Library of Celsus

The Library of Celsus is beyond doubt one of the most known and iconic structures of the ancient Ephesus. The library is located at the corner of the intersection of Kuretler Street and Mermer Street,the front facade of the library,which was raised with the works that lasted between 1970-78, has an extraordinary beauty with its eye-catching decorations and especially the 4 female statues in the niches. After touching up on the history of the library, I intend to dig deeper and explore the facade and sculptures within.

As we can conclude from its name, this library was built in the name of a Roman called Celsus.  Celsus’ son built this library in memory of his father,which contains the monumental tomb (sarcophagus) of Celsus. This feature the library is sometimes considered a ‘heroon’. Heroon meaning a place/structure dedicated to a ‘Hero’,can be described as a monumental building made for a very important person or a mythological character in the ancient Greek architecture.

Before mentioning the library itself, it is crucial to explore what libraries meant in the ancient world. The relation model we have formed today with books is still quite new. Although our book reading rate as a country is not where it should be, a book is a reachable and convenient source for us. Similarly the possibility that almost everyone can reach information from the internet is at least theoretically existing. The literacy rate is also very high but like I said, this situation has been valid for several centuries. Earlier,reaching information or reaching a book and even owning one was extremely difficult and it was a privilege that belonged to some classes in society. When we go further back in history,we can see that this privilege is reduced even more to a limited class. In early history, in Egypt and in early Mesopotamian civilizations writing was only an open ‘secret’ to the reverends and executives.

A beautiful restitution of the facade of the Celsus Library (Image: web1)

The invention of the printing press is an important breaking point in this process. The reproduction of the books by machines instead of hand-writing has increased its accessibility in a significant way. Early on, the books that were written one by one and were hard to produce, could only be in the libraries of churches or in the collections of the rich. Because of reading a book means to know reading and writing and to be able to access a book, it was something that a small part of the society could do.

When we look at this point of view,  we can easily understand how important the libraries were in ancient cities. During the Hellenistic period,the race of the amount of books in their library between Alexandria and Pergamon should be evaluated in this perspective.After a while the book collecting race between the two cities would let Egypt,prohibit the exportation of papyrus,the most used material as paper wasn’t invented yet instead. Upon this,the Pergamons invented the parchment after the work to find a new material to replace the papyrus. This is the reason why the name parchment is derived from Pergamon.

Unfortunately, all pieces of the Library of Pergamon were carried to Egypt as a gift from Marcus Antonius to Queen Cleopatra in 41 BC. I supppose that ‘a book is the best gift’ tradition was started by this man.

Celsus and the Chronology of the Library

If you were to ever sought out more information on Celsus, it would be difficult to get more information on him and his life. The information that is available to the public is both restricted and limited. Celsus who came from a family of Sardis and Ephesus studied military and law and became a consul in 92 AC during Emperor Domitianus, later the head of development in Rome, a preconsul in the Roman province Asia in 105 BC or 106 BC, turned to politics after his 60 and passed away a short time before 144 BC. (Yıldız,2003)

In a way that coincides with this information we can also summerize the chronology of the structure from the information sign at the field:

92 Tiberius Iulius Polemaeanus is a consul in Rome.

105/6 or 106/7 Celsus is the preconsul (the governor) of the province Asia whose capital is Ephesus.

Before 114 Celsus passed away when he was about 70. Celsus’ son Aquila, started the construction of the library on his father’s sepulcher, but his life was not enough to complete it.

About 117 Finishing the library building.

262 Goth attack to Ephesus. The library burns in flames. Only the marbel facade gets rid of fire.

About 400 The repair of the facade and constructing a fountain on the stairs.

The library in Ephesus, which was abandoned and turned into a ruin in the Middle Age,collapses with an earthquake.

1903/4 The library is found by the Austrian Archaeology University. R. Heberdey, J. Keil and W. Wilberg reveal the building.

1970/78 The renewal of the facade by the Austrian Archaeology Institute.

Before the excavation is completed and the reconstruction begins (From the information signs in the field)
Celsus Library front facade, the small square in front of it and the door that provides the passage to the Tetragonos Agora on the right

The Revealing of the Library and Restoration

The library located next to the southern gate of the Hellenistic Agora and in the southeast corner of the Agora, between the Mithradates Gate and the auditorium,was unearthed in 1903 and 1905 by the archaeological excavations of R. Heberdey and O. Benndorf. The library was reconstructed by researchers such as G. Niemann and W. Wilberg (1908). After V. M. Strocka examined here in 1969, damaged fragments in the surrounding area were collected and it was understood that 2/3 of the building remained to the present day. This library which is one of the most beautiful buildings of the city in terms of architecture, was restored to the height of the niche architrave taking into account its aesthetics and strenght,using the latest technical methods by the Austrian Archaeology Institute. This process started in 1970 and was completed in 1978.

Architectural Features

The library consists of an 11 meters deep, 16,50 meters wide (Yıldız,2003) marble floored indoor space behind a flamboyant facade. Except for the front facade of the main mass, which is reachable from a platform that is accessed by 9 steps from the small area in front of it, the other three facades were built of rubble-stone up to 4 metres high and above was made of brick (Yıldız,2003). In order to protect the thick walls from moisture, air channels are left behind the wall to allow air circulation. Furthermore it is claimed that the reason why the building was built on a vaulted infrastructure is to protect it from moisture. Unlike today’s books, ancient artifacts in the shape of rolls were kept in the niches on these walls and in wooden cabinets. According to B. Götze, there were around 12.500 rolled books which  400 of them were in the downstairs cabinets of the library, 3000 of them were on the gallery floor and 5500 of them were on the first gallery floor (Yıldız,2003). According to internet sources, this number makes the Library of Ephesus the third largest ancient library after the Library of Alexandria and the Library of Pergamon.

Plan of the library and interior restitution (from the information signs in the area)

As I mentioned before, the library is also the tomb of Celsus. It’s estimated that the statue of Celsus or the statue of Goddess Athena is located in the large niche in the middle of the interior, but more interestingly, there is the monumental tomb (sarcophagus) of Celsus in the krypta (burial chember) under this apse.

The apse that is likely to be found by the statue of Celsus or perhaps Athena and the holes under which the sarcophagus in the burial chamber can be seen

Without doubt, the most striking part of the library is the front facade. The facade is arranged in two floors. When the facade starting with nine steps from the bottom reaches the interior height, it continues in two stages, with 8 columns rising from the pedestals sitting on the postaments in the front and the wall with 3 entrance gates and niches with 4 famous sculptures at the back. Columns with their capitals in composite order which was the most spectacular style in the Roman period, were arranged in 4 pairs, two by two. Each of these pairs carries a three-piece architrave seperated from each other by a string of beads. On the architrave, there is a frieze with a dense decoration, a string of beads and eggs on it again. It also has a fringe part starting with dentil frieze. The dentil frieze is also densely decorated. At the upper level, the columns are repeated,but this time the columns,not narrow but wide, are combined with the entablature, leaving straight protrusions on the far left and far right, while the facade is completed with a curved pediment on both sides and a triangular pediment in the middle.

Front facade

Each of the units that protrude from the facade, 4 on the ground floor and 3 on the upper floor, is called aedicula.

Close view of the front facade

Also an interesting information about the building is that the front facade was repaired and arranged as a fountain around the year 400. Monumental fountains in ancient cities namely Nymphaeums are frequently encountered. One of the best examples of this building type is the Antonine Fountain in Sagalassos, which has been restored and brought very close to its original state today. The front of the library was repaired and a pool was created right in front of the stairs and was once used as a monumental fountain.

The most attention grabbing elements on the front facade are surely the 4 female sculptures. Each of these sculptures is a personalized version of a respected concept. Below the statues from left to right are the following statements:

SOPHIA          ARETE          ENNOIA          EPISTHEME

KELSOI           KELSOI          PHILIPPOI          KELSOI

There are many different translations about these concepts. Therefore, I used Güler Çelgin’s Ancient Greek-Turkish Dictionary as the most reliable source. There are many equivalents of these concepts in the dictionary. I chose the best that fits in the context. For instance in the dictionary it says that sopfia means skill, wisdom etc. So I chose wisdom.

SOPHIA KELSOI: The wisdom of Celsus

ARETE KELSOI: The virtue of Celsus

ENNOIA PHILIPPOI: The love of understanding, thought and common sense

EPISTHEME KELSOI: The knowledge of Celsus

The sculptures we see today are actually the copies of the originals. When you look closely, it is understood that they are not made of marble. The original sculptures are in the gallery reserved for Ephesus in the National Bibliotheke in Vienna.

Original sculptures in the National Bibliotheke Vienna.


Nuray Yıldız,2003, Ancient Age Libraries, Arkeoloji ve Sanat press

Güler Çelgin,2011, Ancient Greek-Turkish Dictionary,Kabalcı press

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