The Sacred Way


An Artist's Conception of the Temple

    When the poet Antipater in the 2nd century BCE saw the Temple of Artemis and proclaimed it the greatest of all the wonders of the world, he was looking at a temple built upon the inexhaustible wealth and boundless ambition of Croesus, King of Lydia, in the 6th century BCE.

     It survived until 356 CE, when Herostratus, for reasons unknown, set fire to everything in it that was combustible and brought the whole magnificent structure tumbling to the ground. The motive attributed to him at the time was a fervent desire to be famous, but I have never believed that story. So I wrote a different story and gave him a different motive.

     Coincidentally, the Temple was destroyed on the very day that Alexander the Great was born…well, maybe it wasn't a coincidence. Alexander preferred to think that the goddess had popped across the Aegean Sea to assist at his birth in Macedonia, leaving her Temple unprotected. Alexander accepted some responsibility for destruction of the Temple and offered to pay for its reconstruction, but his offer was declined.

   Although there were other temples honoring other gods in Ephesus (a reminder that Greeks and Romans were polytheistic), the Temple of Artemis was the heart, soul, and lifeblood of the city. The processional route of the Sacred Way, beginning and ending in the forecourt of the Temple, was its major artery.

    Lilian Portefaix has this to say about religious processions: "The significance of religious rituals often reaches beyond their strict religious intentions. Specifically a procession, performed in front of the public, is a most effective instrument of disseminating a message to the crowd. This ritual, as is well known, has often been used not only in religious but also in secular contexts." (

Route of the Sacred Way
Stefan Feuser

     I hadn’t thought of it at the time of writing, but the procession I describe in the story “Herostratus,” is overlaid by the Persian occupation, when the Persian priesthood, known as the Magi, controlled all the religious and social functions of the Temple.

    Effectively disseminating its message to the crowd, the Sacred Way cut through the most populated sections of the city before returning to the Temple, where it began. The procession is led by the beautiful and virginal daughter of Herostratus.

She was draped from her shoulders to her feet in a billowing purple robe intricately embroidered in white. On her head she wore a long white veil that seemed to be fastened to her wrists, causing the light material to flow out behind her like wings while she held aloft a basket of fruits and flowers—“from Herostratus’ farm,” Klymene said knowingly. I marveled at the transformation of the frightened child we had rescued from a despairing household into this radiant creature, possessed by the goddess, possibly a manifestation of the goddess herself. She was followed by three priests, each carrying images of legendary figures from the history of Ephesus, then by six priestesses leading three black bulls whose harnessed heads trailed garlands of flowers. There were other women and some young girls with baskets of fruit and gifts of gold, some members of the ruling elite, and two dressed-up Persians in their cooking-pot hats, curly beards, and brightly colored robes such that a woman might wear to a wedding, but no Hellenic gentleman would ever wear in public, not even in private. After them came the chief Magus from the temple, and lastly two priests carrying between them the ancient wooden effigy of Artemis in which the spirit of the goddess mysteriously and, so we believed, dwelled everlastngly.

The procession ends in the forecourt Temple were it began. The sacrifice of bulls is conducted out of doors, because only a select few of the most pious priests and priestesses are  privileged to enter the inner sanctum, where they serve  in the holy presence of the goddess herself.

We watched from a distance, indulging in small-talk until smoke from the burning meat wafted toward us, whereupon Herostratus led us through the crowd to an archway guarded discreetly by two of the Magi, with whom he talked before waving us past them and into a garden of roses.