The Serapeion of Ephesos: A district for the Egyptian gods

The Serapeion-district at the foot of the Bülbüldağ is one of the best preserved temple complexes from the 2nd century CE in Ephesos. Despite being the object of considerable study, the interpretation of the temple and its temenos has not yet been clearly identified. A new project is dedicated to the comprehensive study of the temple precinct and its historical importance for Ephesos. 

Research history

The Serapeion-district consists of a Roman podium temple and a temenos 100 x 75 m in size on the northern slope of the Bülbüldağ directly to the west of the Tetragonos Agora. The temple was constructed in the 2nd century CE and is one of the best preserved buildings in Ephesos. The massive columns and architrave were barely covered by dirt and were already known to travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries who suspected that the building was an imperial cult temple for the Emperor Claudius. The excavations of the OeAI began in 1911 and 1913 under R. Heberdey and showed early on that the temple was not only composed of enormously large monolithic building elements but that water also played a special role: a supply pipe from outside was discovered inside the cella. This led to the assumption that the building was a nymphaeum. J. Keil resumed the excavations in 1926 and based on a few inscriptions that suggested a connection with the practice of Egyptian religion, he put forth the interpretation of the temple as a Serapis sanctuary. From 1990 to 1992, P. Scherrer continued the excavations particularly in the portico with G. Langmann and F. Hueber. Although there were doubts regarding the interpretation as Serapeion and a few aspects relating to the use of the temple, its chronology, and its dedication remain unclear. Despite this the designation ›Serapeion‹ for the temple has become established.

›Project Serapeion‹

In a new project, an interdisciplinary team is working on the multiple facets of the temple that will be published as a new interpretation concept. In the area of building archaeology T. Schulz-Brize (TU Berlin) documented the building with students from the University of Würzburg and the TU Berlin. G. A. Plattner (Ephesos Museum, KHM) is studying the architectural ornaments, H. Taeuber (University of Vienna), is analyzing the epigraphic evidence, M. Steskal and T. Koch carried out excavations in the cella and in the courtyard. L. Rembart is researching the pottery from all excavations and N. Schindel (OeAW) is working on the coins. The conservation of the exposed building elements and walls was carried out by M. Pliessnig. A. Sokolicek is working on the history of ideas and is preparing the publication of the initial results with the team. The burials in the Christian church have already been published by M. Steskal.

The building

The temple is located along the back of the temenos district on a podium with a monumental flight of stairs. The eight prostyle columns are crowned by Corinthian capitals. As a result of the double side walls of the temple, a corridor was created between the cella and the external wall. A narrow stairway along the back of the temple led up to the (no longer preserved) upper story; it is likely that the stairway could be reached from the corridors. The cella (17.24 x 20.18 m) is dominated by an apse in the south. Six niches are located along the side walls about 1.50 m above the ground level and to both sides of the apse is a further niche. In the niches water basins were probably installed; the corresponding water drains have been preserved in the walls. The exterior side walls also had niches but they reached all the way to the floor and were not connected to the water system. In the early Christian period the temple was transformed into a church; its installations are still visible on the eastern side of the cella.