Today (8th May) is the 95th birthday of renowned British naturalist and wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough. Over his distinguished career he has produced and narrated numerous documentaries such as Life on Earth, Planet Earth, and Blue Planet. He is also a campaigner for action to curb biodiversity loss and the climate crisis.
One of his lesser-known series is ‘The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man’. First broadcast in 1987 it looks at the history of wildlife and people in the Mediterranean region. The first episode looks at the formation of the Mediterranean Sea and the evolution of the plants and animals that live in and around it. The episode ends with the arrival of stone age people, leading into the second episode which looks at the relationship between classical era civilisations and nature.
The end of Attenborough’s journey in this episode sees him visiting the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, home to the Temple of Artemis. He recalls the story of the Apostle Paul, and the time he spent in the city. This is the story, as told in Acts 19:23-31:
About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theatre together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theatre.
Thankfully, the town’s clerk intervenes and saves Paul’s companions by dispersing the crowd. In the next chapter Paul leaves Ephesus and does not return, although maintains correspondence with the letter to the Ephesians.
Attenborough provides some much-needed context to this story in ‘The First Eden’. At the time of Paul, Ephesus was under Roman occupation. The temple of Artemis was listed as one of the seven wonders of the world. Artemis was, among other things, the goddess of fertility, and at the time the soils of North Africa and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) were some of the most fertile in the world. North Africa was producing half a million tonnes of grain every year, resourcing Rome with two-thirds of its wheat. And yet today these areas are arid deserts, far from the sea. So what happened here?
Attenborough explains that the forest in the surrounding areas was cut down to make room for more crops. With no roots to hold the fertile soil, it was washed away by the wind and the rain, into the sea. This soil built up, creating banks of flat, marshy land, and rendering the original harbour inaccessible by water. This ended the trade on which the city’s wealth was based, leading to the city to fall into disrepair, before being ultimately abandoned.
Paul arrived in Ephesus in 53AD, at the hight of the city’s prosperity. While the harbour had already begun to silt up, trade was still strong, and the city also received thousands of pilgrims every year who came to visit the Temple of Artemis. The silversmiths were eager to attract these devotees, and thus viewed Paul’s message of Christianity to be bad for business, and an insult to their goddess of fertility.
But Attenborough points out that ironically “it was the Ephesians themselves who were flouting the principles of fertility by what they were doing to the land around their city. It used to be said, that in places like this, nature eventually failed to support man. The truth is exactly the reverse. Here, man failed to support nature.”
What do you think the story of Ephesians tells us about our relationship with the natural world? How can we learn from their mistakes, to ensure similar environmental collapse does not befall us?
Since this article was published, David Attenborough was named the COP26 People’s Advocate. You can see him speaking on this role and his hopes for the conference here: