Borrowing books was a common practice among ancient Greeks and Romans, known as an example of mutual aid. Libraries were not only a great source of information but were also valuable for their architectural structure, with the Library of Celsus in Ephesus standing out among its likes
With the invention of writing in antiquity, civilizations began to transfer records of their history, culture and daily life to the next generations via the written word. The recording of important information opened the way for libraries to become an important part of civilizations.
At first, an ancient writing system called the cuneiform script, developed by Sumerians of Mesopotamia, was written on tablets and unfired clay tablets as parchment and papyrus were not discovered yet. Then the Egyptians, who traded with the Sumerians, also learned how to write and started to use papyrus, which grew in their region and was suitable for writing, and stored it in the form of rolls. In short, Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilizations and their inventions including writing.
It is therefore not surprising to see today that the region did not only host different civilizations throughout history but also important libraries established by them. One of the most mesmerizing libraries in the region is the Library of Celsus in the ancient city of Ephesus, which is a paradise on the Aegean coast of Turkey.
Ephesus founded by Amazons
The exquisite ancient city of Ephesus was built on fertile lands next to the bay where the Cayster (modern-day Küçük Menderes) River empties into the Aegean. Located on the coast of the Aegean Sea, the city was at the center of trade routes and served as a bridge between east and west. Ephesus, which connected the Greek and Roman civilizations with its port, was also a popular religious center for both polytheistic religions and Christianity.
The Greek historian and geographer Strabo says that the city was founded by the Amazons, a group of Greek female warriors and hunters believed to have lived in the Black Sea coast. However, the details of its establishment are not clear. According to the statements of ancient writers, the foundation of the city dates back to the second half of 2000 B.C. This settlement, which is thought to have been transformed into a city by the Hittite civilization, expanded in 1050 B.C. with immigration from Greece. Then it was moved near the Temple of Artemis in 560 B.C. and became what is known as Ephesus today with the reconstruction carried out by the commanders of Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great. Entering into the dominion of the Roman Empire in the later period, the city served as a capital to the Asian provinces of the empire thanks to its geographical features and central location. In this bright period, the city population reached 250,000.
Ephesus, which was ruled by Lydians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Pergamon Kingdom, Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans throughout history, was influenced by all these civilizations and carried architecturally important buildings to date. One of its standout structures is undoubtedly the Library of Celsus.
History of Celsus
Although researchers have different opinions on when the Library of Celsus was built, it is known that it was commissioned by Roman knight Gaius Julius Aquila in honor of his father Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus between A.D. 110-135. Most of the information we have about the library today is based on the inscriptions in the library. A partially broken inscription right next to the entrance door on the eastern facade reads: “For the proconsul of Asia, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, his consul son commissioned the Celsus library building, all its decorations and works of art and books with his own wealth. He bequeathed 25,000 denarions (Roman coins) for the preservation of the library and the purchase of books as a beginning.” Another inscription on the architrave on the first floor of the library facade also features the same information.
The Library of Celsus is an example of libraries established as foundations during the Roman period. A cataloging system belonging to the library, which is estimated to have between 9,000 and 12,000 book rolls, has not been recorded in historical sources. Another significant feature of the library is that it houses the sarcophagus of the father of its founder Aquila. Celsus, who was well-educated in the field of law and military service, was one of the leading political figures of his time and played an important role in politics, so his sarcophagus was placed in the library by his son to honor him.
The exterior of the Library of Celsus, which was built on two floors, is 17 meters high and 21 meters wide (56 feet high and 69 feet wide). The structure made of marble is situated on a podium that can be reached by ascending nine steps. When we look at the remains of the library that have survived to the present day, the rectangular niches on the rear and side walls, placed one row below and one row above, draw attention. The interior of the niches, which are covered with marble plates on the exterior, is plastered with lime. Thanks to these niches surrounding the main hall, a two-story gallery emerged.
The library has an architecturally ornamented facade. Not only the size of the library but also these architectural decorations show the architectural and historical value of the structure. If you visit the ancient library before noon, the magnificence of the front of the library increases due to the interplay of light and shadow. The four female statues on the lower floor of the exterior of the library are personifications of virtues: Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (excellence). The originals of the statues are in the Ephesos Museum in Vienna today.
You can always feel an ancient breeze on the Aegean coast. Sometimes this breeze comes from the sea, sometimes it reaches the shores from the mountains. Every step of the Aegean harbors a mystical story, which is perhaps why numerous poems and songs have been written about it.
In this atmosphere, Ephesus, which was a vibrant city thousands of years ago, also whispers its own history to us. One step into the city will make you feel like you are in Roman times while the columns of the mesmerizing Library of Celsus will surely surround you with ancient wisdom, virtue and immortality.
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