The Library of Celsus: deep structure in ancient Ephesus


With the invention of writing in antiquity, civilizations began to transmit records of their history, culture and daily life to subsequent generations through writing. Recording important information paved the way for libraries to become an important part of civilizations.

At first, an ancient writing system called cuneiform, developed by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, was written on unfired clay tablets and tablets because parchment and papyrus had not yet been discovered. Then the Egyptians, who traded with the Sumerians, also learned to write and began 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 has not only hosted different civilizations throughout history but also important libraries established by them. One of the most fascinating 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 the Amazons

The exquisite ancient city of Ephesus was built on fertile land beside the bay where the Cayster River (now Küçük Menderes) flows into the Aegean Sea. 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 Greek and Roman civilizations to its port, was also a popular religious center for polytheistic religions and Christianity.

A close up of decorations from the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey. (Shutterstock)

Greek historian and geographer Strabo says the city was founded by the Amazons, a group of Greek warriors and hunters who are said to have lived on the Black Sea coast. However, the details of its creation are unclear. According to the statements of ancient writers, the founding of the city dates back to the second half of 2000 BC. This colony, which would have been transformed into a city by the Hittite civilization, grew in 1050 BC with immigration from Greece. Then it was moved near the Temple of Artemis in 560 BC and became what is now called Ephesus with the reconstruction done by the commanders of Alexander III of Macedon commonly known as Alexander the Great. Entering the rule of the Roman Empire at the end of the period, the city served as the capital of the Asian provinces of the empire thanks to its geographical characteristics and its central location. During this bright period, the city’s population reached 250,000.

Ephesus, which was ruled by the Lydians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Pergamon Kingdom, Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans throughout history, was influenced by all these civilizations and brought to this architecturally significant buildings. One of its most remarkable structures is undoubtedly the Library of Celsus.

History of Celsus

Although scholars have different opinions on when the Library of Celsus was built, it is known that it was commissioned by the Roman knight Gaius Julius Aquila in honor of his father Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus between 110 and 135 AD. JC. Most of the information we have about the library today is based on library listings. A partially broken inscription just beside the entrance door on the eastern facade reads: “For the proconsul of Asia, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, his consul son commissioned the building of the Library of Celsus, all his 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 at first.” Another inscription on the architrave on the first floor of the library facade also carries the same information.

A female sculpture in the Library of Celsus, ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey.  (Shutterstock)
A female sculpture in the Library of Celsus, ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey. (Shutterstock)

The Library of Celsus is an example of libraries established as foundations in Roman times. A cataloging system belonging to the library, said to number between 9,000 and 12,000 rolls of books, has not been recorded in historical sources. Another important feature of the library is that it houses the sarcophagus of the father of its founder Aquila. Celsus, who was well educated in law and military service, was one of the leading political figures of his time and played an important role in politics. His sarcophagus was therefore placed in the library by his son to honor him.

architectural structure

The exterior of the Library of Celsus, which was built over two stories, is 17 meters high and 21 meters wide (56 feet high and 69 feet wide). The marble structure is situated on a podium which is accessed by climbing nine steps. When looking 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, attract attention. The inside of the niches, which are covered with marble slabs on the outside, are plastered with lime. Through these niches surrounding the main hall, a two-story gallery emerged.

The library has an architecturally ornate 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 old library before noon, the magnificence of the library facade increases due to the play of light and shadow. The four female statues on the lower level 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 now in the Ephesos Museum in Vienna.

A general view of the Library of Celsus in the ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey.  (AA)
A general view of the Library of Celsus in the ancient city of Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey. (AA)

mystical breeze

You can still feel an ancient breeze on the Aegean coast. Sometimes this breeze comes from the sea, sometimes it reaches the coast from the mountains. Each step of the Aegean holds a mystical story, perhaps that is why many poems and songs have been written about it.

In this atmosphere, Ephesus, which was a bustling city thousands of years ago, also whispers its own story to us. A step into the city will make you feel like you are in Roman times while the columns of the fascinating Library of Celsus will surely surround you with ancient wisdom, virtue and immortality.

Sabah’s daily newsletter

Keep up to date with what is happening in Turkey, in its region and in the world.

You can unsubscribe anytime. By signing up, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


Comments are closed.