President Clinton came to a 3,400-year-old town today and found that some things never change: Communities ask the government for money, people quarrel over religion, and sailors leave graffiti about sex.

The president, his wife and their daughter toured the magnificent ruins here, once part of the Roman Empire's third-grandest city (after Rome and Constantinople), and now a sprawling archaeological sampling of mosaics, arches and columns that hint tantalizingly and somewhat forlornly at its past grandeur. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Saint Paul and perhaps the Virgin Mary lived here, as did some of the finest architects and craftsmen of the Greek and Roman empires.

The first family viewed Ephesus (pronounced EF-i-sus) with understandable awe, although the president's face at times had traces of a vacation-weary husband being dragged to yet another site by his wife and daughter. Perhaps, in his presidency's waning days, the symbolism was too stark: Empires, monuments and politicians rise, and empires, monuments and politicians inevitably fall, fade away and are largely forgotten.

Whatever his thoughts, Clinton kept them mostly to himself, listening intently to his tour guides and musing only a little when reporters were within earshot. "Amazing," he said as he approached a double arch that included a likeness of Medusa, meant to keep away evil spirits.

Clinton is spending 10 days in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, including five days in Turkey. On Thursday he'll attend the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and he'll make numerous speeches and appearances before heading home.

Today, however, was devoted mainly to sightseeing in Ephesus, founded around 1400 B.C. as a trading post on the Aegean shore. Over the centuries it was colonized by the Greeks, exalted by the Romans, burned by the Goths and finally abandoned by people who no longer could use it for trading because its harbor filled with silt.

Paul, the New Testament's famous letter writer, came here in A.D. 52 to convert the residents to Christianity. Local silversmiths soon rioted and ran him out of town because his proselytizing hurt their business selling likenesses of the town's favorite pagan goddess, Diana.

Legend holds that John, one of the 12 Disciples, brought the Virgin Mary here to live out her days after Christ's crucifixion, and Ephesus remains an important pilgrimage site for that reason. At least one Israeli town also claims to be Mary's burial site, so archaeologists step gingerly around the subject in this Islamic nation, preferring marble to myth.

"We don't talk about Mary," said Julie Pearce, a Turkish-based American archaeologist who conducted a tour today for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and others, shortly before the Clintons' walk-through. "It's gotten us in trouble before."

If Mary's sojourns are lost in the mists of time, some of Ephesus's artifacts seem strikingly modern. Take, for example, the stone tablet letter the Clintons strolled by on their way to the Library of Celsus.

It seems an earthquake had damaged Ephesus's walls, and the locals asked Rome's emperors for help--block grants, no doubt--to rebuild them. As the government dithered, Ephesus's leaders tried to reassure their constituents of their continued diligence by posting a copy of the letter--in the form of chiseled marble tablets--sent to prod the Romans.

It was classic--or classical--bureaucratese: "You inform that income [from private estates in particular cities and the land owned by the state], and the assets provided for the renewal of walls were insufficient," began the two-millennium-old letter. Any G-12 federal employee today would recognize it as a Hellenistic way of saying, "Don't give me that 'revenues are tight' baloney."

A little farther down the Street of Curetes, tour guide Beyhan Oner pointed out some graffiti to the Clintons, a carving in the marble pathway of a left foot and a woman wearing a crown. Oner explained that the graffiti was helpfully left to tell ancient sailors that the town's brothel was ahead and on the left. In fact, the Clintons had stopped a few minutes earlier at the "House of Love," but reporters were kept at a sufficient distance to prevent them from learning how much detail, if any, the guides offered on the spot's legacy.

Graffiti wasn't the only antique nuisance that today's politicians could readily appreciate. As Oner explained that the Romans used lead pipes to carry water in Ephesus until they realized it made them sick, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is planning a Senate bid from New York, nodded.

"So," she said, "they had lead poisoning back then."