The Pyramid of Hellinikon

Greetings history-lovers!

I hope your Summer has been brilliant thus far.

For myself, I returned from Greece a couple of weeks ago and I am well into my bout of Aegean Blues.

But that’s ok, because I have a couple thousand pictures to gaze at and rich memories of historical outings to keep me inspired.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures on Instagram – if you haven’t seen them, you can do so by CLICKING HERE. I will, of course, continue to post more of them as time goes on.

Today however, I want to share with you my experience visiting a site I’ve longed to see for some time – the Pyramid of Hellinikon.

I’ve mentioned this site before, but now that I have actually been to it I want to give you my impressions before the sound of cicadas fades from my ears, and the memory of intense heat upon my skin cools into Canadian autumn.

In short, this site exceeded my expectations and fired my imagination.

It also nearly fired my physical body as we had arrived in Greece on the tail end of a heat wave that saw temperatures soar into the mid-forties Celsius!

So, after a night of wine and food beneath the stars at the southern tip of the Argolid peninsula, we set out early(ish) over the high peak of Mt. Didyma, down toward ancient Epidaurus, and across to that beautiful jewel-of-a-city, Nauplion.

Now, I know my way around the area pretty well, but let’s just say that finding the Pyramid of Hellinikon was not easy, even with Google Maps.

Our car meandered around the curve of the Argolic Gulf to Nea Keos, then to the far side where we turned northwest.

You might think that with a map, and seeing it on a screen, the place would be easy to find. However, the routes we had to follow were the shape of a Greek Key at best.

And it was HOT!

There was also very little signage, so we had to stop and ask a man who was out watering his grass. As an aside, I think he is the only man in Greece with a large patch of manicured lawn!

Anyway, the fellow simply pointed up the mountain in the direction we were already headed, so we continued on our path, climbing up, turning, climbing again in the shadow of terraces where orange and olive trees grew on the side of the mountain.

We came around a corner and there it was. A pyramid!

The site is just adjacent to a church in the village of Hellinikon. The funny thing is that it stands out like a sore thumb compared with the village houses and church, but it blends almost completely with the ancient landscape itself. By rights, we should have seen it from the road along the gulf below, it stands in such a prominent position.

I pulled the car into the shade of a single tree (hoping it could cool off in thirty-seven degrees in the shade), and got out.

I had to stop and stare at this place, for no pictures had prepared me for the sheer size and antiquity of it. I didn’t feel the sun or heat anymore. I only saw the pyramid, and at the back of my mind the words of Pausanias crept in…

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)

If what Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., said was true, then I was standing before a pretty well-intact monument of the Greek Heroic Age.

Even now, it sends shivers down my spine…

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.

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

In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid. 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 misty. This is when archaeology and dating can help us a little.

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

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.

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. It also falls more or less in the broad period of the Greek Heroic Age.

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.

When I arrived at the site, however, I wasn’t so much concerned with academic theories or arguments. I was just captivated.

In Greece, history and mythology have a way of coming to life unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the sites, the landscape that has changed little since ancient times, or the fact that sites such as this are not encased, guarded or protected (for better or worse).

As I stood before the slanted cyclopean walls of this ancient structure I wondered not about the age of the structure, but more of its use. There are a very few pyramids in this part of Greece, and this one is the best preserved.

But what was it for?

I remembered reading that it was either a tomb or monument, as Pausanias suggests, or a sort of guardhouse.

Plain of Argos toward the Argolic Gulf as seen from the Pyramid

I opened the gate of the rusty fence surrounding the pyramid and approached, scanning the rocks and shrubs for any snakes or scorpions before pressing on.

Maybe it was my overactive writer’s imagination, but this place seemed to be pervaded by a deep thrumming, as if an ancient drum were being beaten in the earth below. I wondered if the shades of the fallen Argive soldiers might still dwell in that place. Had their ashes been placed within?

I wandered around to the back which faced the plain of Argos far below and found that there was a doorway, an arched gallery leading into the pyramid, not unlike the galleria at ancient Tyrins.

First I decided to explore the outside, to get a better feel of the place before heading in.

It hit me as I turned around to see the view from the pyramid…

The entire plain of Argos was clearly visible from the pyramid! You could see every approach – from the South along the sea, from between the mountains to the southwest, from the North toward Argos itself, from the mound of ancient Tyrins to the East, and from the other side of the Argolic Gulf and Nauplio to the southeast.

Then I thought of the other use of this place as a guardhouse. It was perfect. The pyramid blended perfectly into the landscape when ‘seen’ from far below, and it provided a perfect view of the surrounding area, a place from which to spot any threat to Argos itself. Also, I wondered if the shape was better suited to that high and no doubt lonely, windswept place in Winter.

In truth, I can’t be sure either way. Was it a tomb or monument, or was it a guardhouse? Both uses have merits.

After looking around, I turned and went in.

From the rubble strewn about, and the discolouration of the stone around the entrance, it did seem like the pyramid had been sealed at one point, otherwise, one of the corners would have been flat.

I pictured a procession of priests or warriors carrying the urns containing the remains of their fallen comrades into the pyramid beneath the peaked gallery, or a soldier finishing his shift on watch outside and heading back into the pyramid to sleep or eat while another took over outside to watch the valley.

Door frame between the gallery and main chamber of the pyramid

There was a high step at the end of the gallery, and then a door frame with grooves for hinges. I stood on this and looked down into a large square room.

This inner room of the pyramid was in good condition, and free of litter left by modern visitors. There were no stone shelves upon the cyclopean walls, just cracks and the odd, occasional circle cut into the stone. Below the door, there appeared to be a sort of broken basin or drain, but it was difficult to tell.

Standing inside the main chamber of the Hellinikon Pyramid

I stood in the middle of the room and turned around, noticing that it was much cooler and quieter inside the stone walls even though the roof is gone and it’s open to the sky.

After looking around and taking more photos, I made my way back outside to look at those wonderful walls once more and take in the view from that commanding position.

I stood there beneath the full heat of Helios’ orb in the heavens, the cicadas having reached fever pitch now, and lizards skittering away at my footfalls to hide in the shadowy cracks of rubble from the pyramid.

I had never been to a place like this before, and I doubt that I will again, for the Pyramid of Hellinikon is truly unique. True, it’s nowhere near as grand as other pyramids, but it made me feel directly linked to that ancient land and the events that had (or may have) taken place there.

As I took one last look from the wall of the pyramid to the valley, the roads disappeared far below and the air was filled with the sounds of battle, of warriors in bronze and leather, the charge of horses and cry of eagles.

You can’t help but see the past through romantic lenses in a place like this, and that’s ok. It makes it exciting.

I didn’t know if the shades of dead Argives were standing beside me then, but I do know that while at the Pyramid of Hellinikon, I did not feel alone.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the Pyramid of Hellinikon. If you ever find yourself near Argos or Nauplio, you should definitely check it out.

If you want to see the rough video clips I took on the site, I’ve put them all together below in a short YouTube video…

In the comments below, be sure to share your thoughts on this pyramid. Was it a guardhouse, a tomb or war memorial, or was it something else?

Thank you for reading!

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The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus

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It’s been a couple of months now since my trip to Greece, and I have finally managed to get through all (almost all) 4000+ pictures and videos from the trip. All I can say is, thank the gods for digital photography!

I promised to give you a tour of some of the sites that I visited on this trip, and so I thought I would start with ancient Epidaurus. If you missed the earlier post on the wonderful ceramic workshop in ancient Epidaurus, CLICK HERE.

This is the first in a two-part blog series on Epidaurus. Today we are going to take a brief look at the ancient theatre.

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Cruising over the mountains to Epidaurus

I’ve been to this site several times in the past, but I never tire of it. Some places are like that, I suppose. You can visit them again and again, and each time you do you get a different perspective that adds to your overall impression of the site.

The theatre of Epidaurus is like that.

For the history-lover in me, going there is like visiting a wise old friend. We greet each other, sit back in the sunshine, reminisce and contemplate the world before us.

There is something comforting about going back to familiar places.

It had been almost ten years since my last visit to the theatre, and so I was looking forward to seeing it again. As we drove up and over the mountain range that separates the southern Argolid from Epidaurus, hot wind blowing through our open windows as the car whined up steep slopes and around precipitous hairpins, I wondered how much the site might have changed.

Plan of the Theatre of Epidaurus

Plan of the Theatre of Epidaurus

It was the middle of the day as we drove up to the main entrance, the temperature knocking on 42 degrees Celsius (about 107 Farenheit). Needless to say, the lot was near empty but for a few rental cars and a tour bus.

I guess I’m one of the few who would drag their friends and family out to an archaeological site at the hottest time of day.

I parked our car in the shade of one of the many pine trees at the fringes of the lot and we got out, loaded with water, a snack, and the camera equipment.

As it turned out, there had been some major changes at the site. As we left the parking lot, we passed a massive snack bar with an outdoor café where exhausted, sweaty tourists sat beneath parasols slurping ices and bitter-sweet frappés.

We walked down the familiar path to main entrance, followed by the usual stray dogs who ignored the lounging cats amongst the flower beds of bitter laurels. We pressed on past the empty restaurants, dodging the waiters’ friendly ‘Yes Pleases’ until we reached the new ticket booth.

Tickets in hand, we marched through the new, automated admittance gates that scanned our stubs, and we were in.

Side entrance to the orchestra

Side entrance to the orchestra

I was glad to see that there were not many tourists, as on previous visits you could barely move.

When you enter the archaeological site from the ticket booths, you find the museum on your right, its wall lined with marble blocks covered in votive inscriptions from the sanctuary of Askeplios (more on that in Part II).

I don’t know why, but every time we visit this site we are always drawn to the theatre first. Perhaps it is more familiar, simpler than the archaeological site of the sanctuary opposite? You walk up the steep stone steps beneath scented pine trees and then, there it is!

What a view!

What a view!

The theatre lies in the blinding sunlight all limestone and marble, rising up in perfect symmetry before you with the mountains beyond.

It’s always a shock to stand there and see it for the first time, this perfect titan, an ancient stage beneath a clear blue sky where the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles and so many more have entertained the masses and provoked thought in the minds of ancients for well over two thousand years.

In ancient times, one’s view from this vantage would have been blocked by the stage building, or scaena, but as it is today, you have a perfect view over the ruins of that building’s foundations.

The theatre of Epidaurus is considered the best-constructed and most elegant theatre of the ancient world. It was built in the 4th century B.C by the sculptor and architect, Polykleitos the Younger, who also designed the Tholos in the sanctuary.

The theatre sat 14,000 spectators, and every one of them could see the stage and hear every momentous word that was spoken.

You don't want to tumble down this aisle!

You don’t want to tumble down this aisle!

What I enjoyed about this particular visit to the theatre was the fact that, because there were no crowds, I was able to stand at the centre of the stage (the orchestra), and drop a coin so that my family and friends could hear it where they sat at the top row.

Then I spoke…

My voice was so loud in my ears, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was on a microphone, my voice amplified like I had never heard it before. But there were no electronics, just an ancient perfection of design that has set the standard for ages.

After that, I climbed up the long central isle to the top row to join everyone and sit down. It’s a long way up, but the top provides the perfect vantage point of the sanctuary and landscape surrounding Epidaurus.

We sat there, listening to the cicadas, taking in the view, and enjoying the dry, pine-scented air.

Looking north from the theatre to the sanctuary

Looking north from the theatre to the sanctuary

I thought back to the performances I’ve seen there in years past. Over ten years ago, I saw Gerard Dépardieu perform in Oedipus Rex, and Isabella Rossellini in Persephone, both adaptations of the ancient tales by Igor Stravinsky. It was amazing to watch such wonderful actors giving a performance there, and it was obvious too that they were enjoying the space, the tradition they were taking part in.

The last play I saw at Epidaurus was a performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy in which the women of Greece withhold sex from all the men in order to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. One thing is for sure, the National Theatre of Athens, which has been putting on these performances since 1954, puts on a great production.

Isabella Rossellini in 'Persephone'

Isabella Rossellini in ‘Persephone’

When you see a play at Epidaurus, the audience is also participating in an ancient tradition. How many people have gone before us, sat in those seats, laughed and wept at the drama being played out before them?

It’s difficult not to think about that when you sit in the seats of Epidaurus. Whether you are basking in the hot rays of the Mediterranean sun, or waiting for a play to begin as the sun goes down and the stars appear, Perseus and Gemini twinkling in the sky above, one thing is certain – you will never forget the moments that you spend there.

Next week, in Part II of this blog series, we’ll venture away from the theatre for a brief visit to the museum, and then on into the peace and quiet of the Sanctuary of Asklepios, a place of miracles and ancient healing.

Thank you for reading!

If you want to see a bit more of the theatre of Epidaurus, below is a short video:

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