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!
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.
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
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
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!
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!
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
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’
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: