered the quay against the damage caused by ships.
During the Roman Empire period, the visitors arriving at Ephesus by ship entered the city through monumental gateways. Not one but three gates marked the transfer from sea to land in Ephesus. The Middle Harbor Gate was the earliest one, as it dates back to the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It stood at the western end of the Arcadiane and had three passageways separated by supports, consisting of four Ionic columns. The quality of the gate's architectural decor is outstanding. The Ionic capitals imitate Classical models from the 5th century BCE. These stylistic recourses are most evident in the pillar- and anta capitals as their side planes are decorated with an acanthus leaf below which grow volutes that develop along the edges before curling up to form the side ends of the profiled cornices of the main façade. Its models are archaic and classical anta capitals like those found in the temple of Apollo at Didyma. On both sides of the Middle Gate, there were two more gates from to the end of the second and the middle of the third century CE.
A remarkable discovery related to the functioning of the Ephesus harbour was made in the 80-ties of the 20th century during the excavations conducted in the area of St. John Basilica in Selçuk. It was an inscription reused as an ambo but containing a copy of the Ephesian harbour laws for the Roman Province of Asia. It is now known as the Ephesian Customs Law, and it is displayed in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk. This inscription describes the rates of the customs duties, revised and published by the three curatores publicorum vectigalium (curators of public revenues) nominated by Emperor Nero in 62 CE.
This text is a fragment of a guidebook to Ephesus: "The Secrets of Ephesus".