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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

WALKING IN ANCIENT FOOTSTEPS: Sacred Shrines and Cylcopean Citadels

Because I'm a historical fiction writer as well as a travel journalist, and the editor/publisher of a travel ezine that focuses on History/Archaeology, I make a point when I'm traveling to visit interesting, and sometimes rarely visited archaeological sites.  Next to writing, I guess you'd say archaeology is my passion and there's nothing more fun for me than climbing over age-old stones in ancient sites and imagining what it was all like way back when.

A few years ago two friends and I went by car to a site outside of Athens that is one of the off-the-beaten-path sites, deliberately built far from the city as it was a sacred healing shrine. This is the Amphiareion of Oropos, which is situated in a beautiful setting 6 km outside of Athens near the fortified port of Oropos.  It was dedicated in the late 5th century BCE to the hero Amphiaraos and pilgrims visited it to seek oracular advice and healing.

The Amphiarion
There was nobody around the day we visited. I was with my friends Petra, who was assistance director of the Finnish Institute, and Dina who is also an avid historian.  The three of us had a fabulous afternoon wandering around, with Petra translating inscriptions on some of the stele and explaining a lot of the functions of the sanctuary.  The sanctuary has a temple of Amphiaraos as well as a theatre that seated about 3,000 people. Attending a performance of drama was part of the psychotherapy of those healing shrines.  Supplicants would enter the shrine, converse with the priests, attend the theatre and sleep on the stone benches wrapped in the skins of sacrificed animals.  Whatever they dreamed was interpreted by the priests who handed out advice. 
When I visited there (around 1994) I didn't take many photos and now that it's the digital age, I really want to make another visit so I can write more extensively about this important, but not well known site.  There are some nice beaches nearby where you can picnic under the shade. You can reach the Amphiareion by car or bus to Oropos with a 3 k walk to the temple.

Another important healing shrine outside Athens on the Attica coast is the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron (Vravrona).  This place has always intrigued me because of the little girls known as "Little Bears" who were acolytes of the shrine. This is where Agamemnon and his fleet gathered before they sailed to Troy.  Agamemnon killed a stag sacred to the goddess Artemis and this enraged the deity causing him to then have to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order to ensure a favorable wind for the Greek fleet.
Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron
Around the site are votive dedications including statues of young children as well as items pertaining to feminine life such as jewelry boxes and mirrors.  There's an archaeological museum near the site that contains extensive and important collections.
The Arkteia festival was celebrated every four years with a precession from the shrine of Artemis Brauronia on the acropolis of Athens which is approximately 24 kms from the sanctuary.  Young Athenian girls approaching marriageable age formed groups and were consecrated to Artemis as arktoi She-bears.  They spent their time in sacred dances, wearing honey-colored saffron robes, running races and making sacrifice.  Nudity was also an element in these preparations for womanhood. There may have been joint worship of Iphegenia at the cult site.  Because the goddess Artemis was a danger propitiated by women during child-birth, and to the newborn, clothes belonging to women who had successfully born a child were dedicated to her.  Garments of women who died in childbrith were dedicated to Iphigeneia at Brauron.
Another ancient site is the citadel of Mycenae, located in the north-east Peloponnese.  I visited here on my first trip to Greece back in 1979 and have always intended to return.  The citadel is located on top of a rocky hill.  It's an imposing structure, centre of power in the late Bronze age (1600-1100 BCE).  The famous Cyclopean walls are similar to the megalithic stones of Stonehenge with great rock walls and massive stone lintels. According to legend, Mycenae was founded by Perseus.  There's a lot of epic stories and legends surrounding this citadel. 
The Famous "Lion Gate" of Mycenae
One part of the site is the famous Treasury of Atreus which is on a hill opposite the palace. This is a beautiful tholos tomb which is also known as the "Tomb of Agamemnon", built around 1250 BC.  This is where the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered a golden funeral mask which he called the Mask of Agamemnon. (You can see it in the National Museum of Athens.)  This has been disputed because it apparently is not from Agamemnon's time, but just the same it's intriguing and the tomb has an aesthetic appeal.  If you're familiar with The Iliad and all the stories told by Homer about the Troy heroes, you can let your imagination go wild here.

I hope that I'm able to visit these site on this trip.  There'll be lots of new stories if I do. 

Photos courtesy Wikipedia Commons

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1 comment:

Jessica L. Degarmo said...

Your pictures and breathtaking. Sounds like a lovely place to visit!