The city of Ephesus—located near the western shores of modern-day Turkey—was once a bustling center of commerce, culture, and learning. One of the most important trading centers in the region, it was also known as a home to scholars and artists. Wealth and wisdom were both in ample supply, and their combined powers led to the creation of this building: the Library of Celsus.
This two-story marvel, sanctioned by a powerful consul named Gaius Julius Aquila as a monument for his late father, is one of the few libraries remaining from the Roman Empire. It was once home to as many as 12,000 scrolls and was the third largest library in the ancient world, right behind Alexandria and Pergamum. However, much of that collection was lost in 262 A.D. when an earthquake struck the city and the building caught fire. Whatever survived was likely destroyed later that same year when the city was sacked by Goths.
Anyone who knows me is well aware of my passion for books. Libraries are almost holy spaces in my mind, buildings designed to benefit the community where learning is prized. In most Western cultures today, whether we’re rich or poor, a library’s doors are always open to us. Their treasures are ours to explore free of charge. And when I think of all the knowledge that was lost when this gorgeous building was damaged, I can only weep.
This building is still quite striking with its handsome statues, graceful columns, and intricate scrollwork. But every time I look at this image, I also see loss. It reminds me that no matter how hard we try to preserve them, the things we build fall. Our civilizations, as powerful and impressive as they may be, crumble to dust. Our hard-won knowledge, so diligently recorded for posterity, vanishes. As the poet Robert Frost once said, “Nothing gold can stay.” So why do we keep trying if everything is doomed to collapse?
No matter how hard we try to preserve them, the things we build fall. Our civilizations, as powerful and impressive as they may be, crumble to dust. Our hard-won knowledge, so diligently recorded for posterity, vanishes.
I think it’s because we can’t help ourselves. There’s something in us that knows the pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the wise is worth it despite the brokenness all around us. As God’s sub-creators, we’re trying to make this world—in our own halting and imperfect ways—what it is destined to one day be.
In Ephesians 1:8-10, the apostle Paul writes, “In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He set forth in Him, regarding His plan of the fullness of the times, to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” We know there is something better and altogether more beautiful to come in “the fullness of the times.” And when that moment arrives, I like to imagine this building won’t be broken any longer.
I picture the cracks and fissures vanishing and every scattered stone being gathered and returned to its rightful place. The scrolls might even reappear, neatly arranged in their niches, and the warm Mediterranean light will once again flow through the windows like liquid gold. But our God won’t stop there; He’ll transform the beautiful work of our hands into something even more magnificent in the light of Christ’s glory. So yes, I look at this once-grand house of learning and grieve, but I do not do so as a person without hope (1 Thess. 4:13) because I trust that someday everything will be made new.