Ancient Ephesus was the most important city of the Byzantine Empire in Asia and the Ephesians were well known across the Greco-Roman world for their enthusiastic devotion to the goddess Artemis, whom they regarded as their guardian deity. The city had a magnificent temple, made of solid marble, dedicated to her, which was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest building in the Greek world, about four times larger than the Athenian Parthenon. The 127 Ionic columns of the temple were 18 metres tall and decorated with ornate friezes, brilliantly gilded in silver and gold. The altar of the temple was large enough to sacrifice hundreds of animals simultaneously.
The Temple of Artemis was destroyed and rebuilt time and again. Probably, the first shrine was constructed around 800 BC and it took 120 years to build the next temple, which was partially funded by the legendary King Croesus of Lydia, who conquered Ephesus in 550 BC. However, that temple was destroyed on 21 July 356 BC in an act of arson and was built again in 323 BC. Unfortunately, the last temple was also destroyed in or around 262 AD by the East Germanic Goths, who destroyed Ephesus and played an important role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Approximately four hundred statues and figurines of Artemis still survive today. The statues show the goddess wearing an elaborate costume, which includes a crown resembling her temple. Underneath her crown, the goddess’s face has a benign, calm expression and her hair is neatly and simply tied back or hidden. Her face and hair look similar to the face and hair of many statues of young Greco-Roman women. All of the surviving statues of Artemis have several garlands around her neck. Some statues wear a garland which features symbols of the zodiac, the only deity of the Greco-Roman world who appropriated the signs of the zodiac as part of her costume. Her long and tight skirt is decorated with the heads or busts of different animals arranged in rows. Some of the heads or upper torsos are of real animals, others are of mythical animals that look terrifying or terrified. However, in between her garlands and the skirt, there is one of the more perplexing features of Artemis’s appearance. She has numerous smooth, oval-shaped, bumps on her midriff, which are interpreted differently by the scholars. It was thought by some that these objects were her breasts, others suggest they may be bull’s testicles or bee’s eggs. In fact, the shape of the protuberances matches the size and shape of bulls’ testicles. It was suggested that, on certain occasions, a series of bulls were offered to the goddess in bloody slaughter and their testicles were fixed on the statue of Artemis.
However, the origin and the cult of Artemis are shrouded in obscurity and probably predates the Ionians settling in southwestern Anatolia around 1050 BC. Probably, the goddess started out as a sacred tree on the southwestern slopes of Mount Ayasolak, as a tree goddess and a timeless symbol of fertility. She was supposed to have the power to bring new life into the world and to take life away. It was believed that she helps women and animals in labour and the Ephesian women used to pray Artemis during childbirth to speed up the labour, ease the pain and end the sufferings. Artemis was also regarded as the protector of virgins and was considered a virgin and unlike the mother goddesses, she was not associated with any male consort or god.