Traveling Classroom Foundation
Saturday November 18th 2017

The Road to Delphi

Today our destination is the center of the world and home to the famous oracle of Delphi. A story tells how Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, released eagles from opposite ends of the world and commanded them to fly towards one another. The place they met was Delphi, where the great temple of Apollo was built.

Mr. Papakonstantinou, our landlord, has kindly offered to drive us across town to stathymou beta (the bus station for destinations in mainland Greece). Otherwise we must haul our heavy backpacks to the local trolley stop, ride to Sintagma Square, and then take the number 24 bus to Liosion Street. This helpful lift saves us a lot of bother. We carry our gear into the station and have a cup of coffee while we wait for the bus.

People coming and going at the KTEL bus station on Liosion Street

In ancient times, one who wished to travel from Athens to the shrine of Delphi, to consult the oracle on some great question, faced enormous difficulties. He traveled for several days seeing the giant Mount Parnassos as his goal, but it was not until he reached the towns of Thebes and Livadia that he found himself leaving level roads, and entering a wild and dangerous region, which brought to mind a tone of superstition and of awe. Departing from Livadia he would have go about half-way around Parnassos, from its east to its southwest side. This could only be done by threading a path along torrents and precipices, mounting steep ascents, and descending into wild glens, where dangerous animals would happily make a supper of him.

Depending on circumstances and the season, this journey through the highlands could have taken several weeks in ancient times. In order to increase their income, the old priests of Delphi became the first systematic road-builders among the Greeks, had made a safer route from Thebes for the use of the pilgrims thronging to their shrine. Even so, traveling to Delphi was not easy.

For us it is a three-hour bus ride. We travel across the Attica plain and, so in ancient times enter the hill country around Thebes. Since we left Athens at about 10:40, the drive stops at a way station so that people can buy snacks and walk about for a short time. We sit on stone wall and eat sandwiches and fruit we have packed. In fifteen minutes we are off again, stopping briefly in Livadia to pick up a few new passengers.

Climbing into the mountains, we are struck by the realization that this region has never supported a large population – not in ancient times and not today. These rocky peaks never contained more than scattered villages. It is a country in which human imagination grows not of solitude, but of smallness – a land of vast forms far too big for mortals to comprehend is the ideal dwelling for mysterious gods and monsters.

After steady climbing and many switchbacks, we pass through the town of Arahova, which is perched on the slope of precipices some 3000 feet or more above sea level. This is an ancient town of mountaineers and shepherds. It is still known far and wide for the woolen goods and rugs produced here, but modern city folk now think of Arachova as a ski resort town. There are excellent ski slopes on Parnassos, and Arachova is pleased to offer skiers a place to eat and sleep.

Town of Arachova clings to the mountainside

At two o’clock, we climb into the “rocky Pytho,” past the ancient terraced sanctuary and into nearby modern Delphi. Until 19th century archeologists uncovered the ruins of the sanctuary of Apollo, the village of Kastri (as it was called then) was literally on top of a buried treasure. When the archeological find was revealed, the entire village was moved down the road – nearby but out of sight. The villagers might have considered it a good trade to be paid to move their old village and then get jobs digging for antiquities.

Temple of Apollo with Parnassus in the background

As in ancient times, the village harbors pilgrims who come from every corner of the world to visit the sanctuary. We find a hotel only a short walk from the tiny bus station. Our room has a balcony overlooking a deep gorge formed by the Pleistos River (a bit dry today) and downstream to the town of Itea, which was once the port for the sea route to Delphi. Across the bay from Itea, we also see Galaxidi town and, beyond that, the Gulf of Corinth and the mountains of the Peloponessos to the south.

View from Delphi Hotel to the SeaView from hotel balcony to the sea

It is much too hot under the afternoon sun to attempt to climb the ancient sacred way to the temple of Apollo. After organizing our belongings, we decide to have a snack and then visit the museum of Delphi. At the far end of town we find a pleasant cafe beneath a huge, spreading plane tree at the intersection of the two main roads in the village (one leading in and the other leading out). We have olives and tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic) with fresh bread and cold drinks, and then we are off to the museum.

It is not the museum we remember from our last visit. The old museum was housed in a rather small stone building. The new building is large and elegant, with a broad ramped stairway to the entrance. Inside, we are amazed by the treasures uncovered at the sanctuary. It is even more amazing considering that these are only a few poor remains of the artistic wonders plundered by invading armies (Phoecians, Romans and others) or destroyed by religious zealots who hated the old religions.

Sphinx sculpture in the Delphi museum

Even so, the remaining artifacts are marvelous to see. The frieze from the treasury Knidos, which has been cleverly restored, shows us a small decorated temple, or sacred house, before the end of the sixth century. Its ornaments show us where the builders of the Parthenon, a hundred years later, might have got their design ideas. Sculptural work from the treasuries Siphnians and Sikyonians is wonderful.

The most famous of the artworks in the museum is called “the bronze charioteer.” Dedicated around 500 BCE, it is one of the most important relics of all Greek sculptures. It is only a part of a large sculptural group. The chariot and horses of this splendid group are lost, but the arm of an attendant boy, and some fragments of the bronze reins show that the figure was one of such a group, and dedicated in gratitude for the victory in a chariot race. The figure is stiff and sober, the face with little expression, but the molding of the arm and feet and the exquisite patina of the surface, show a mastery which any modern sculptor would envy.

The “bronze charioteer” at the Delphi Museum

There are also some curious specimens, such as the huge pillar supporting three dancing girls, with a capital composed of acanthus leaves, and acanthus leaves growing out of the stalk at intervals. It is very strange piece dating from very early Hellenistic days, and it does not seem to fit in the world of “balanced” Greek design. Some claim that this column is dedicated to the god Dionysos, who rules over Delphi during the winter months when Apollo is elsewhere. This theory makes sense, because Dionysos is often considered the opposite of “balance.”

Column of the Dancers may be a tribute to Dionysos

There are countless other works of art, large and small, that make us linger for a long while in the museum before returning to town. We managed to explore the entire village – at least the two main streets of it – in less than an hour. There are a great number of small hotels, restaurants, tavernas and bars to entertain visitors from the sanctuary of Apollo. Not many of them attracted us.

For dinner we decide to return to the little cafe where we had stopped before. At the dinner hour – around 10:00 oclock – the giant plane tree was lighted and beautiful. The cafe owner recognized us at once and welcomed us to our “regular” table.

Going to the Acropolis

We decided to go to the Acropolis early today, to avoid the heat and crowds, so we take the Metro subway to the station near the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the rock. From there we can look up and see the Parthenon on top and the ongoing archaeological work above the theater at the foot of the old fortress.

Theater of Dionysus

Theater of Dionysus below the Acropolis

The theater of Dionysus was built into the natural hollow of the south slope of the Acropolis. Originally a place to honor the god Dionysus in dance and song, in the fifth century the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed on the orchestra floor for 30,000 Athenians. By the middle of the fifth century there was scenery in the background, usually in the form of a building. The theater changed many times over the years and was largely rebuilt by the Romans.

The word “acropolis” means high city. Originally it was a fortress, a place of protection where the townspeople could rally to fight off raiding tribes from other areas. It was the location of the king’s palace during Mycenaean times, but later it was dedicated to religious and community activities. During the second half of the fifth century BCE, under the leadership of Pericles and the artistic supervision of Phidias, the Athenians built their sanctuary to Athena on the old acropolis site.

Acropolis Model

Model of the Acropolis as it looked when first built

Hiking up the limestone plateau to the entrance, we realize that we are not beating the crowds. There are hundreds of people from dozens of different tour groups milling around the entrance gate. We walk up the Sacred Way to the Propylaea, the building through which one enters the Acropolis. Scaffolding around and through the structure indicates the extent of restoration work being done.

Propylaea with scaffolding for restoration work

A lot of restoration is being done at the Propylaea

Crowds of visitors are herding through the Propylaea by tour guides, scarcely taking the time to appreciate its beauty and significance as the first major “public” building ever built. Most are intent on seeing the main attraction, the famous Parthenon, which some people consider the most perfect building ever constructed. Perfection was the goal of the sculptors and architects.

athens_parthenon_art.jpg

Brilliant design of the Parthenon continues to be studied

Looking at the building one is impressed by what appears at first to be a very linear and regular design of the Doric order. However, when modern engineers took measurements they made a shocking discovery: there are no straight lines in the design of the Parthenon. Instead, almost every aspect of the structure is subtly irregular and imperceptibly curved.

Northwest face of the Parthenon

Parthenon irregularities create an illusion of perfection

No two neighboring capitals are the same size, diameters of columns are unequal, and the spaces between them are irregular. There are no vertical or parallel lines anywhere in the building. The columns all lean towards the center of the building, as do the walls. Some parts of the temple lean forward and some parts lean backward. The genius of this design is that it creates the illusion of perfection.

Having survived more or less intact for well over two thousand years, the Acropolis buildings finally fell victim to the demands of war. In 1684 the Turks demolished the temple of Athena Nike to gain a brief tactical advantage, then three years later the Venetians, laying siege to the garrison, ignited a Turkish gunpowder magazine in the Parthenon and in the process blasted off its roof. Surpassing this destruction, at least in the minds of today’s Athenians, was Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon’s frieze in 1801; he later sold it to the British Museum.

Phidias Metope

Parthenon frieze sculpture, now in the British Museum

In addition, the 19th century iron clamps and supports used to reinforce the marble structures became rusted and warped, causing the stones to crack; earthquakes dislodged the foundations; generations of visitors have slowly worn down the Parthenon’s surfaces; and, more recently, smog from automobile exhaust has been turning the marble into dust. The good news is that much work is being done to preserve and restore the Acropolis monuments.

Acropolis restoration worker shapes marble block

Restoration workers continue to repair Parthenon damage

We can not stand long in one place because we are continuously pushed and shoved by crowds intent on encircling the Parthenon. We turn and walk north, beyond the foundations of the old temple of Athena, to the Erechtheion, where both Athena and Poseidon-Erechtheus, the city’s old patron, were worshipped. It is built upon the site which, according to myth, the two gods had contested possession of the Acropolis. The contest was to be based on who could give the most valuable gift to the people. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident, causing water to gush forth. However, since Poseidon is a sea god, the spring water was a bit salty. Athena gave the people an olive tree, which provided food and oil, a much more practical miracle. And so the city bears her name.

Erectheion Temple

The Erectheion stands near the Parthenon

Much work has been done here to restore the temple. Some walls have been reconstructed with old and new blocks, and broken pieces have been repaired. The elegant Ionic porticoes are especially beautiful to see, particularly the north one with its fine decorated doorway and frieze of marble. On the south side, in the Porch of the Caryatids, the Ionic line is transformed into six maidens (caryatids) holding the entablature on their heads. These are replicas: five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum, and a sixth was taken by Elgin.

Porch of the Caryatids

Porch of caryatids (maidens) on the Erechtheion temple

We cannot visit the Acropolis museum because the air conditioning is shut down, and so we walk along the edges of the fortifications and see the sights of the city below. Finally leave the sacred precinct and hike down the west side of the Acropolis, past the low hill of the Areopagus and into the ancient agora district near the Plaka district.

We stop in the shade near the Thession, which was mis-named in modern times. It is actually the temple of Hephaestus, god of metallurgy and fire. This part of the ancient agora was where the metal-working shops were located … hence the association with Hephaestus.

Thession

Temple of Hephaestus in the ancient agora

It is a pleasant place to rest and eat our bag lunch. There are not nearly as many visitors here as on the Acropolis, and almost as interesting. After lunch, we visit the Church of the Holy Apostles (built in 1,000 CE), the concert hall built by Agrippa in 15 BCE and the restored Roman stoa. Then we decide it is time for a Greek tradition: an afternoon nap.

Click for a Virtual Tour of the Acropolis (useful in the classroom)

New Adventure

Air travel can be exhilarating and at times a very tiresome means of transportation. We always hope that an airplane will swiftly deliver us to our destination – no fuss, no bother. Unfortunately, it does not usually work out that way. More often than not air travel difficulties begin on the ground, where human inefficiency and the government security system conspire to reduce the entire process to a snail’s pace.

We begin on Thursday at Seattle’s SeaTac airport, where we arrive at 3:00 pm in order to check in, wait in line, and undergo security inspections before our 6:30 flight. After waiting several hours for our ride there are additional delays in preparing the airplane and processing hundreds of ticket-holders. Then there are more delays getting the airplane into the queue with others waiting to take off. We finally get off the ground forty minutes late.

The real marvel of air travel is that a favorable shift in air currents high above the Earth can reverse endless delays on the ground. We manage to reach London’s Heathrow Airport on schedule at 11:00 in the morning, with the help of a tail wind pushing us towards our destination. However, on the ground again we are faced with a long wait for an evening flight to Greece. We wander aimlessly through the terminal, watch other travelers dressed in strange clothing and speaking unfamiliar languages, and occasionally nap on rows of attached seats not designed for sleep.

Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport

Terminal 4 is rather like a large shopping mall with airplanes coming and going.  It is very difficult to find a comfortable place to sit, and impossible to avoid the steady stream of agitated travelers. Finally, after many hours of boredom, departure time approaches and we watch the schedule board for the gate to be announced. Unfortunately, fate and British weather changes the schedule. A rain storm has moved into the region and all flights leaving Heathrow are delayed. Our flight is delayed by thirty minutes and then, thirty minutes later, another forty-five minutes. We manage to get off the ground two hours late.

Once again the trick of air currents enables our pilot to gain some lost time and land us in Athens at 3:00 am on Saturday. Discounting the crossing of several time zones and a dateline during flight, it is about 26 hours since we started out journey in Seattle.

After collecting our backpacks from the luggage carousel, we buy an OTE phone card and I use it at the nearest public telephone to call Yiannis (John) Papakonstandinou, our landlord in Athens. Our plan is to catch the Express 95 bus from the airport to Athens; John confirmed he will meet us at the Evangelismos bus stop and drive us to our apartment.

Express 95 from the Athens International Airport

The bus departs on schedule, and within 40 minutes drops us off at the appointed stop on Sofias. As the bus pulls away we look across the street and see John waving from his little red car. He hops out and loads our bags into the back seat, then quickly drives us a few blocks to our apartment on a quiet back street in the Ilissia neighborhood.

We discover it is a small studio apartment with bedroom, dining and separate kitchen facilities – just what we need. John gives us a quick tour and demonstrates the electrical appliances and various remote control devices for television, radio, CD player and air conditioning, then says goodbye. We are fast asleep five minutes later.

We awake at 9:00 AM, after four hours of uninterrupted sleep, and decide to explore our surroundings in the daylight. According to a street sign at the end of the block, we live on Athenogenous Street. We walk around in expanding routes until we are familiar with the sights and street names within a half kilometer of our apartment, and have found all the shops, cafes and coffee houses within three blocks. After shopping for basic supplies at the bakery, fruit store and local market, we return to the apartment and eat a simple lunch.

To get our “classical scholars” passes, we must go to a Ministry of Culture office in downtown Athens, so is back to streets for a bus ride to the city center. It’s a pleasant ride until the bus stops across the street from the old Olympic Stadium. We quickly realize we have taken the wrong bus; this is Konstandinou Street. We get off with other passengers and then calculate our route to Syntagma Square.

Before starting the hike we cross the street and explore the renovated stadium. Tucked into a hillside (like the stadiums of ancient times) it has been refitted with new marble, cleaned and polished until it looks as new as it was when Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games at the end of the 19th century. The field and track are bright and new also, but only a few events were staged here. Most of the major events of the 2004 Olympics took place at the huge, new stadium outside the city.

The renovated Panathenic Stadium

We will have to walk through the National Gardens to reach Amalias Street, and then up to the Parliament building at Syntagma (pronounced sin-TAGH-mah). Along the way we pause at Zappion Hall, built in the Neoclassical style during 1880’s for the purpose of hosting important exhibitions and other events. It was the main building in the Olympic Village of the first modern Olympic Games.

Zappion Hall

Zappion Hall is on the edge of the National Garden, which was once the private garden of the palace – a  project of Queen Amalia in the 1840’s. It is not so much a flower garden as a luxuriant tangle of trees, whose shade provide palpable relief from the heat of summer. When we finally reach the Parliament, we turn left and cross the boulevard into Syntagma Square, which (like the old Olympic Stadium) was renewed for the 2004 Games. The grass and flowers are carefully tended, new fountains add the sound of water to mask the traffic noise around the square, and a couple of new cafes offer refreshments under canvas shades.

Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament (photo by Orlovic)

It is a different place from the one we knew only two years ago. We stop in at our favorite bakery across the street and buy coffee frappes and sweet rolls to eat near a fountain in the platia. After finishing our snack, we go immediately to the Numismatic (rare coins) Museum on Panepistimiou (University) Avenue just few blocks down the street. The purpose of our trip is to register with the Greek Ministry of Culture, which has offices in several of the museums in Athens. Upon presenting our credentials, we will receive an identification card that enables us free access to all ancient sites, museums and some archeological excavations.

Numismatic Museum on Panepistimiou Avenue

Unfortunately, the office is closed when we arrive. A museum worker tells us that we should return on Monday “before the museum opens,” and go directly to the office. She shows us the small private gate we are to use.

We arrive back at Syntagma Square just in time to see the changing of the Evzone (pronounced ev-zoh-nee) guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament building. It is a slow and precise military ritual which people always gather to watch. These ceremonial honor guards are named for elite mountain fighting units, and their traditional uniforms reflect this history. Carefully selected from the best military units, they are highly trained and very disciplined.

Changing of the Evzone honor guards at Tomb of the Unknown

When the ceremony is over, we follow the relieved Evzones as they march up Sofias Street towards their barracks in the military compound behind Parliament. Along the way we stop at a bus stop to await the ride back to our neighborhood.

The remainder of the day and most of Sunday we explore our environs. We find several parks nearby and a few cafes that are especially appealing. Our favorite stop for coffee frappes is a place called the Placebo Cafe, which is located at the edge of a park only a few blocks from our apartment. We sit here watching people, writing notes and planning our week in Athens.

The British Museum

After a long flight and little sleep on a crowded and uncomfortable Boeing 747, we arrive at Heathrow Airport. Our flight to Athens will not leave until late this evening, but we have already decided how to spend the day. We will explore the Greek collection at the British Museum in London, which is about 20 miles from the airport. Duane checks our backpacks at the “Left Luggage” booth and we take an escalator one level down to catch the underground for the city.

The “underground” is an electric commuter train which (as the name suggests) travels in tunnels all around the city of London and the suburbs. The tracks are not always underground. We travel on the surface through Acton Town, Hammersmith and other villages before we enter the tunnels near London. It takes about 40 minutes on the Piccadily Line to reach Holborn Station, which is the stop nearest to the British Museum. After walking through a labyrinth of tunnel, climbing many stairs and taking two very steep escalators to get to the surface, we realize that the train tunnel is at least 80 feet beneath the streets of London.

We emerge onto the bustling High Holborn Road and make our way through the Bloomsbury section of London towards the British Museum. Since the street names are posted high on the corners of buildings and seem to change every few blocks, we must ask directions several times before we reach Great Russell Street, which leads to the museum.

Holborn Station in downtown London

It is past noon and we are very hungry, so we stop at a small Greek cafe near the museum chambers (offices) on a narrow street. Since we have come to London for the Greek art collection, a Greek lunch seems appropriate. Sitting at a sidewalk table and eating a salad with feta cheese and pita bread, we notice that all the buildings around us have names and construction dates from the middle of the last century. Except for their architectural styles many of these buildings look new. The historical buildings in London are preserved and renovated for future generations, rather than being torn down to make way for something new.

After lunch we walk to the British Museum. It is a huge complex of buildings surrounded by a great iron fence. The main building and entrance borrows much from the Classical Period of Greece. As you can see in the photograph, it looks a lot like the Parthenon. It has huge columns across the front supporting a triangular pediment with statues in the Greek style. As we walk across the courtyard, we hear people speaking many different languages. All have come to see the famous collections of the British Museum.

At the main entrance of the museum we ask a security guard how to find the Greek collections. He gives us directions and a small map of the complex, and we begin to walk through the exhibit halls where we pass gigantic stone carvings from the Assyrian empire and wonderful sculptures of ancient Egyptian gods that appear to be half human and half animal. There is an incredible granite bust of Rameses II and many other beautiful carvings. I wish there was more time to spend here, but it would probably take many days to see everything in the museum and years to truly appreciate each item in the various collections.

We are looking for the Parthenon sculptures, so we pass by some Greek and Roman statues. But when we reach the Lycian exhibit, we have to stop. Lycia was an ancient kingdom on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. The Lycian people were conquered and dominated by Greece, and they were strongly influenced by Greek art. The best example of this influence is the Nereid Monument, which was built around 390 BCE. It was removed from Turkey and reconstructed in one room of the British Museum. It is a small monument in the Ionian style with a burial chamber inside.

The museum reconstructed Nereids monument from Lycia

In the photograph you can see the figures of the Nereids between the columns. These were the daughters of the sea god. The statues are carved to make them appear to be flying over the waves of the sea, with their gowns fluttering in the wind. There are also three statues of the Nereids across the room from the monument. Even though there are pieces broken from these sculptures, they seem so lifelike. I want to reach out and touch them, but that is not allowed.

Nereids sculptures in the British Museum

After visiting the Nereids we go on to the Parthenon exhibit. These rooms are huge, with very high ceilings and natural light spilling down from above. In one of the rooms segments of the friezes from the Parthenon are mounted shoulder height around the entire room. These depict a procession of people and animals, paying tribute to the gods of Athens. I noticed that the sections from the west facing walls are much more eroded than those from the east walls.

Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum

The form of the bodies, poses and muscle contours show that the artist was one of the greatest of his time. The statues from the east pediment of the Parthenon are also on exhibit. These are the statues of gods that were placed just beneath the slanted roof of the building. As you can see in the photo above, they are posed so that their bodies would fill the corner space provided.  For more information about the Parthenon Sculptures, you can watch a video at the British Museum website – keeping the mind that this presentation represents the British Museum’s official position concerning the ownership of the sculptures.

Some of the most amazing sculptures in the collection are the Metopes from the Parthenon. These depict a mythic battle between the centaurs and humans.

After the viewing the Parthenon sculptures, we visit some of the other Greek exhibits and see many marble statues and busts of such historical figures as Socrates, Pericles (who was the architect of the Greek Classical Period) and Aristotle, as well as the mythical characters Herakles (Hercules), Dionysos, Apollo and others. I am looking into the faces of people who built a great civilization nearly 3,000 years ago. In some ways, their accomplishments make our modern world of airplanes and electronics seem less thrilling. Many of the sculptures are so perfect that they seem to be alive. I half expect them to blink or speak to me. It is an eerie sensation.

We also visit the collection of sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, which was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. According to the Roman historian Pliny, the building was 140 feet high, with a stepped pyramid roof and a peristyle of 36 columns in the Ionian style. A few of the major statues from the mausoleum, which was the burial place of the king, are exhibited in the museum. These statues, like the one shown below, are about three meters tall. There were many of them, standing like giants around the great building.

Statue of King Mausollos of Halikarnassos

Unfortunately, the mausoleum was mostly destroyed during the crusades, when the Knights of St. John used its stone to build a castle at the harbor of Halikarnassos (now known as Bodrum on the coast of Turkey).

Artist’s conception of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos

After spending hours wandering through the museum, we decide to go outside and visit London before returning to Heathrow. There are wonderful neighborhoods and business districts and parks within walking distance of the British Museum. Coming from the western U.S., where the cities all seem to be new or recently renovated, and where older buildings vanish overnight, it is marvelous to experience a city which preserves its heritage. We enjoy the afternoon sunshine and the bustle of the city for several hours before descending once again into the London underground to catch the train. The ride to Heathrow is somehow depressing, because I am not ready to leave. I want to spend more time with the wonderful art of the Classical Age. I will have to wait until I arrive in Greece to see more.

I have tried to show some of the sights in the British Museum. If you want to see more, connect to the British Museum website and explore the various galleries.

Activities

Vocabulary: Look up some of the architectural terms used to describe Greek temples and other ancient structures. What is a pediment, a frieze, a plinth? See if you can find names for the major parts of a Greek temple.

Who were the Nereids? What part were they thought to have had in Greek Mythology?

Look up some of the names mentioned in this report and find out who they were.

What are the pros and cons of museum acquisition of items from other countries and cultures? Find out how these collections were assembled.

Last Day in the Aegean

We have finally come to the end of the adventure. Tomorrow we take the morning ferry from Paroikia to Pireaus and catch the Metro into Athens.

This morning, before the sun rises too high, we drive to Naousa Bay to explore Koukounaries (pronounced koo-koo-nahr-yes), perhaps the last of the Mycenaean strongholds. We opt for early morning because the fortress is at the top of a rocky, granite hill rising about 75 meters above the seashore. It can become very hot by mid-day.

We drive around the bay, turn south onto a narrow country road, and park on the shoulder near a sign pointing to our destination.  So up it is. We pull on our hiking boots.


The hike to the top of the acropolis is a scramble over huge boulders and along narrow goat trails (occupied by goats who are displeased by our intrusion). At the top we can see large cut rock fortifications along the southern approach, as well as the stone foundations and walls of the manor house occupied by the ruling family. On the north side is an unending view down the rocky battlements to the sandy beach of Kolymbithres, across the bay to the port of Naoussa, and beyond to the nearby islands of Naxos and Mykonos.

There are defensive towers around the perimeter of the citadel

Here was one of the last refuges of the Mycenaean tribes, after their mainland cities had been sacked during the final days of the 12th century BCE. Some chieftains managed to escape with a few survivors, and they sailed to islands in the Aegean Sea, hoping the invaders would not follow. It worked for a time. The islands grew strong and prosperous under the leadership of the last Mycenaean kings.

Studies at places like Koukounaries indicate that the demise of Mycenaean civilization was a gradual process, spread over perhaps 150 years after the destruction of the great palaces. The regional palace economies that characterized the Late Bronze Age were replaced by isolated village cultures trying to survive.  This continued for hundreds of years, even into the Classical Age (480-323 BCE), when city states (not regional governments) emerged.  Not until the Hellenistic period and the regional campaigns of Alexander the Great, did cultural uniformity (which typified the Mycenaean period) reappear in the Aegean.

Every approach has steep slopes and defensive walls

Here at Koukounaries, however, it all came to an end when raiders came from the sea, grabbed everything they could from the surrounding farms and villages, and laid siege to the fortress. It must have been a long and difficult fight, because the fortress would not have been easy to take. Eventually the raiders must have been able to torch the wooden beams and upper floors of the buildings (archaeologists have found evidence of a fire).

Staircase (left) leads to a lower level, where skeletons were found

Then the defenders were fighting a losing battle, and their wives and children were trapped in the burning structures (skeletons were found during the excavation). And so Koukounaries – one of the last Mycenaean outposts – disappeared into the shadows of history.

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Shadow Theater

Shadow Theater

Brightly colored posters went up last week announcing the “shadow theater” was coming to our village. Long before [Read More]

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