It is the start of the drive out from Athens (here) to the Peloponnese peninsula.
An early morning ride took us first to the Corinth Canal, a stretch of 75 feet of water. It cuts across the Peloponnese peninsular and after a short photo stop, we continued on our drive. The Corinth canal is a man-made structure that was competed only in the late 1800s. Today it is mainly that small tourist cruise ships use this canal.
But did you know why this was constructed?
You see, the Gulf of Corinth on the western side was not connected to the Aegean. And long had there been a wish to connect the two for economic reasons. The idea was that ships then did not have to do the long circuit around the Peloponnese which could become treacherous seas in moment. But despite the construction, the narrowness of the canal meant that it remains largely uncommercial especially for modern sized vessels. So it has become a “white” elephant that is used perhaps by small pleasure boats.
But we were not here to focus on this canal. For about 45km southwest of the canal, we entered the mighty city state
Who sent a thousand ships?
This stop was the Mycenaean city of “Agamemnon”. You might remember him as the leader amongst the Greek cities that led the great armada against Troy. Now you might dispute if this was real but archaeological evidence suggests this city belongs to the Mycenaean period of history from 1700 – 1100BC. In the movies this King was depicted as a tyrant, but was he so in real life? Some might say these are but stories, but the discovery of a gold mask allegedly belonging to Agamemnon casts a slew of questions about this character in history.
In any case this civilization predated the time of classical Greece (mid first millennia). We saw what was a city that was built on a hillside, overlooking the valley. It is hard to imagine anything located here, given the apparent barren nature of the area. Looking at the photos one might mistake this to be a parched desert. And that might have explained why the entire civilization was abandoned within a short time around 1100 BC? Hmm… if only one can be transported back in time to witness what happened!
A journey to the top of the city is a must where the royal palace is situated. The “Lion” gate was the main entrance to the inner city (a restricted area in those days) as it was the place of residence for the nobility and royalty. It was a long way to walk up to the top and not quite an appealing thing to do as it was >40°C (tip: the umbrella helped). While we were walking about amongst the ruins, we missed the museum where the Agamemnon’s mask is exhibited. Darn.
Making a short walk down from the ancient city one will find the so-called “Beehive” tombs (Tholos) constructed for members of the royal family. The main characteristic is the dome with successively smaller rings on top of each other till the tip. Sort of like an arch, it supported itself and could still provide a lot of room for the burial place. Interesting that burial is above ground isn’t it? And not dissimilar to those in ancient Egypt too. In some parts of the Mediterranean it is said that folks use the same techniques for building homes too. Now that’s something one learns every day!
Nearby is the Sanctuary of Aesculapius (god of medicine) with a big Amphitheater that has great acoustics. From the center you can project voice very well to all parts of the Amphitheater. It’s a wonder to learn that even from more than 3000 years ago, people have perfected the design of such acoustics without the use of modern microphones and speakers. It speaks of mastery of the science of sound. Can you imagine what other knowledge we might have lost in the process of the last three millennia?
But our next stop is really interesting for it is the place of,
The real Olympics
Well it would be a drive of almost 1½ hours across the Peloponnese peninsular from east to west. We were heading to Olympia, the site of the ancient games. Contrary to what one would expect, the games did not take place anywhere near Mount Olympus – the home of the gods on the mainland. And specifically Zeus, the exalted one is the games supposedly dedicated to.
The most important site for us was the ancient stadium where the original Olympics were conducted. It was first recorded in 776BC and was only stopped in the by in the 3rd century AD when the Romans (Christianized by then) banned it because of its pagan origins. Today the Olympic flame is still lit there, from which it is then brought to the site of the modern games, whichever city that is chosen by the international committee. Unlike the modern games though, the Greek games were held every four years in this location. And it was an absolutely important date in the calendar.
As a testimony of how the games were so held in high regard by the Greeks is the “postponing” of a battle with the Persians. And within the Greeks themselves, a truce would be called so that the athletes can travel freely to Olympia to compete. But while no war took place just before, after and during the games, there was no respite from the politics. Because each city state had representatives, a win could mean victory without a battle. It was probably commonplace to wager political treaties and alliances over the games. Only to resume the “hot” war after.
The ancient site is now of course mostly in ruins. The great big columns lie all over, which sometimes is really hard to tell apart. One can see how large the columns are when Suan stands next to one. In those days, the competition was open to freeborn Greeks only, each representing their home city. And it can be big business too, for our guide told us that star athletes were coveted and feted not only with a crown of leaves… one article we read told of how a Greek city in Sicily repeatedly had champions over the course of many games. But stopped when it ran into economic troubles. Sound familiar?
We walked amongst the columns that used to be gymnasiums. And it was also that only men competed… Our guide also told us that since the athletes competed in the nude, no women were allowed to view the sport. We’ll leave you to verify that.
The compound was divided into various “departments” of athletics: track & field, weights etc… Each had its own training and rest facilities… a modern day training camp if you will. You might also want to know that Pentathlon combined running, long jump, discus, javelin throwing and wrestling. Today the last one is a separate competition.
Walking to the stadium, through the famous archway from the athletes would enter… made us feel like Olympic champions… Imagine the roar of the crowd. ‘Mel and Suan!’ they would chant as we waved at the imaginary folks who simply sat on the grass since there were not seats in the stadium. Can you imagine them jumping to their feet and roaring with approval as we took our position at the start line. Ready, get set, shoot! Be careful though, there are many fire ants in the grass, so don’t get your ass bitten!
The Peloponnese is now an island because of the Corinth canal. But for millennia, the peninsula was joint to the mainland and a critical piece of the Greek cultural puzzle. Civilizations older than that of Athenian and Spartan ages sprouted here, beginning what would turn the Mediterranean into a hotpot of Greek colonies all around the coasts of today’s political entities. Truly remarkable to think about this as you come here.
We came here in August of 2003
And will be moving across to the heartlands of the mainland here.