History of the collection
Ephesus lies on the Aegean coast of Turkey and was one of the largest cities of the ancient world. It was during the early modern period that the first European researchers set off to the Eastern Mediterranean in search of the great places of the past. Their descriptions, travel notes and, in particular, their sketches and engravings formed the basis for early modern Europe’s newly awakened interest in ancient times.
The 19th century, finally, saw the beginning of in-depth research based on scientific questions and methodologies. In this endeavour, one motive played a not insignificant role: site excavations served to expand and enrich the museum holdings of the various European royal and imperial houses. Spurred on by his knowledge of the size, significance and wealth of the Temple of Artemis, the Briton John Turtle Wood—working together with the British Museum—succeeded in rediscovering this ancient religious site in 1869. Contrary to expectations, however, the list of recovered items turned out to be modest, for which reason excavation activity was soon halted.
It was at a relatively late point, towards the end of the 19th century, that the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy decided to mount a large-scale research effort in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Under the auspices of the Institute of Classical Archaeology and conducted by the newly founded Austrian Archaeological Institute, Austrian scientists began conducting research in the ruins of Ephesus in 1895, and this work continues today. An excavation process lasting over a century (albeit interrupted by the two World Wars) has provided and continues to provide answers to numerous questions about the ancient city.
An additional motivation to provide funding for these efforts was an agreement between the Ottoman Empire and Austria. Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman Sultan at the time, presented a generous gift to Emperor Franz Joseph: several of the ancient objects that had been discovered were gifted to the Imperial House, allowing them to be exported to join the collections in Vienna. Austrian Navy vessels subsequently brought several shipments of archaeological finds back to Vienna, where they were provisionally warehoused and put on occasional display at the Theseus Temple in the Volksgarten. The ability to directly examine these newly found originals in Vienna made possible their subsequent scientific study in Austria. The export of antiquities from Turkey was generally banned with the proclamation of the Turkish Antiquities Law of 1907; as a consequence, Vienna was to receive no more such finds.
After the collection had been kept in various makeshift settings for many years, December 1978 finally saw the Vienna Ephesus Museum opened in its present-day form inside the Neue Burg section of the Hofburg complex. Visitors are presented with a representative selection of Roman sculptures that once decorated institutions including sprawling thermal bath facilities and the Ephesian Theatre. A number of architectural elements give an impression of the magnificent ancient buildings’ richly decorated facades, and a model of the ancient city makes it possible to better understand the objects’ respective positioning within the city’s topography. Alongside all of this, the so-called Parthian Monument, a series of Roman reliefs unique in both its size and importance, forms a highlight of the collection.
The scientific study of the holdings of ancient objects from Ephesus is conducted in cooperation with the institutes of the University of Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the Austrian Archaeological Institute. The Ephesus Museum in Vienna serves last but not least as an ambassador for Austria’s intensive efforts in the interest of ancient Ephesus, which—with today’s ca. two million visitors annually—is Turkey’s most-visited tourist destination after the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. Both the care of the ruins and the reconstruction and rebuilding of ancient monuments are also part of the Austrian researchers’ mission, and the Ephesus Museum provides an Austrian-based platform with which to represent their many years of work.