The Great Greek Adventure – Part 3: The Peloponnese

So here we go with the third, and final, post about our travels around Greece with John and Jerie. To finish off their trip we spent eight nights in the Peloponnese – three of which were on “Owl and Pussycat” and the others at Olympia, Navplion and Corinth.

Those of you with a knowledge of the archaeology of Greece will know that the Peloponnese is jam packed with historical places to visit and may not be surprised to hear that during the eight days we visited Ancient Olympia, Mystras, Ancient Sparta, Mycenae and Ancient Corinth.

A recurring theme in all the museums we have visited on our journey through Greece have been sarcophagi and mosaics and the sites in the Peloponnese didn’t disappoint.

At Mystras

“The Seven against Thebes” – on a sarcophagus at Corinth

Terracota Larnax from Mycaenae – usually used in the burial of children

Central panel from the floor of a villa – Dionysos with fruit and flowers in his hair – Corinth

Part of a larger floor representing a pastoral theme – Corinth

Fresco from Mycaenae – part of an altar

From Olympia – some of the games

In respect of the specific sites I will start with Sparta and Mystras which are within 7km of each other and which we were able, therefore, to visit in one day.

A fortress town and a former capital of Morea, a Byzantine territory, Mystras commands excellent views across the surrounding countryside.

The convent in the middle left

Built on a jutting ridge of the Taygetos Mountains the town spilled down the hillside with gates at the top and bottom and a third one splitting the upper and lower parts. The cobbled lanes were very narrow and frequently cul-de-sacs due to the large number of buildings vying for space.

Four different building climbing the hillside

“Main street”

There was no room at all for carts and, to facilitate the movement of people, the lower floor of buildings were deemed public spaces/walkways and often had parts of their corners shaved off.

The small palace

Within the lower town lies the well preserved Convent of Pantanassa which houses the only remaining inhabitants of the town [nuns] – if you don’t count the stray dogs, cats and whatever other wild animals roam the site. Quite how the convent survived the various burnings, lootings and sackings which Mystras underwent I am not sure but it and several other monasteries, churches and the cathedral all seemed to have remained relatively intact in  comparison to most other buildings.

Church of Saint Theodoros

One of the churches – now the museum

The Hodegetria – part of the monastery

During its heyday [approx. 1260-1460], and despite several attempts by Frankish waring troops to capture it, the land owned by Mystras stretched for miles and was within the Byzantine empire. I should therefore not have been surprised to find a Byzantine Church, “Christ the Saviour”, slap bang in the middle of the site of Ancient Sparta.

Remains of the Byzantine Church

In fact – it is almost the most impressive of the ruins there! Fearing no-one Sparta did not have walls or fortifications and therefore few traces are left of the legendary city and its fearsome warriors.

The Theatre – the only real “Sparta”

Despite there being so little to see we somehow managed to miss the well-known statue of King Leonidas – which is actually just outside the site. Maybe reading about this will spur my friend Steve into catching up with his blog and including a picture of Leonidas because he and Gill visited at a later date, saw the statue but couldn’t visit the site as it was closed. Between us we should have things covered!!

One of the mythological kings of Sparta was Menelaus, husband of “Helen of Sparta” who was abducted by “Paris of Troy”.  Menelaus appealed to his brother King Agamemnon for help to recover her and thus began the great Greek-Trojan War.

The home of Agamemnon was Mycenae, which lies around 80km [50miles] NE of Sparta and which was described in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” as “well built” and “rich in gold”. Well-built it certainly was with its famous “Cyclopean” walls reputedly built by the legendary giants of the same name….

The Cyclopean wall was 13m high and 7m thick

….. and the spectacularly solid “Lion Gate”, one of only two entrances into the citadel.

Lionesses were the symbol of the royal house

One of the most important riches found at the site is known as the golden burial mask of Agamemnon which appeared in my earlier blog, “The Great Greek Adventure Part 1”. That and most of the other treasures were found in the graves and tombs. Until the late C15BC the Mycenaeans buried their dead in grave shafts and “Grave Circle A”, containing six such shafts, was for the interment of members of the royal family.

Grave Circle

A new form of burial method was then developed called the “Tholos” tomb – a circular structure also known as the Beehive tomb.

The “Beehive” construction

Just south of the Lion Gate is what remains of the Tomb of Aegisthus…

The Lion Tholos

… but much more impressive is the C13BC “Treasury of Atreus”.

The entrance to the “Treasury of Atreus”

The roof

You really get a feel for the size and shape

Overall it was a fascinating place to visit but maybe rather a shame that the Great Court and the royal apartments of the Palace of Agamemnon were conspicuous only by their near absence!

Is this it?!

Ancient Corinth also lay within the Mycenaean Empire though most of the ruins are from the later Roman period. Extensive, yet compact, as this plan shows…

Must have been amazing

…… they include the remains of the “Bema” [an elevated podium] where St. Paul was brought for judgement having been accused of illegal teachings.

The Bema

However, the then proconsul Galio refused to make a legal judgement about what he considered to be just a religious dispute between Jews and no action was taken against St. Paul. Due to its connection with the Saint, a Byzantine church was later built incorporating the Bema and on 29th June every year [St. Paul’s Feast Day] a service is held on the ruins of the podium.

Remnants of the once elaborate baths can also be seen….

The bath-house

….as well as the fountain of Glauke……

The fountain and the C5BC Temple of Apollo

…..the Roman “Odeion” [indoor theatre] and the Ancient Theatre [outdoor].

The extra scenes were kept in these “wings” and pushed in as appropriate

Theatre “Scenes” had one, two or three entrances for the actors. The sides facing the audience served as the background and were decorated e.g. a temple or a palace. Later as theatrical painting developed, panels with other themes e.g. battleground, woods etc. were constructed and these could be moved in from the side to create a new “scene”. Fascinating stuff don’t you think?

Equally fascinating was what we learned at Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games which began more than 4,000 years ago and where, since 1936, the Olympic flame is lit every four years.

The ceremony takes place to the east of the Temple of Hera on the spot where the Altar of Hestia stood and where a continuous fire was maintained during the ancient games.

The Temple of Hera and, in front, the Altar of Hestia

The gymnasium ….

The C2BC gymnasium

…. was a large rectangular building with an inner courtyard which was the training area for running, javelin and discus throwing. These events were described in the smaller of Olympia’s museums dedicated solely to the Games.

Inside this museum were also exhibits of the original equipment….

A discus and a “jumping stone”

…. and the remains of Olympic crowns.

Bronze olive leaves

I had always assumed that the crowns were “laurels” as I understood such crowns to be given to victors. Indeed they were – but victors in war. For the games, the crowns were of olive leaves. The various champions returned to their home cities where they dedicated their crown to that city’s patron god, on whose altar he also offered a sacrifice. I have deliberately used the word “He” because women were not allowed to take part. Indeed they were not even allowed to enter the stadium as a spectator and if they did, and were caught, they were thrown off a nearby mountain cliff. They were, however, allowed to watch from outside on the Hill of Kronos.

We can all probably think of some form of scandal linked to the modern games – be it the refusal by Hilter to give the gold medal to Jesse Owens, the murder of Israeli athletes, various boycotts, doping and drug use etc. But although the ethos of the games has always been total fair play, perhaps unsurprisingly, cheating was also an issue for the Ancients. Whilst Emperor Nero was not punished for entering a four horse chariot race with ten horses, falling off, not finishing and still declaring himself the winner, other athletes were “named and shamed”. They, or their city state, had to pay for a “Zane” – a statue of Zeus – to be made which then had the name of the miscreant and a description of his offence inscribed on the base.

This was placed along the route to the entrance of the stadium to remind other athletes and coaches that cheating was not allowed.

The arched entrance – would once have been a tunnel

The stadium itself held 45,000 people but the only seats were for the judges.

Judges platform on the right and the altar of Demeter Hamyne opposite

With regard to statues of Zeus, the most famous one of all – a giant ivory and gold statue which was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – was built at Olympia by a sculptor called Pheidas.

Pheidias’ workshop

In C5AD his workshop was turned into an early Christian Basilica.

As well as the Olympic museum, the site contains an excellent archaeological museum and we marvelled at the bronze work much of which was related to weaponry……

Bronze sheet in the shape of a winged Gorgon – from a shield

Just a few of the helmets

Hammered from a thick sheet it was either a votive shield boss or an architectural adornment

A bronze battering ram – the teeth worn from use

…. and also this remarkable Assyrian bronze sheet, probably dating back to C8BC.

C8BC hammering technique. Re-used C7BC on a Greek statue

I was also quite amazed by this bee smoker – a design which has survived into modern times.

Obviously a brilliant design from the beginning

Once again the statues on display were quite incredible….

Nike – a 2.11m statue which stood in the Temple of Zeus

Nike statue as it would have looked with her wings and cloak spread

Hermes – the messenger of the gods

….. especially the two huge reliefs from the pediments of the Temple of Zeus…..

Depiction of a chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos – great Olympians

Fight between Centaurs and Lapiths at a wedding feast

….which I think provide a very fitting way to finish talking about archaeology. Well, for this post at least!!

As you know Mike and I transited the Corinth canal in June of last year and we wanted to show it to John and Jerie as a trip to Corinth but not the canal is unthinkable. Little did we expect there to be actual traffic but, having stopped the car at the western end to look at the ancient Diolkos…..

The ancient road along which boats were dragged across the isthmus

….we noticed the traffic lights flashing indicating that the bridge was about to be lowered.

The Road bridge

Down it goes

Up again – and Mike drives across

It was fascinating to watch as when we went through all this had happened out of our sight. We then took the road on the northern side to the bridge at “Isthmus” where we watched the same ship pass beneath us…..

Looks just as narrow as we remember

…. and then went to the eastern end to see the ship emerge.

As always, between sightseeing there was plenty of time for eating, drinking….

In Corinth – Mike couldnt resist the Sax – and the beer was actually OK too!

Great beer and ouzo at our favourite Navplion bar

…… and partying.

It was a fantastic “Mexican Train” evening! Thanks Steve and Gill for the contribution!!

We had an absolutely fabulous time with John and Jerie and are so very glad they visited.

If they hadn’t decided to make the trip I am pretty sure that we would not have seen as much of inland Greece as we have over this winter. So, thank you John and Jerie for helping to make our first winter season in Greece so memorable.

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