The Pyramids of Ancient Greece

Yes. A pyramid of ancient Greece!

Yes. A pyramid of ancient Greece!

I have something very interesting for you this week.

When most of us hear the word ‘pyramid’, we immediately think of Egypt, of the soaring structures that make up the Giza Pyramid Complex, the pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre, and of course of Khufu, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

These structures have fascinated people for millennia, and not just modern tourists. The pyramids at Giza were a highlight on that famous Hellenistic tourist route we call The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Giza pyramids are actually the last on the list that are still standing!

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

But we are not here to discuss Giza or Egypt. Nor are we here to discuss the pyramids of Mesoamerica, those Aztec and Mayan wonders that rise up out of the jungles and plains.

Teotihuacan - Pyramids of the Sun and Moon

Teotihuacan – Pyramids of the Sun and Moon

Today I wanted to take a brief look at the pyramids of ancient Greece.

That’s right. Pyramids. In Greece.

I don’t know why, but the existence of these only just came to my attention. I had never heard them discussed before, nor seen them in any guidebooks. On one of the ancient history Facebook groups I frequent, someone shared a conspiracy-like video about these.

Now, the video quality was not great, the theories a bit dodgy, but the whole idea of pyramids in Greece piqued my curiosity. So, I did a little digging.

And I found very little.

All of my archaeology and history textbooks make no mention of pyramids in ancient Greece, and most of the websites that mention them were more the sort of New Age pyramid theory sites that you should always take with a grain of salt.

Pyramids in the Movies - Remember Stargate?

Pyramids in the Movies – Remember Stargate?

However, from the little I was able to find, it seems like there were pyramids in ancient Greece, theoretically about 16, though for most there are no remains, and some may be natural features.

Surprisingly, the one that is best-preserved is near Argos! Now, if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that the Argolid peninsula is the region I frequent most when I go to Greece, so I was shocked when I found out about this.

I was able to get a bit more information from Pausanias, who wrote about these pyramids in his description of Greece in the second century A.D.

On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen. (Pausanias; Description of Greece 2.25)

So, according to Pausanias, who wrote many hundreds of years later, this pyramid was believed to be a tomb or monument to the fallen Argive soldiers in the opposing armies of Proetus and Acrisius. We’ve seen in other cultures that pyramids have been used as tombs, such as Egypt and even Rome, so that is consistent.

Pyramid of Cestius, Rome

Pyramid of Cestius, Rome

Now, Proetus and Acrisius were brothers, sons of Abas and Aglaea, and mythical kings of Argos. Proetus was king first but after many battles with Acrisius, and subsequent losses, went into exile. Acrisius became King of Argos, and this is the same Acrisius who banished his own daughter, Danae, to the sea, along with her infant son – you guessed it! – Perseus.

Acrisius putting Danae and the baby Perseus into the box before throwing them into the sea

Acrisius putting Danae and the baby Perseus into the box before throwing them into the sea

I managed to find a theoretical list of the pyramids in Greece, and it seems that many of them are located in the Argolid. They are the Pyramids of Hellinikon, of Kampia, of New Epidaurus, of Ancient Epidaurus, of Ligourio, of Dalamanara, of Nafplion, two at Fichthia and Mycenae, and the pyramid of Neapolis.

I have my doubts about this list, and was not able to find any information on most of these. Ligourio came up, and I have indeed driven through that village many times, and stopped at the Mycenaean bridge that is near there.

Mycenaean between Naufplio and Ligourio

Mycenaean between Naufplio and Ligourio

However, the one pyramid whose remains are the most intact, and for which there is the most information, is the Pyramid of Hellinikon near Argos. It is believed that this is the pyramid referred to by Pausanias above.

Entrance to the Hellinikon Pyramid

Entrance to the Hellinikon Pyramid

In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid, or the one at Ligourio. There is no exact date for the battle between the legendary kings of Argos, Proetus and Acrisius. Another battle mentioned in the sources, in which a large number of Argive soldiers died, apparently took place in c.669 B.C.

It seems that as far as history and sources, the evidence is pretty thin. This is when archaeology and dating can help us, or, in this case perhaps, hinder us.

From what I’ve read, the dating of the Hellinikon pyramid is highly controversial. On the one side we have the legend mentioned by Pausanias. Then, in 1937, excavations were undertaken by the American School at Athens in which they found pottery ranging from the proto-Helladic period to the Roman period. This shows the site was in use for some time, but what about dating?

A look at Thermoluminescence dating

A look at Thermoluminescence dating

There is a method of dating called thermoluminescence dating, and this was carried out on the pyramid of Hellinikon. Without going into too much detail about this, this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation in objects or sediment. Click here to read more about the methodology behind thermoluminescence dating.

The team that carried this out, in addition to geophysical surveys, excavations, and a study of the masonry of the pyramid, dates the Hellinikon to the period of about 2000-2500 B.C.

That’s also about contemporary with the pyramids on the Giza plateau.

But this dating method has been highly criticized as inaccurate and sloppy, with one camp of academics taking shots at the group that undertook the study of the pyramid. Other groups believe the style of masonry sets the Hellinikon pyramid in the Classical period.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. I’d be curious to read an impartial study of the Hellinikon and other pyramids of the Argolid and ancient Greece.

That’s the funny thing about pyramids… You either have groups whose goal is to prove their existence in relation to something else, like extraterrestrial life, or other groups whose sole purpose seems to be to disprove the work of the previous groups.

Uhm… Run for it!

Uhm… Run for it!

The fact is though, that the Hellinikon pyramid exists and is a unique and fascinating structure in an ancient landscape.

Was it a war memorial? Was it a tomb? Was it a guard house with a small garrison of Argive soldiers? Or was it a landing beacon for the ships of little green men?

Who knows?

Hellinikon from above

Hellinikon from above

The confusion and disagreement around these structures doesn’t negate the fact of their existence. They may not be as flashy as the pyramids of the Aztecs, or as gloriously huge as those in Egypt, but they are indeed fascinating.

When it comes to ancient mysteries like these, personally, I find it sad when individuals try to ‘explain away’ such things.

In no way am I suggesting alien linkages – though I have spoken with people who claim to have seen UFOs in the sky when they were attending a night performance at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus – but the ancient Greeks did have close trading ties with the Egyptians.

These sorts of finds are gold for writers. After all, I’ve always found it more interesting to explore possibilities than to disprove theories, and fiction is the perfect medium for that!

Thank you for reading.

Hellinikon interior corridor

Hellinikon interior corridor

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The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Seven Wonders as background for Maerten van Heemskerck's Abduction of Helen by Paris

Seven Wonders as background for Maerten van Heemskerck’s Abduction of Helen by Paris

We’re drawing close to the end of 2015 and, like many people do, I’ve starting thinking back over some of the things we’ve seen in the media over the past twelve months.

The world is mad, there’s no doubt about it, and prayers for world peace and goodness are more needed than ever.

Chaos seems to rule much of the world, and this past year, even history and archaeology did not escape unscathed. With the blatant destruction of sites such as Hatra and Nineveh, Palmyra and now possibly sites in Libya, we are seeing things that have stood for thousands of years turn to dust.

It’s been a sad year for the past, and this makes our future look bleaker in some respects. Needless to say, the human suffering is on a whole other level…

But I don’t want to cast a shadow on the time of the Solstice, the time of the Sun’s rebirth.

Instead, I want to take a look at some of the shining lights of creation and human achievement in the past. Just because something is gone, does not mean it doomed to be forgotten.

There are certain ancient sites that have captivated humans since their creation, and inspired artistic and architectural traditions for centuries. They are beacons, they are supreme examples of will and imagination, and they are pure magnificence.

They are The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Maerten van Heemskerck

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Maerten van Heemskerck

The mere mentioned of the Seven Wonders stirs a longing in me for some vague but powerful reason. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of bygone ages of which I have often daydreamed?

The truth is, I’m not alone in this feeling, this fascination with a list of monuments created so long ago. The Seven Wonders have captured the imagination of people since the Hellenistic age. Sure, the list might have changed a little, but its celebration of artistic and architectural inspiration and achievement most certainly has not.

Where did the list come from?

Consensus points to two figures of the ancient world who may have compiled the most popular list: Philo of Byzantium and Antipater of Sidon.

Philo of Byzantium was a 3rd century B.C. resident of Alexandria who wrote a compendium of mechanics, and Antipater of Sidon was a Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C.

It is no coincidence that the two men were Greek. After the campaigns of Alexander, and the fall of the Persian Empire, the East opened up and Hellenic people and ideas spread far from the homeland. Greeks had been living in Egypt and Persia for a long time already by then, but now they could move about more freely and that meant one thing: tourism!

Map of the Seven Wonders (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of the Seven Wonders (Wikimedia Commons)

To that point in time, Herodotus was the Lonely Planet guide of the day, but people didn’t necessarily want to travel. War with Persia made that a risky undertaking. But when the last embers of the Wars of Succession finally died and the world was safe again, there was mass movement of people and ideas. The list of the Seven Wonders could have been a wonderful itinerary, or at least a list of popular hotspots around the eastern Mediterranean.

It is no surprise that Philo was a mathematician inclined to mechanics and that Antipater was a poet. The Seven Wonders would have appealed to both men as monuments of inspiration that many could not even guess at how they were constructed.

Let’s have a brief look at this wonderful list of monuments.

I – The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

The Pyramids of Giza

It’s ironic, but the Pyramids of Giza which were built around 2,600 B.C. are the oldest monuments on the list, and yet they are the only ones that survive to this day. I had a chance once to go to Egypt on a dig but that was the year just after 9/11 and all hell had broken loose. The dig was cancelled. No matter how many times I see the pyramids on television, I can never get over their simple magnificence. And I’m sure they are even more striking in real life. As the last remaining wonder on the list, I hope I don’t miss out.

II – The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Then Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Then Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The hanging gardens of Babylon are interesting and their existence is still widely contested, the date of their possible building unknown. From what is said, the Hanging Gardens were created by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605-562 B.C.) for his Median wife, Amytis who was homesick in that dry land. So, he is said to have built a sort of stepped pyramid with terraces that were covered with lush gardens of flowers and fruit trees. It is said there was a complex irrigation system for the entire gardens from top to bottom and that exotic animals roamed its heights. I don’t know if this is truth or fable, but I do know that this was supposed to be one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet. Here is what Quintus Curtius Rufus says about the Hanging Gardens:

“On its summit [of the Babylonian citadel] are the hanging gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks. They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many tall trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it. So stout are the trees the structure supports that their trunks are eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet; they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment… It has a substructure of walls twenty feet thick at eleven foot intervals, so that from a distance one has the impression of woods overhanging their native mountains.” (Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander)

The rest of the monuments on the list from now on are Greek. No surprise since the compilers of the list were Greek. Nonetheless, these monuments are indeed deserving of ancient accolades.

III – Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis

The Temple of Artemis

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in the sixth-century B.C. in what is now modern Turkey, was one of the largest, most beautiful temples of the ancient world. Its construction was paid for by the wealthy Lydian King, Croesus. It took ten years to build and brought pilgrims to Ephesus for centuries. The temple was said to be about 137 meters long, 69 meters wide and 18 meters high with more than 127 columns. Sadly, the temple was destroyed by raiding Goths in the third century A.D. However, the memory of the beauty of this temple to the Goddess of the Hunt would live on.

For Antipater of Sidon, it was the most beautiful of all the wonders:

“…when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.” (Antipater, Greek Anthology

IV – The Statue of Zeus, Olympia

The Statue of Olympian Zeus, Olympia

The Statue of Olympian Zeus, Olympia

Ancient Olympia is one of the few sites on this list that I have been fortunate enough to visit. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately as I work my way through Heart of Fire. Ancient Olympia is one of my favourite sites in Greece, this peaceful, green sanctuary nestled between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos in the eastern Peloponnese. Sadly, the twelve-meter, ivory and gold statue of Olympian Zeus was looted from the sanctuary long ago to fall victim to fire in another land.

However the fifth-century B.C. remains of the Temple of Zeus, which contained this wonder, still exist. So too does the workshop where the artist Pheidias laboured to shape the ivory that would create a giant, life-like representation of the king of the gods. The column drums of the temple now lie in domino lengths, grass-covered victims of earthquakes, and the workshop is bare and open to the sky. However, if you can make it there someday try standing on the paving slabs of the temple floor. Imagine the thick, Doric columns running the length of the interior to flank the giant statue of Zeus seated upon his throne. Then imagine how small a person must have felt in that space, the awe and the silence that resulted from being in the god’s presence.

V – The Mausuleum at Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

Back to Asia Minor now for the fifth of the Seven Wonders. Now we find ourselves in the ancient city of Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum, in Turkey. This was the site of the tomb of King Mausolus of Caria. The tomb, built in the mid-fourth century B.C., was not just any tomb. King Mausolus wanted to outdo all previous memorials, and so he commissioned the tomb by which all others would henceforth be measured.

King Mausolus’ ‘mausoleum’ was approximately 48 meters high and adorned top to bottom with the most beautiful, columns, reliefs and statuary of the day. The most talented artists and craftsmen of the Greek world were hired to work on it. It had statues of gods and goddesses, centaurs and lapiths, men and women, lions and other beasts. It rose into the sky to tower above Halicarnassus and to top it off was a massive four-horse chariot driven by Mausolus, with his wife Artemisia at his side. Mausolus never lived to see his tomb completed and so the task fell to Artemisia. But she died two years later. It is a testament to the craftsmen that they stayed to finished the mausoleum even then, after their patrons had gone into the afterlife.

VI – The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

The island of Rhodes in the south-east Aegean is one of the larger Greek islands and a place of great beauty. It was said to have been the domain of the sun god, Helios. To commemorate the victory of Rhodes over Antigonous I of Cyprus, the Rhodians erected the Colossus between 292 and 280 B.C. The bronze statue of Helios was said to straddle the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes to a height of 33.5 meters, making it one of the tallest statues in the world, visible from far out at sea.

Today, if you visit Rhodes, it is the medieval city that really stands out to the visitor. The Colossus stood for only fifty-six years before it fell victim to an earthquake. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight while it stood. Now, the points where the feet of the statue were planted are marked by two pedestals at the harbour entrance. Though it did not stand for long, the influence of the Colossus of Rhodes lasted for ages, inspiring the Emperor Nero to erect his own colossus in Rome. A more modern version that was inspired by the Colossus is the French-built Statue of Liberty in New York, another beacon to guide and welcome travellers.

VII – The Pharos of Alexandria

The Lighthouse, of 'Pharos', of Alexandria

The Lighthouse, of ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria

The last structure on the list of the Seven Wonders was located in the most famous city founded by Alexander the Great: Alexandria. The Lighthouse, or ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria was built between 280 and 247 B.C. Some sources say it rose to a height of as much as 140 meters and that its reflected fires could been seen from unimaginable distances out at sea. The lighthouse guided ships into the city that had become the great metropolis of the world. For centuries the Pharos was the tallest structure in the world and was actually the third, longest-standing of the Seven Wonders after the Mausoleum and pyramids at Giza.

The great Lighthouse of Alexandria was truly a beacon to draw the world to one of the most advanced, civilized cities in existence.

In addition to being inspired by a look at the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I’m also a little saddened by it.

I think of what was, and what could have been, had they stood to this day (we’re fortunate indeed to have the Pyramids!).  What would the world be like if we could still look upon the statue of Zeus at Olympia, or tour the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Part of me thinks that it would be amazing to sail up to Rhodes beneath the gaze of the Colossus, or to walk the terraces of the Mausoleum gazing upon the statuary as upon an outdoor museum.

However, another part of me thinks that our modern world would ruin those things. I don’t want to imagine these once-brilliant monuments stained by exhaust and pollution, or surrounded by kiosks selling plastic souvenirs made in China. Would the names of countless tourists be scratched into the marble of the Temple of Artemis, or would the ankles of the Colossus be ringed with spray paint?

I think those things would be infinitely more painful than looking upon the ruins of these wonders and imagining what once was. These artistic and architectural wonders were more than just tourist attractions. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were, and are, markers in the timeline of human history, intended to inspire and to raise man from the dust so that the gods might catch a glimpse of those achievements, those offerings, and smile back with pride.

So, it may be that we no longer have these ancient treasures, just as we no longer have Hatra, Nineveh, Palmyra and others.

But we can certainly take heart from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They may mostly be gone, but they will certainly never be forgotten.

Happy Holidays (whatever you are celebrating), and Happy Solstice to all of you.

Thank you for reading…

If you’re looking for something fascinating to watch over the holidays, be sure to check out this documentary by John Romer on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!

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