The Church of Mary (Meryem Kilisesi) is a church of great historical significance located in Ephesus. It is also known as the Double Church, because it is thought one aisle was dedicated to the Virgin and the other to St. John, and the Council Church because the Council of Ephesus is believed to have been held here.
Note: The religious history of ancient Ephesus is the subject of the webmaster master's thesis (completed in June 2007). An excerpt from this, on the History of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, is published on this website for anyone who might be interested.
History of the Church of Mary
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 afterwards.
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, it was thought that this Church of Mary was built under 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. (See my thesis excerpt for all the details or keep reading for a summary.)
The most 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 from about 100 to 130 AD 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 that would later contain the Church of Mary was built after the Olympieion, around 200 AD. 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.
In the 1990s, Stefan Karweise and his archaeological team excavated the Church of Mary with surprising results. He reports:
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.
What to See at the Church of Mary
The Church of the Virgin was a classic rectangular basilica enclosed by rows of columns 260 meters long from the Roman stoa, with lateral walls added between them around 500 AD.
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.
Quick Facts on the Church of Mary
|Names:||Church of Mary|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||37.944993° N, 27.339274° E|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of Mary|
- Original research by the author for MPhil degree at the University of Oxford (2007). Excerpt of thesis here.
- Stefan Karweise, "The Church of Mary and the Temple of Hadrian Olympios." Helmut Koester, ed., Ephesos: Metropolis of Asia (Harvard University Press, 1995), 311-20.
- Ephesos - Official Website of the Austrian Archaeological Institute (OEAI)
- Clive Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 44, 52-54.
- Franz von Miltner, Ephesos: Stadt der Artemis und des Johannes (Wien : F. Deuticke, 1958).
- Hypatius inscription: Henri Gregoire, Recueil des inscriptions grecques chretiennes d'Asie Mineure (1922), 108.
Map of the Church of Mary, Ephesus
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Church of Mary. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.