FARIT (Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey) has been sponsoring guided tours to destinations near and far for years. Since we’ve lived in Turkey, Kay and I have subscribed to quite a few. Although organized touring is not our favorite way to travel, we make an exception for FARIT’s because a) the number of participants is not large, b) they attract an international group of well-travelled, well-educated participants, and c) they are led by exceptional guides. This last feature has special importance for us.
Because I knew the quality of the guide who would be leading a recent tour to the Peloponnese, the large peninsula of southern Greece connected to the north by the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, I was inclined to participate. However, we had just returned from our journey through the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, which gave me second thoughts about traveling again so soon. It was Kay, who had long heard me express a desire to visit the Peloponnese, who urged me to go, needlessly reminding me that I wasn’t getting any younger.
Despite the country’s well-documented political and economic difficulties, millions visit Greece yearly. Of these, the majority are vacationers in search of sun and sea for an affordable price. Most go to the islands. Others want to see Athens, Delphi, Thessaloniki, and other places in central and northern Greece about which so much has been said and written. The Peloponnese, on the other hand, with the exceptions of Olympia and Mycenae, is not as well known and is less visited. That alone, in these times of stressful overtourism, is reason to go there.
So it was that I signed on with others for an intense six-day tour that included an arrival day in Athens followed by bus journeys that took us to Patra, Olympia, Sparta, Mystras, Monemvasia, Nafplio, Mycenae, Epidauros, and back to Athens where I remained for two additional days after the tour. I guess that for most of you, these destinations will be as unfamiliar as they were for me, yet they all played large parts in the Ancient and Byzantine worlds. A couple even have connections to more recent times: Nafplio was briefly the first capital of independent Greece while Olympia was where the Olympic Games began and were held for centuries.
As I wrote above, we like FARIT tours because they are well guided. This time, unbeknownst to me when I signed up, our tour would be doubly well guided. In addition to Dr. Ivana Jevtic, an art historian and university professor, one of whose specialties is Byzantine Art and History, we were led by Vicky Papadimitriou, a Greek native of Athens who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and mythology of Ancient Greece and who, through 30 years of experience, is intimately familiar with each of our destinations.
Having the knowledge is one thing while having the ability to communicate it in compelling and memorable fashion is another. Both our guides excelled at this.
If my praise sounds fulsome, it’s because for me this trip was such an eye-opener in several ways. I’ve read Greek history and mythology in school and on my own for years, plus, I’ve visited other parts of the country at different times, yet there were dots that I hadn’t connected. This trip helped me to do just that. A too obvious example (Duh!) is the name of Athens, itself. Did I not know that the goddess Athena had been the city’s divine guardian?
What follows is a incomplete digest of things observed and learned during my week in Greece, starting with the Athens Acropolis and its excellent museum that sits below it. In the Greek language “acro” means something like the “edge” and by extension “the highest point.”
Other ancient cities had an acropolis, but Athens’ is the most famous. In fact, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the world.
If you’ve not been there, beware, because its top is not paved, and the ancient stones you walk on have been polished by millions of feet until, even in dry weather, they are slick and slippery.
The Acropolis’ greatest sight is the Parthenon, the large structure that I always assumed had been a temple. However, we learned that no evidence has been discovered of an altar or any votive ritual associated with it, and that the Parthenon was believed instead to be the house of Athena, of whom a giant, gold-and-ivory statue once stood at one end of its interior.
Even in its ruined state, the Parthenon (completed in 438 BC) is magnificent. Its graceful lines, ingeniously curved to correct optical illusions, are said to be perfectly balanced, symbolizing the qualities of the world’s first democracy that the Athenians invented in the previous century.
The Acropolis Museum has beautifully recreated the statuary, dominated by sculptures of the gods Athena and Poseidon that once filled the pediments at either end of the building.
In 1687, the Parthenon was shelled by the Venetians from a nearby hilltop. This was while they were at war with the Ottomans who ruled Athens at the time. The Ottomans had stored gunpowder in the building, and when it exploded it destroyed the Parthenon’s roof, a large portion of its southern wall, and some of its Doric frieze. The undamaged carvings of the frieze were later carted off to Britain in 1801 by Lord Elgin for his private collection. The originals can be seen in London’s British Museum, their copies in the Acropolis Museum.
The other large Acropolis structure is the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon that stands north of the Parthenon. It is an odd structure in that the long side wall is blank and undecorated. At its southwestern end it has a portico supported by six caryatids, whose originals can be seen in the Acropolis Museum. The story is that the temple stands on the exact spot of a contest between the two gods to see which would become the guardian of the city. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and, marvelously, water began gushing forth. People cheered and thanked the god for it until they realized the water was salty. Poseidon, after all, was the god of the sea. Athena, in her turn, caused a sacred olive tree to magically spring forth on the spot, enabling her to win the contest and become the city’s guardian.
While in the Acropolis Museum, we were given an illustrated lesson in sculpture. Before the Persian wars with Athens in the 5th Century BC, the Greeks admired its oriental design. The statues sculpted in the Archaic Period (8th century until the 2nd Persian war in 480 BC) with their high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes reflect this admiration. Hatred for Persian aggression changed the Greek idea of beauty toward the naturalism of the Classical period that we admire today.
Another interesting fact about Greek statues is that after the Romans conquered the Greek city-states and took their statuary to Italy, it became greatly admired, and since there were not enough originals to satisfy the market, the Romans made copies. This is why we see so many Roman copies of Greek sculptures in western museums.
Heading south through the Isthmus of Corinth we stopped to admire the canal that bisects it. A canal through the isthmus had been desired as long ago as 4,000 years. The Emperor Nero once brought 6,000 Jewish slaves from Rome to dig one. Nero was murdered and the project abandoned. The canal was finally completed in 1893. Looking down, the gorge is very deep but not wide enough for today’s big ships.
South of Corinth, Petra is Greece’s third largest city and was an important port in antiquity. Not much remains from that time except artifacts in the archeological museum that some on the tour felt was a waste of time to visit. I liked it, though, especially for its display of ancient burial customs.
In one macabre display a skull still wears the ornamental headdress its owner was buried with.
A burial Larnax looks like a bathtub painted with designs.
The modern village of Olympia lives by tourism, yet on the day of our visit, it was quiet. It’s a kilometer from the village to the site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Games that were held there at four-year intervals for centuries until 394 CE when they were banned by the Emperor Theodosius I who outlawed pagan festivals.
Nothing but ruins are left of what were once magnificent temples. The theokoleon or priests’ house has disappeared, too, as has the workshop of the famous sculptor Phidias, in which he created the enormous statue of Zeus that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Olympia was a sanctuary, which according to Ivana, was a sacred precinct, usually a complex near some natural geographical feature and where some important occurrence among the gods was said to have taken place. In the case of Olympia, it was on a nearby hill that Zeus sat while contemplating the overthrow and banishment of his father Cronus and the other Titans. The hill in question is named after Cronus while the sanctuary was dedicated to Zeus.
The temple of Zeus must have been a mighty structure; the diameter of its ruined columns is two meters.
The long, flat rectangular sprint track used by the Olympic athletes has been cleared and restored. A couple of our group ran the entire length of it and back, albeit not as fast as the Olympians of yesteryear.
Male athletes, who were citizens of Greece, came from far and wide to compete in the games. As with today, cheating could be a problem, and measures were taken to prevent it. The games took place during five days in August when the weather would have been brutally hot.
Women and slaves were not allowed in the sanctuary, even as spectators, under the pain of death. During the time of the games, the city-states were bound by a sacred truce not to fight each other.
The games were more than an occasion for sport. Poets and historians would read their works to large audiences, and citizens of opposing cities could discuss and resolve conflicts. Since the revived games have become such spectacles in our time, it was a special opportunity to visit the site where their tradition began.
From the descriptions of ancient cities that have come down to us, we know that some must have been magnificent. Their collapse and destruction had various natural and human causes. In the case of Messini, founded in the 4th century BC as a hedge against Sparta, which had ruled the area previously, the causes were invading barbarians and early Christians, who either destroyed its temples or converted them to churches.
The ruins of Messini have been excavated and partially restored. They lay scattered across a valley under the slopes of Mt. Ithomi, and even though they represent only a third of what had once existed, they are extensive enough so that even a hike across and around them takes a good while and a fair amount of energy.
I’ll say here that none of the archeological sites of this trip make any accommodation for the handicapped. There are no comfortable, paved paths, just stones, and rocks, and more rocks.
Guide Vicky pointed out an unusual feature, having to do with the practical lives of Messini’s inhabitants. At one end of what had once been a stoa or roofed colonnade, there are stone tabletops about chest high into which smoothly shaped, circular bowls of two or three different sizes are carved. Each bowl has a hole at its bottom that could be closed from beneath. Each bowl would have held a precise amount of grain or cereal, measuring a buyer’s order. Once the amount was verified, the grain would be released into the buyer’s container through the hole at the bottom.
The most impressive thing seen at Messini is the stadium with partially restored colonnades flanking a long, wide-open space where games were held. At the far end of that space, opposite the entrance, stands the mausoleum of one of Messini’s famous families.
The natural background of the stadium are beautiful mountains. What a sight!
Seemingly, there is nothing left of Ancient Sparta. The modern town, where we spent a night, has replaced it. However, a few short kilometers away are what is left of intriguing Mystras. To learn the origin and importance of this Medieval city, we have to know what happened to the Byzantine Empire between the years 1204 and 1260. The knights of the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly en route to fight in the Holy Land, stopped at Constantinople and stayed. Their purpose was, in reality, an invasion. They essentially conquered the Byzantines, stripped their capital of its treasures (the four horses that adorn the façade of St Mark’s in Venice were part of this theft), and since much of the Peloponnese belonged to the empire, the Latins, as they are commonly known, took it, as well.
It was during this period that a Norman noble named Geoffrey de Villehardouin built a castle on the mountain that would soon become the site of the town of Mystras. The Byzantines reclaimed their empire in 1260, and the career of de Villehardouin ended when he lost the Battle of Palagonia in 1259 and was imprisoned. To ransom his way out, he had to give up his castles.
Under Byzantine rule, Mystras became an important place. The first settlement was high on the mountain near the castle. Constantinople promoted Mystras, appointing highly educated clergy to administer it, which in turn, fostered a cultured and artistic society. As more and more people came, they formed a Lower Town with its own palaces, churches, and even a cathedral.
Commenting on the architecture of the Church of Hagia Sophia in the Upper Town, Ivana pointed out western features – like the bell tower — added to what was a traditional Orthodox church. Hagia Sophia also has a porch in front of its narthex, an unusual feature. For Ivana, these additions demonstrate how the cultures of East and West influenced each other. She made the point that medieval European towns were closed in on themselves. They had no public squares or piazzas and their streets were very narrow. Hagia Sophia shows a contrary aspect with its porch inviting openness.
In the Lower Town, we entered several of the existing Orthodox churches. In one, Vicky lectured about the iconography and symbolism surrounding us. Pointing up at the painted dome, she said that people had been taught that what was seen on Earth mirrored similarities in Heaven, so that Jesus surrounded by angels in the painting showed what it was like above.
Monemvasia, meaning “single entry,” is a Gibraltar-like rock that has a similar geographical relationship to the southeast coast of Peloponnese as Gibraltar does to the southern coast of Spain. From the mainland, it is linked by a causeway leading to a single gate.
Like Mystras, Monemvasia has Upper and Lower Towns. Vicky explained that the path to the Upper is treacherously slippery and that the castle on top can’t be visited. That was enough to dissuade me from making the climb. After walking the length of the Lower Town’s single main street and visiting its church and tiny museum, I sat in shade on a terrace, sipping a cool drink and looking out across the bright blue water toward an approaching tall cruise ship. It was a rare moment during the tour that some of us had to just relax.
Although humans had occupied Monemvasia since the Neolithic age, the Lower Town was built in the 6th century by the Byzantines, who understood its strategic value as a port and its impregnability, especially with the walls they dressed along its cliff sides.
Off its main street, narrow alleyways rise up and down its hillside. Stone houses, some still occupied, are set tightly together. In some cases, upper floors extend over the adjacent alleys creating a pedestrian tunnel.
The Church of Christ Elkomeno that my guidebook translates as “Christ in Chains” has a famous icon of Christ crucified with his eyes closed, a depiction that appears to be unique. The icon is so large that when thieves stole it some time ago, they had to cut it into five pieces. It was recovered, restored and is now kept in a temperature-controlled niche behind bars and thick glass. It was opened for us to take a peek at but not to photograph.
Monemvasia and Mystras were connected through the figure of Geoffrey de Villehardouin, who built the castles at each. Both towns remained under Byzantine rule until the Ottomans breached the walls of Constantinople and ended the empire. Henceforth, the towns of the Morea, the Byzantine name for the Peloponnese, would be ruled by the Ottomans until Greece became independent in 1821.
There is not a lot to see at the ruins of Mycenae, which between the years 1600 and 1200 BC was the heart of the most powerful kingdom in Greece. It was made famous by the stories in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and again by the famous trilogy of plays by Aeschylus in which King Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra murders him and is turn killed by their son Orestes.
The one existing feature that still impresses is the famous Lion Gate with two lions rampant, facing each other with their front paws on a table and with a column between them.
The walls surrounding the gate as well as the lintel above it are made of huge stones that weigh an average of 7 tons apiece. They are so large that the ancients believed that Homer’s giant Cyclopes had set them in place.
Along with others of our group, I climbed to the acropolis, where the palace had once stood, and admired the beautiful view over the valley below and the distant mountains. Vicky told us that at the time of the Mycenaean Empire the valley had been under water. The weather was hot, and the crowds were greater than any we had seen since Athens.
The final ancient city on our tour on the way back to Athens was Epidauros, a sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine.
It is a huge site, and since our stop was brief, we looked only at the magnificent theater, in excellent condition except for the stage wall that is missing. The theater is renowned for its splendid acoustics. Climbing to the very top, I could make out ordinary conversations happening far below in the orchestra. I’d never experienced this in any other of the ancient theaters I’ve known.
When Kay and I travel, we usually have a clear idea about how things will go. We plan and research and base our expectations accordingly. Rarely, does a trip exceed those expectations, as this one did. I give credit to FARIT for its planning and for executing the plan so well. Our group experienced fine meals and accommodations, and especially the insights that our guides provided.
I returned home happy to have at last seen the Peloponnese, the part of Greece less visited.