Traveling Classroom Foundation
Wednesday September 20th 2017

Searching for Odysseus

Kefalonia was an important late Bronze Age center and probably was the island known to Homer as Same (or Sami, pronounced Sah-mee in English). Our sources declare that Kefalonia was probably the hub of the kingdom of Odysseus. Ancient Sami was the most important Mycenaean city in the Ionian and it bore the old name of the island. Because of this, some suggest it could be the home of great Odysseus. This possibility is so intriguing we decide to visit the acropolis of ancient Sami, a few kilometers outside modern Sami. From the balcony of our apartment, we can see the outer walls of the ancient city crowning a high hill to the east.

The town of Sami extends only a few blocks inland from its harbor

Since we will be traveling the coastal road, we also want to visit Antisami Bay, where the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed several years ago. The movie is set during World War II, when Italian and German forces occupied Kefalonia. However, nearly all the buildings on the island were destroyed in the 1953 earthquake. Therefore, it was necessary to recreate a 1940’s town with sets and Hollywood magic. The movie cast and crew lived in Sami for months before and during the filming. They must have made a big impression on the Samians. One cafe was renamed “Captain Corelli’s” and photographs of the movie stars with local folk are pinned up all around town.

We drive out of town along the community beach and then immediately begin to climb the coastal hills on a narrow road. As we drive south we can see beautiful coves far below with crystal clear water and empty beaches. These places can be reached only be boat or goat trails that wind down the steep hillside. We continue past a sign that directs us to the acropolis, planning to first visit Antisami Bay. At the precipice above the bay we see a broad expanse of turquoise water and a long beach. The road down to the beach requires slow driving through a series of sharp turns.

This beach on Antisami Bay is surprisingly empty on a summer day

When we finally get down to the sea, we find a pleasant beach with nearby parking along the road. Across from the parking area is a very large field extending inland many acres towards the hills. It seems unnaturally flat (probably smoothed out to build the movie sets), but there is no remnant of any movie-making activity. Every remnant of the make-believe movie town was evidently hauled away with the cameras and the crew. There is only a herd of goats munching on the weeds.

Retracing our route through the hills, we take the turn-off towards the acropolis and drive until we reach a valley between two hills, where a sign points us to the right. After parking in the shade of a large tree, we survey the area and see nothing but rocky land with a few goats roaming about. Looking up, we see a large cyclopean wall at the top of the hill. This is a sure sign of Mycenaean architecture. The stones used during the Mycenaean period were so large (each weighing many tons) that Greeks of later periods thought the Mycenaean structures must have been built by the giant Cyclops race.

Section of Cyclopean wall at Ancient Sami

Realizing we are just below the summit of the giant hill we could see from Sami town, we begin to trudge up the slope. After only a few minutes of walking we see a pickup truck pull into the clearing below. A man and his son climb out and begin to unload things from the back. We immediately become aware of bells all around us. One by one, or in small groups, goats begin to emerge from the brush all around us and gather near the pickup driver – who must be their owner. He takes a small motor from the back of the truck, carries it to a pile of rocks, and then removes several large stones to reveal a well head. The “motor” is a diesel-powered pump. The man puts a hose into the well, primes the pump with a large container of water, and starts it with a rope pull.

Water begins to gush from a large hose into several old watering troughs that we had not noticed on our arrival. At the same time, the boy unloads several large sacks, pushes his way through the waiting goats, and dumps the contents on the ground at several different places. It is grain to supplement the animals’ grazing diet.

Turning away from the feeding, we continue uphill and past the section of cyclopean wall we saw from below. Along the way we can see where trees and brush have been cleared away, and at one location is a series of rectangular ditches, each carefully fenced with stakes and string. Next to the ditches is a pile of pottery shards. This is clearly an archeological excavation.

After climbing through a gap in the outer wall of the acropolis, we discover that we are not alone. About fifty meters away there are two archeologists and several diggers working in the shade of a twisted old olive tree on the edge of a wall. They seem uninterested in us, so we continue to walk through the ancient city.

Diggers working at the acropolis excavation site

There are more piles of brush and tree limbs, and areas that have obviously be cleared and leveled using bulldozers. We find the foundations of heavy stone buildings and some walls of the ancient city still standing. As we wander across the site to the outer walls on the seaward side – looking down to the bay and modern town of Sami – we begin to appreciate the size of this acropolis. It is larger than the acropolis of Athens, perhaps as big as the great citadel of Mycenaea itself.

Structures in the Ancient City

At the museum in Argostoli we saw a few artifacts from ancient Sami, but there must be much more buried beneath our feet. The archeological work here seems to be in the very early stages. It can take many decades to thoroughly explore a place like this.

We return to where the current excavation is progressing. The diggers are taking turns in a deep trench while the two archeologists seem to be checking their notes and giving directions. Next to the trench is a pile of large pottery shards – probably enough to glue together a fair number of big ceramic vessels. However, no one seems interested in these finds. They are looking for something else.

Since they are very intent on the excavation, and have completely ignored our presence, we are reluctant to ask what they are up to. We walk around the dig, taking care not to step across the stakes and strings that define the work areas, and find another excavation on the other side of the olive tree. This appears to be an intact dromos (a passageway) a little over a meter wide with stone walls. It extends down to a doorway in the outer wall of the acropolis. It is clearly not the main entrance of the acropolis, which would be a large, reinforced gateway at the end of a paved road. But it is another interesting piece of architecture uncovered by slow and careful work.

Passage to a doorway in the fortified outer wall

After hiking around the acropolis in the hot sun, our water bottles are nearly empty, so we decide to hike back to the car. Descending from the hill and seeing the many olive trees in the valley, and the goats still gathered about the water troughs and food, it is easy to imagine the great acropolis of ancient Sami with a town, workshops and farmland spread out beneath its walls. Foundations of smaller buildings are evident everywhere. It must have been a beautiful city.

The goats watch us as we come near to them. Whether they are afraid of strangers or expect us to feed them again, they gather around and stare at us with large yellow eyes. If we try to move closer, they back away – so we leave them alone. We return to the car and drive back the way we came. Along the way we pass another herd of goats being tended by the same man we saw earlier. He must own a lot of goats.

Goat herd gobbling grain below the Sami acropolis

According to legend, Odysseus owned many goats. In those days, goats and trees and crops were the greatest wealth a person could possess. It may not be so different today.

After hours under the sun, however, the most valuable thing we can imagine at this moment is a cooling swim in the sea. So we head back to Sami town and the beach.

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