Famed theater 2500 years old and still in use

Trip Start May 30, 2010
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Trip End Ongoing


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Famed theater

Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Thursday, July 22, 2010

I had one full day in Athens between leaving the Greek Islands and flying to Spain. Since I had seen the normal tourist sights just 2 years ago I decided to take a daytrip tour to see a couple of ancient cities that would be difficult to see on my own - Epidaurus and Mycanae.

Both sites are on the Peloponnesian peninsula and a long drive from Athens. Our first stop on the bus trip was to see the impressive Corinth Canal that connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. It cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and separates the Peloponnesian peninsula from the Greek mainland, thus effectively making the former an island. The canal is 6.3 kilometers in length and was built between 1881 and 1893.

The Corinth Canal is considered a great technical achievement for its time. It saves the 400-kilometer-long journey around the Peloponnesus for smaller ships, but since it is only 21 meters wide it is too narrow for modern ocean freighters. The canal is nowadays mostly used by tourist ships; 11,000 ships per year travel through the waterway. The water in the canal is 8 meters deep. At the maximum, the walls are 52 meters high. At each end of the canal, seashore roads cross using submersible bridges that are lowered to the canal bottom to allow maritime traffic to pass!

The drive to Epidaurus, though long, was pretty through the mountainous countryside filled with olive groves. It's amazing how some of the main roads are just narrow 2-lane affairs winding through towns and around farms.

The Asclepieion at Epidaurus was the most celebrated healing center of the classical world, the place where ill people went in the hope of being cured. To find out the right cure for their ailments, they spent a night in the enkoimitiria, a big sleeping hall. In their dreams, the god himself would advise them what they had to do to regain their health. Found in the sanctuary, there was a guest house for 160 guestrooms of which only the foundations remain.

Asclepius, the most important healer god of antiquity, brought prosperity to the sanctuary, which in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC embarked on an ambitious building program for enlarging and reconstruction of monumental buildings. Fame and prosperity continued throughout the Hellenistic period. In 87 BC the sanctuary was looted by the Roman general Sulla, and in 67 BC, it was plundered by pirates. In the 2nd century AD, the sanctuary enjoyed a new upsurge under the Romans. Even after the introduction of Christianity and the silencing of the oracles, the sanctuary at Epidaurus was still known as late as the mid 5th century, although as a Christian healing center.

The prosperity brought by the Asclepieion enabled Epidaurus to construct civic monuments too. The theater was the greatest in the Greek world; and, fortunately, is the best preserved. The theater was designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC. The original 34 rows were extended in Roman times by another 21 rows. As is usual for Greek theaters (and as opposed to Roman ones), the view of a lush landscape behind the stage is an integral part of the theater itself and was not to be obscured.

The theater is marveled for its exceptional acoustics, which permit almost perfect intelligibility of unamplified spoken word from the proscenium to all 14,000 spectators, regardless of their seating. Famously, tour guides have their groups scattered in the stands and show them how they can easily hear the sound of a match struck at center-stage (or in our case pennies being dropped). A 2007 study by Nico F. Declercq and Cindy Dekeyser of the Georgia Tech indicates that the astonishing acoustic properties are either the result of an accident or the product of advanced design: The rows of limestone seats filter out low-frequency sounds, such as the murmur of the crowd, and amplify/reflect high-frequency sounds from the stage. It was an amazing theater and almost perfectly preserved.

Unfortunately most of the other buildings in Epidaurus were just foundation ruins. There were many explanatory diagrams though explaining in great detail what existed and what function it served in the ancient city. The diagrams were in English and our guide told us that additional excavation and restoration work at the site was ongoing. It was all quite fascinating and just hard to process how a city could have successfully existed there thousands of years ago.

After Epidaurus we make a quick stop to see the charming seaside town of Napflio.  The town was the first capital of modern Greece, from 1829 to 1834. There is a large castle on the hill looking over the town as well as a small fortress guarding the harbor.  Napflio has gained a reputation as a popular tourist destination in recent years so it's too bad we didn't have more time to spend there before moving on to Mycanae. 
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