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Church of Mary Church of Mary, Ephesus
Ephesus, Aegean Region
Ephesus  locality
Turkey  country
Middle East  continent
Main date(s)
c. 500
37.944993° N, 27.339274° E

Description of the Church of Mary

The Church of the Virgin in Ephesus was a classic rectangular basilica enclosed by rows of columns 260 meters long from the Roman stoa, with lateral walls added between them around the year 500.

Entrance was through a large atrium, paved with marble slabs from other buildings in the city, and a narthex, paved with geometric mosaics. The walls were decorated with crosses and metal rosettes.

The well-preserved baptismal pool can still be seen on the north side of the church, and it is the best preserved of any in Anatolia. In addition, many of the walls and pillars of the church remain standing, along with the great apse, several capitals, and blocks inscribed with a cross.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

The Church of Mary and the Council of Ephesus

A great ecumenical council was held in Ephesus in 431, concerning whether the Virgin Mary might properly be called Theotokos, or bearer of God. The term had become popular in devotion and worship but was controversial. Many church leaders held that it was an appropriate title, reasoning that since Christ was both truly man and truly God, one could say Mary gave birth to God.

Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and his party believed the term "Theotokos" threatened the humanity of Christ and denigrated the greatness of God, and suggested Mary be called "Christotokos," bearer of Christ, instead. The council decided in favor of the Theotokos title, which has been used for Mary ever since. Nestorius was harrassed by mobs in Ephesus throughout the council, and exiled to Antioch afterward.

The Acts of the Council of Ephesus, which record the events and discussions of the months-long council, state that the sessions took place in "the church named after Mary." Until recently, the council church was identified with this ruined Church of Mary, which was dated to the reign of Constantine the Great (324-30) based mainly on its architectural style.

However, extensive excavations by the Austrian Archaeological Institute led by Stefan Karweise in 1984-86 and 1990-93 have revolutionized this long-accepted view. Recent excavations indicate that the Church of Mary was built into the south stoa (portico) of the great Olympieion (Temple to Hadrian Olympios), whose foundations can be still be seen to the north of the church.

The Olympieion was a large temple precinct built c. 100-30 on a filled-in swampy area next to the harbor. The great imperial temple dedicated to Emperor Hadrian (who identified himself with the Olympian Zeus) earned Ephesus its second neokorate, the honorary title of neokoros or "temple-warden" that brought various privileges.

The south stoa was built after the Olympieion, around 200 CE. It was a monumental entrance to the sanctuary, but also an important building in itself. It has been variously identified as a corn exchange, public meeting house, or museion (science teaching center), but Karweise believes it was probably another imperial temple, dedicated to the joint emperors Caracalla and Geta. Ephesus earned its third neokorate from this temple in 211.

Whatever its original use, this basilica-like building south of the Olympieion was abondoned in the 3rd century, when the city was in decline because of a great plague and the attacks of the Goths in 258-62. The Church of Mary was later built in the ruins of this Roman building. But was it built in time for the Council of Ephesus?

In the 1990s, Stefan Karweise and his archaeological team excavated the Church of Mary with surprising results. He reports:

In a trench outside the church wall, secure evidence was found in the foundation ditch proving that the church was not built as early as the period of Constantine nor even in 431, but several decades later.... Archaeological evidence from sherds and coins has proven beyond doubt that the lateral walls, consisting of huge limestone blocks which might have come from the foundations of the Olympeion, were not erected before about 500. Since these walls closed the open sides of the Roman stoa, they belong to the time when the church was founded. The Constantinian date... must be rejected... and instead a date in the reign of Anastasius I [491-530] must be employed. Similarly, it is clear that the block walls did not replace older church walls, since there is no evidence of this. The dates of the baptistery and narthexes have not yet been verified.

Whenever it was built, the Church of Mary served as the cathedral of Ephesus, with the bishop living in an adjacent palace, throughout Late Antiquity. One alteration during this time is attested by an inscription: one Bishop John had a portal cut through from the atrium to the narthex. This may be the bishop who was installed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

In the 530s, Hypatius was bishop of Ephesus. An important figure beyond Ephesus, Hypatius was a leading theologian and writer who fought against the heresy of monophysitism at synods in Constantinople and was sent by Emperor Justinian on a diplomatic mission to the Ostrogothic government in Rome.

At home in Ephesus, Hypatius presided over the early stages of construction of the Basilica of St. John, a massive project which was financed by Justianian - perhaps in part because of the influence of Hypatius. In his own cathedral, the Church of Mary, Hypatius commissioned a long inscription carved on revetment plaques in the narthex. The decree deals with the burial of the poor, an important charity provided by the church. It recalled the example of the Lord, who was buried in a tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, and ordains that no church official should take money for burial services. The inscription shows the continued importance of the Church of Mary, which is called "the most holy church."

After the Arab raids of 654 the bishop moved to the Basilica of St. John and remained there for two centuries until it came under attack in 867. The Paulicians, a militant Armenian sect, turned the Basilica of St. John into a stable and the bishop moved back to the Church of Mary, which was repaired and partially rebuilt for that purpose.

The later history of the Church of Mary is less clear, as the city of Ephesus was in sharp decline. But sealed graves have been discovered in and outside of the church that date all the way to the late medieval period, indicating the church was still in use by local Christians until at least the 14th century. Today, the church is mostly in ruins.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

Historical Timeline of the Church of Mary

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