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Ephesus: Ancient city's rich history

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(Reuters) -- Pope Benedict visits one of Christianity's most revered sites Wednesday, the ancient city of Ephesus near the Aegean Sea. The city is close to where the Virgin Mary is said to have died. Here are some key facts about the city.

Roman glory

During the Roman Republic, Ephesus was the capital of proconsular Asia, which covered the western part of Asia Minor. It was called "the first and greatest metropolis of Asia."

In Greek and Roman times, Ephesus was the center of worship of Diana (or Artemis), goddess of hunting. Its Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is estimated that as many as 17 other gods and goddesses were worshipped in Ephesus at one time.

Christian history

By the later first century AD, Ephesus had become an important center for early Christianity. The Apostle Paul spent his longest missionary tour in Ephesus and later wrote his Letter to the Ephesians to the congregation there.

From an early date, St. John the Evangelist was said to have lived and died in Ephesus.

In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian built a great basilica over John's tomb, remains of which can be seen today.

According to a later legend, the Virgin Mary joined the Apostle John in Ephesus. A house about 7 km from Selcuk, just outside Ephesus, is believed by many Catholics and Muslims to have been the last home of the Virgin Mary.

The current structure, known as the House of the Virgin, dates to the 7th century and is believed to be built on the site of her house.

It became an official place of Catholic pilgrimage in 1892. The Church of Mary is still used on feast days of the Virgin Mother, and in 1967, Pope Paul VI said mass in it.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in the ancient city of Ephesus

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