The woman's casual dress and charming smile belied a character that in previous incarnations must have commanded armies and conquered nations. "I tell you, you must see Ephesus," decreed the cruise director. "You have seen many ruins. True. But I guarantee Ephesus will not disappoint you."

So at 7 o'clock one morning I found myself in a little van threading its way from Kusadasi, an exotic port city on the western coast of Turkey, through the rocky, barren hillsides, across valleys supporting sparse, thorny stands of cotton and silvery green seas of olive trees. The cruise director's granite-like certitude had stirred a challenge within me.

Our cruise was meandering from Athens to the Aegean islands of Mi'konos and Rhodes. Instead of spending my time shopping for Turkish carpets, leather goods and jewelry when the ship docked at Kusadasi, I followed the woman's command. Still, I wondered, after several visits to Israel and Europe, and after seeing the ruins of Athens and the ancient city of Rhodes, could one more pile of ruins be all that exciting?

I had my doubts as the van came to a stop in the middle of a bazaar where dark-haired boys raced up, their arms cradling carved wooden flutes ("three for one dollar"). From their tents merchants beckoned any visitor displaying the slightest amount of curiosity.

As I walked away from the hawkers, my doubts faded along with the din of the bazaar. Following a small path through a grove of olive trees, I noticed a large piece of carved marble lying in the weeds. My eyes drifted from that piece of stone to a street paved in marble, and suddenly the hillsides and valley opened up to one of the greatest collections of ancient ruins in the world. What I saw was not just a building or two. Ephesus is an entire city of magnificent ruins -- temples, theaters, fountains, plazas, markets and houses.

Ephesus, the largest metropolis of Asia Minor at its zenith in the second century A.D., is 10 times larger than Pompeii. Once Ephesus stretched across 48 square miles and boasted a population of 300,000. Rome was the political capital but Ephesus was the economic capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the most active harbor of Asia Minor and the final port on the Silk Route.

The Greeks founded Ephesus in the 8th century B.C. because its location on the Aegean made it an excellent port. Croesus, king of the Lydians, destroyed Ephesus in the 6th century B.C. and moved the site inland. The city was destroyed again in the 3rd century B.C. by the Greeks, who rebuilt it, and it flourished until the 6th century A.D. when an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale struck. As a result, the sea receded, swamps developed and the area became infested with malaria. The dual tragedy proved fatal. The ruins visible today are mostly from the third incarnation of Ephesus.

Today, the site is being excavated by the Turkish Ministry of Education. The first excavation was started in 1863 by John Turtle Wood, a British archeologist. But despite the monumental ruins that have been uncovered, 80 percent of the city remains to be excavated. Archeologists painstakingly sift through rock and soil by hand so as not to damage the relics. They estimate they will need another 400 years to complete the task.

The best way to see the ruins of Ephesus is to take a bus or van with a guide from Kusadasi. The ride takes about 30 minutes. The main streets excavated so far resemble one side of a hexagon. The visitor walks a short stretch, and then the next street continues at a slight angle. Few of the side streets have been excavated. If you enjoy building up to a visual crescendo, start on the southeast side of the city at the Magnesia Gate and work your way toward the Grand Theatre.

Ancient Ephesus was an important site of both Christian and pagan worship. Christianity flourished early in Ephesus. Biblical accounts say that John, Paul, Andrew, Philip, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself visited the city.

Before the rise of Christianity, Ephesians worshiped the Greek goddess Artemis (also known to the Romans as the many-breasted Diana, the goddess of fertility). The temple erected in her honor around 550 B.C. was so large and elaborate that Alexander the Great exempted Ephesus from paying taxes until it was completed to avoid further strain on the city's treasury. It was later recognized as one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, very little of this magnificent site can be seen today (although many of the relics excavated from the Temple of Artemis are housed at the British Museum in London).

Fortunately, the rest of Ephesus is a visual feast of antiquity. These marble gates, pillars and temples provide a rich backdrop as you try to imagine the city and its people as they existed 18 centuries ago.

Entering through the Magnesia Gate, you see the Roman baths where Ephesians steamed in watery repose while discussing events of the day. Nearby, music from flute and lyre entertained as many as 1,000 patrons at the Odion, a concert theater. Obviously aristocratic Ephesians enjoyed their artistic pleasures.

In fact, working for a living was considered ignoble. Turkish author Sadan Gokovali writes in "Ephesus," a small volume about the excavation, that Ephesians believed "no man who was in a hurry was quite civilized."

The Odion faces a long marble street, with the Upper Agora on the other side. In ancient times, cities had two agoras: One was the marketplace and the other was for discussing important political and social issues. The Upper Agora was also the site of the law courts. To the north of the Upper Agora is the Basilica, the stock exchange, and across the street from that are the remains of a roofed bazaar where citizens could buy figs, grapes, wine and olive oil, staples of the Ephesian diet.

The next group of ruins is the hospital or Asclepion, identified by a symbol on a marble column -- a snake coiled around a staff. Asclepius was the god of medicine; the snake motif evolved from ancient times when medicine was made from poisonous snakes.

To the south, red-brick residences contrast with the green hillsides and marble streets of the inner city. Nearly every citizen owned an individual home with three large bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathrooms surrounding a courtyard. Some featured the added luxury of marble swimming pools.

Although their roles were largely those of wives and mothers, upper-class women benefited from the fact that Ephesians had a deep interest in home and family life. Among the classes with suffrage, women could vote. Female poets, painters and musicians were among the well-educated, and women judges held court nearby in Priene.

Further into the city, the Street of Curetes leads to a rich assortment of buildings, baths, several temples, a brothel and a library. In ancient times, pedestrians walked in the streets here. Sidewalks, many of which are covered in rich mosaic patterns, actually were wide terraces reserved for outdoor cafe's and wine shops.

The Scholastikia baths provide interesting information on architecture and engineering in Ephesus. In a creative use of statuary, water flowed into the baths from the armpit of the water god. The upper floors of the baths, which could accommodate 1,000, were used for recreation, reading and entertainment. The baths were heated by steam circulating under the pavements and in the walls. Engineers designed the city's sewer system so that pipes carrying drinking water were six feet higher than those for sewage.

Adjoining the baths is the Temple of Hadrian, regarded as the most attractive of all the ruins of Ephesus. The temple, dedicated to the Roman emperor of the same name, was built in 130 A.D. at a time when the empire stretched almost from England to India. The keystone arch, in which wedge-shaped pieces of stone are fit together without any mortar, features the head of Thiki, the goddess of fortune. A frieze inside the temple shows a parade of elephants, warriors, kings and gods.

At the corner of Curetes Street and Marble Street an elaborate complex of buildings includes a brothel, public lavatory and library. Wealthy Ephesians and their guests relaxed, conversed and enjoyed themselves at the brothel. The city recognized prostitution and taxed its practitioners. Although today the erotic art has been removed to an archeological warehouse in Ismir, where the viewing of it is restricted to men, at the time Ephesus flourished there was little stigma attached to men patronizing courtesans. Ephesians seemed to possess a certain frankness about their bodies. In fact, archeologists say men and women sat side-by-side in the public lavatory near the brothel, visiting and gossiping.

Across the street sits one of the city's most imposing structures. The Library of Celsus with its 118 marble colonnades was the most important library of its time. It served not only Ephesus but the entire Holy Roman Empire for 145 years. Authors of the time competed to have their books accepted by the library. Built in 135 B.C., it was finely decorated with columns, hand-carved cornices and statues. All its furnishings -- desks, shelves, tables, settees and chairs -- were made of marble.

Marble Street leads from the library past the expansive Lower Agora market toward the Grand Theatre. This three-tiered amphitheater seating 25,000 is the high point of a tour of Ephesus. It is said to be the largest ancient theater in the world and is known for its excellent acoustics -- a perfect setting for a Greek drama.

It was in this theater that Paul preached to the Ephesians, begging them to cease their worship of Artemis and to turn to Christianity. The Book of Acts notes the riots that followed Paul's preaching. Nearby is the prison where he was incarcerated as a result of scheming by the silversmiths and politicians who considered his teachings to be dangerous to their financial interests.

The theater, which took more than 15 years to excavate, occasionally is used today for classical music concerts. In fact, a former history teacher in Turkey tells the story of escorting Yehudi Menuhin to the Grand Theatre. "The renowned violinist was very impressed with the acoustics," he said. The teacher told Menuhin and his wife the theater was even more impressive in the moonlight, so they planned to return that evening. Menuhin took along his violin. Under the full moon, he stepped out on that ancient stage and played for his wife and his Turkish friend.

Later the friend emotionally recounted the event. "Can you imagine, this theater, his magic strings and the full moon?" he asked, his eyes imploring, his arms stretched out as if they could touch the top tier of the colossal structure. "It brought tears to my eyes."

I remembered my Greek friend who said I would not be disappointed with Ephesus, and I nodded.