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The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Artemis vs Parthenon size scale

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme.  This month we are discussing great architecture!  You can find links below for the rest of the group’s posts this month.  Today I’m bringing you one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World and the greatest Greek temple ever built: The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus!

temple of artemis, ephesus

Concept drawing of the Temple of Artemis (Photo: dkiel)

Oh wait – that doesn’t look very impressive….

Temple of Artemis of Ephesus today in modern Selcuk

Temple of Artemis today in modern Selcuk, Turkey.

Sadly, like many of the other Wonders of the Ancient World (for example, here in Bodrum, Turkey), the Temple of Artemis, also known as the Artemision, was destroyed long ago.  Only archaeological ruins, pieces of architectural elements, and contemporary accounts remain to help us reconstruct this amazing sight.  But I think you’ll see that the size, beauty and history of this ancient structure befits its title as Wonder of the Ancient World – at least much more so than the pelican nest there today does.

Pelican nest on the Temple of Artemis

Pelican family that lives on the one standing column from the Temple of Artemis.

Artemis vs Parthenon size scale

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (red) was about 150% the size of the Parthenon in Athens (black).

Let’s put the size of the Temple into context.  Think of the impressive Parthenon in Athens.  The Parthenon is approximately 70 x 30 meters.  At 115 x 55 meters, the Temple of Artemis was about 50% longer and wider.  It’s Ionic column were also 25% taller than those in the Parthenon.  The Temple at Ephesus would have been massive in the ancient Greek world!

floor plan Temple of Artemis, Ephesus and Parthenon, Athens

Floor plans of the Temple of Artemis (above) and the Parthenon of Athens (below). Plans for comparison only – not drawn to scale.

Roman writers note that there were two rows of outer columns before entering the inter sanctuary; whereas the Parthenon only had one level of column.  The columns were spaced along the front face so as to create a slightly wider center aisle into the goddess’s sanctuary.

While a temple to Artemis had existed on the site since the 8th century BC, construction on the major temple beginning in 546 BC.  This makes the Artemision about 100 years older than Temple to Athena in Athens.  After it was destroyed in 356 BC, a third, even larger temple was erected which survived until pillaged by Goths in the 3nd century AD.

Artemis cult statue on display at the Ephesus Museum.

Artemis cult statue on display at the Ephesus Museum.

Much like the Parthenon, the central sanctuary, or cella, contained a statue for worship.  The cult of Artemis celebrated in Ephesus was a particularly old tradition with Anatolian roots that focused on fertility.  The statue (which probably deserves its own ArtSmart post) had a column-like lower half and was elaborately decorated with several rows of “pods” along the goddess’s chest.  Art historians have speculated these are either breasts or bulls testicles; in either case, they reference the goddess’s power over reproduction and new life.

Temple of Artemis, Ephesus decorative scheme

A concept drawing from the discovery of the Temple ruins showing the carved column barrels. (From: W. R. Lethaby; “The Temple of Diana at Ephesus” February 15, 1872, The Times, London)

Roman contemporaries describe a temple with extensive decorations.  The pediment friezes have been lost but both archaic and classical Greek carvings have been found suggesting a long period of construction, reconstruction or at least the incorporation of former decorative elements into the newest iteration of the Temple.  The massive Ionic columns were carved along the bottom as you can see in the recreation above.  One impressive column barrel depicting Hermes, a winged personification of death, and possibly Eurydice (shown below) and many of the carvings recovered during excavations in the late 19th century were taken to the British Museum.

Temple of Artemis, Ephesus carved marble column drum

While the story depicted is not perfectly clear, this carved marble column drum appears to show an enigmatic procession to the Underworld. (Photo: British Museum)

Temple of Artemis, Ephesus marble column drum

A winged figure of Death leads a tragic heroine to the Underworld (Photo: British Museum)

Temple of Artemix, archaic man sculpture

An archaic style male figure from the Temple decorations. (Photo: British Museum)

The Temple of Artemis had a legendary end.  In 356 BC, a young man named Herostratus set fire to the temple in an attempt to gain fame.  Because of its wooden roof, the temple was almost completely destroyed.  The people of Ephesus sentences him to death and vowed to punish anyone who repeated his name.  Of course, the story of the Great Temple’s destruction and its arsonist were recorded by contemporary historians which in essence giving Herostratus his wish because we know him today.

My favorite part is the Roman twist on this story.  The Temple of Artemis is said to have burned down the same night Alexander the Great was born.  Plutarch (45 -120 AD) wrote that Artemis, the Goddess of Childbirth, was too preoccupied with Alexander’s delivery to save her burning temple.  I like to imagine contemporary listeners shrugging and thinking a temple for a Greek conqueror was probably a fair trade.

artemis Amazon plinth sculpture

Plinth segment from the temple depicted an Amazon dragging a warrior. While the Amazons were closely associated with the first Temple of Artemis of Ephesus, this is clearly a later work in the classical Greek style. (Photo: British Museum)

Today the Temple of Artemis is a quiet stop just outside the city of Selcuk in Turkey on your way to the ruins of ancient Ephesus.  The outline of the massive temple is mostly visible and completely encompasses a little pond.  One column has been erected to give the site some perspective.  It may take a little imagination and you may have to sit on the remaining stone blocks to picture it, but here once stood one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.


For the rest of the August ArtSmart Roundtable, see:

And don’t forget to “like” our group on Facebook for art & travel news!

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s incredible to me that the ancient Greeks were able to build such large structures of stone given the technology they had. What a pity so little of the temple remains. Thanks for fleshing it out for us with all the extra illustrations and diagrams, Christina!


    August 5, 2013
    • Thanks Lesley! I love making architectural figures and they are so helpful in understanding a site. You’re absolutely correct about the scale of this Temple. It’s fantastic that the ancient Greeks could complete something so massive.


      August 7, 2013
  2. I love that story too – how the goddess was too busy with more important things to save her temple. Walking among ruins always makes me feel like I am in the middle of a romanticism painting or watercolour by J.M.W. Turner.
    Lovely post!


    August 6, 2013
    • Thanks! I love good art that comes with a good legend. 🙂


      August 7, 2013
    • Thanks! I love good art that comes with a good legend. 🙂


      August 7, 2013
  3. So informative! It’s so interesting to think about not only the size but the decoration of temples like this one. What a shame that so little of it still exists.


    August 6, 2013
    • Thanks! I think part of the mystique of the Wonders of the Ancient world is that they no longer exist (Pyramids excluded). I’ve always tried to imagine what the Colossus of Rhodes looked like but we can never know for sure. That’s part of the mystery about these major archaeological sites.


      August 7, 2013
  4. That pelican’s nest!

    I love that you included the architectural diagrams to give a better sense of scale and shape. I’m intrigued that the bottom drums were carved, that doesn’t seem to crop up in other colossal Greek temples (that I know of). The Ephesian Artemis is always fun to look at, it included a Roman copy in a post last year.


    August 6, 2013
    • Yeah, you don’t see ground level carved column drums much in classical Greek architecture. The closest relative that comes to mind is the base of the Great Altar of Pergamon.

      I love the Pelicans too, but then again, I have a thing for urban wildlife. 🙂


      August 7, 2013
  5. Hi Cristina!
    The pendants around the neck of Artemis are most likely pendants of amber. A mystery finally solved:

    Bob Consoli (SquinchPix)


    August 29, 2013
    • Thanks for the comment. From your link it is hard to tell if the ornaments themselves amber or are they meant to symbolize amber drops. If it is just the material that is amber, then the symbolic meaning may still be a mystery. This is the first time I’ve seen a reference to pomegranates.

      If the shapes are meant to represent amber drops, then what does that represent? Wealth? I still think given Artemis’ cult, that whatever is draped around her neck would be a symbol of fertility.


      August 30, 2013
  6. The nesting birds are White Storks, not pelicans. Storks often build nests on tall man-made structures.


    July 17, 2014

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