Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.
If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.
After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.
“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”
“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”
“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.
Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!
So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.
Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.
The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.
In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.
In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.
This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.
In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:
“Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)
When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.
However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.
Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.
Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.
We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.
“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.
We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.
The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.
But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.
Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.
One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.
You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.
I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.
Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.
After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.
Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.
We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.
These mountains are a place for gods.
I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.
* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:
The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai
When you enter the abode of the god
Which smells of incense, you must be pure
And thought is pure when you think with piety
This was the inscription that greeted pilgrims who passed through the propylaia, the main gate into the sanctuary of the god Asklepios at ancient Epidaurus.
Last week we looked at the world-famous ancient theatre of Epidaurus, and the marvel of artistic engineering that it was. This week, however, we will step into the quiet realm of the sanctuary of the God of Healing, a place that was famous around the ancient world for the miracles of health and healing that occurred there.
After our visit to the theatre, when the sun was at its most intense, we walked back down the steep stairs toward the back of the sanctuary where the small, but wonderful, site museum is located. It was time to get into the shade for a few minutes.
This museum is quite unassuming, but it has some amazing architectural and everyday artifacts.
The vestibule contains cabinets filled with oil lamps, containers and phials that were used for medicines and ointments within the sanctuary, as well as surgical implements and votive offerings.
Above the cabinets and into the main room of the museum, there are reliefs and cornices from the temple of Asklepios decorated with lion heads, acanthus, and meander designs, many of which still have the original paint on them.
However, in the first part of the museum are some plain-looking stele that are covered in inscriptions recording the remedies given at Epidaurus, and the miracles of healing at the sanctuary in ancient times. These inscriptions are where much of our knowledge of the sanctuary comes from.
We walked out of the vestibule into the slightly crowded main museum room where most of the tourists who were on site seemed to be cooling off.
But I didn’t notice the people. My eyes were drawn, once more, to the magnificent remains of the Tholos, and temple of Asklepios – ornate Corinthian capitals, cornices decorated with lion heads, and the elaborately-carved roof sections of the temple’s cella, the inner sanctum.
I stood before the statues of Athena and Asklepios that had adorned various parts of the sanctuary, and the winged Nikes that stood high above pilgrims, gazing out from their corners of the roof of the temple of Artemis, the second largest temple of the sanctuary.
I wondered if the people walking through the museum realized how beautiful the statues they were walking by actually were, the meaning they held for those coming to the sanctuary in search of help.
Once we had cooled off a bit, we gathered ourselves to head back out into the heat and head for the sanctuary of Asklepios just north of the museum and theatre.
The site was completely empty.
It seemed that most visitors headed for the theatre alone, some to the museum afterward, but none wanted to tough it out among the ruins of one of the most famous sanctuaries in the ancient world.
The Sanctuary of Asklepios lies on the Argolid plain, with Mt. Arachnaio and Mr. Titthion to the north. The former was said to have been a home of Zeus and Hera, and the latter, whose gentle slopes lead down to the plain, was said to have been where Asklepios was born.
To the south of the sanctuary is Mt. Kynortion, where there was a shrine to Apollo, Asklepios’ father, and farther to the south are the wooded slopes of Mt. Koryphaia, where the goddess Artemis is said to have wandered.
This is a land of myth and legend, a world of peace and healing, green and mild, dotted with springs. The sanctuary was actually called ‘the sacred grove’.
Asklepios, as a god of healing, was worshiped at Epidaurus from the 5th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. According to archaeologist Angeliki Charitsonidou, it was the sick who turned to Asklepios, people who had lost all hope of recovery – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, the dumb, the wounded, the sterile – all of them wanting a miracle.
But who was Asklepios?
Some believed he learned medicine from the famous centaur, Cheiron, in Thessaly. Another tale from the Homeric ages makes Asklepios a mortal man, a king of Thessaly, whose sons Machaon and Podaleirios fought in the Trojan War, and who learned medicine from their father.
Eventually, it came to be believed that Asklepios was a demi-god, born of a union between Apollo and a mortal woman. His father was also a god of healing and prophecy, both of which went hand-in-hand in the ancient world. The snake was a prophetic creature, and a creature of healing, so it is no wonder this animal came to be associated with Asklepios and medicine.
At Epidaurus, snakes were regarded as sacred, as a daemonic force used in healing at the sanctuary. These small, tame, blondish snakes were so revered that Roman emperors would send for them when in need.
The thing about Asklepios was that he was said to know the secret of death, that he had the ability to reverse it because he was born of his own mother’s death. Zeus, as king of the gods, believed that this went against the natural order, and so he killed Asklepios with a bolt of lightning.
There are no written records of medical interventions by the priests of Epidaurus in the early centuries of its existence. The healing that occurred was only through the appearance of the god himself. However, over time the priesthood of Epidaurus began to question patients about their ailments, and prescribe routines of healing or exercise that would carry out the instructions given to pilgrims by Asklepios in the all-important dreams, the enkoimesis, which they had in the abato of the sanctuary.
It is quite a feeling to walk the grounds of the sanctuary at Epidaurus, to be in a place where people believed they had been touched or aided by a god, and actual miracles had occurred and were recorded.
Faith and the Gods are a big part of ancient history, and cannot be separated from the everyday. I’ve always found that I get much more out of a site, a better connection, when I keep that in mind. You have to remove the goggles of hindsight and modern doubt to understand the ancient world and its people.
From the museum we walked past the ruins of the hospice, or the ‘Great Lodge’, a massive square building that was 76 meters on each side, two-storied, and contained rooms around four courtyards. This is where later pilgrims and visitors to the sanctuary and the games that were held in the stadium there would stay.
Without a map of what you are looking at, it’s difficult to pick out the various structures. Most of the remains are rubble with only the foundations visible. This sanctuary was packed with buildings, and apart from a few bath houses, a palaestra (22), a gymnasium (23), a Roman odeion (24), the stadium (26) and a large stoa (7), there are some ruins that one is drawn to, notably the temples.
I’m not sure why temples, among all those other ruins, are such a draw. Perhaps it is the mystery that surrounds them? Maybe it’s the fact that they were the beating heart of ancient sanctuaries where, for centuries, the devout focussed their energies?
The sanctuary of Asklepios has several temples the largest being dedicated to the God of Healing himself, within which there stood a large chryselephantine statue of Asklepios.
There were also temples to Artemis (the second largest on-site), Aphrodite, Themis, Apollo and Asklepios of Egypt (a Roman addition), and the Epidoteio which was a shrine to the divinities Hypnos (sleep), Oneiros (Dream), and Hygeia (Health). These latter divinities were key to the healing process at Epidaurus.
As I sit at my desk writing this post on a chilly November evening, fighting my first cold of the season, I’m warmed by my memories of the sanctuary – the sunlight, the heat, the fresh air, the sight of green trees with a backdrop of mountains with the sea not far beyond.
That’s the type of place ancient Epidaurus was, and still is; a sacred escape where the mind, body, and soul could recuperate. It still feels like that, even in memory.
As the cicadas yammered on in their bucolic frenzy, and bees and butterflies wended their way among the fallen pieces of the ancient world, our feet crunched along on the gravel pathway, past the ruins of the palaestra, gymnasium, and odeion to an intersection in the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.
I looked down at my map and found that I stood with the temple of Artemis to my right as I faced the ruins of what was the magnificent temple of Asklepios to the north. You can see the foundations, the steps leading up.
The image of Asclepius is, in size, half as big as the Olympian Zeus at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. An inscription tells us that the artist was Thrasymedes, a Parian, son of Arignotus. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff; the other hand he is holding above the head of the serpent; there is also a figure of a dog lying by his side. On the seat are wrought in relief the exploits of Argive heroes, that of Bellerophon against the Chimaera, and Perseus, who has cut off the head of Medusa. (Pausanias on Epidaurus – from the Description of Greece; Book 2.27.2)
I wondered how many pilgrims, how many people in need had walked, limped or crawled up those steps seeking the god’s favour.
I turned to my left to see a large, flat area of worn marble that was once the great altar of Apollo where pilgrims made blood sacrifices to Apollo and Asklepios in the form of oxen or cockerels, or bloodless offerings like fruit, flowers, or money.
Standing there, you can imagine the scene – smoke wafting out of the surrounding temples with the strong smell of incense, the slow drip of blood down the sides of the great altar, the tender laying of herbs and flowers upon the white marble, all in the hopes of healing.
As people would have stood at the great altar, they would have seen one of the key structures of the sanctuary beyond it, just to the west – the Tholos.
The Tholos was a round temple that was believed to be the dwelling place of Asklepios himself. It was here that, after a ritual purification with water from the sanctuary, that pilgrims underwent some sort of religious ordeal underground in the narrow corridors of a labyrinth that lay beneath the floor of the Tholos’ cella, the inner sanctum.
After their ritual ordeal, pilgrims would be led to the abato, a long rectangular building to the north of the Tholos and temple of Asklepios.
The abato is where pilgrims’ souls would be tested in by away of the Enkoimesis, a curative dream that they had while spending the night in the abato.
I have to admit that on previous visits to Epidaurus, I had by-passed the abato, this crucial structure where the god is said to have visited and healed pilgrims. This time, however, I went into the remains (which have been partially restored), and stood still for a while.
Miracles happened in this place, and there are over 70 recorded inscriptions that have survived which detail some of them – mute children suddenly being able to speak, sterile women conceiving after their visit to sanctuary, a boy covered in blemishes that went away after carrying out the treatment given to him by Asklepios in a dream. There are many such stories that have survived, and probably many more than that we do not know of.
As I stood in the abato, careful not to step on any snakes that may have been hiding along the base of the walls, I reflected on the examples of healing on the posted placard. It seemed that the common thread to all the dreams that patients had was that Asklepios visited them in their dreams and, either touched them, or prescribed a treatment which subsequently worked.
For a moment, I had my doubts, but then I remembered where I was, and for how many thousands of years people had been coming to this sanctuary for help, and had been healed.
Sleep. Dream. Health.
When I think of those divinities who were also worshiped at Epidaurus, right alongside Asklepios, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, standing there, in that place of peace and tranquility, it seemed highly likely.
The people mentioned on the votive inscriptions – those who left vases, bronzes, statues, altars, buildings and fountains as thank offerings to the god and his sanctuary for the help they received – those people were real, as real as you or I. They confronted sickness, disease, and worry, just as we do.
Today, some people turn to their chosen god for help when they are in despair. Others turn to the medical professionals whom they hope have the skill and compassion to cure them.
At ancient Epidaurus, people could get help from both gods and skilled healers, each one dependent on and respectful of the other.
As we walked back to our car, the sun now dipping orange behind the mountains to the west, I thought about how special this place was, how the voices of Epidaurus, its sanctuary, and its great theatre, will never die or fade.
Indeed, just as Asklepios was said to have done, this is a place that defies death.
As we drove away, I found myself looking forward to my next return visit, and the new things that I will discover.
Thank you for reading.