Near the Greek island of Mykonos and part of the Cyclades, sacred Delos is the birthplace of the Greek God Apollo and his twin sister, the Greek Goddess Artemis, and one of most important archaeological and ancient sites in the Mediterranean.
According to ancient sources, Zeus (Greek king of all gods) had an affair with the beautiful young goddess Leto. Hera, rightful goddess wife of Zeus, was furious and barred every place in the world from giving the pregnant Leto a place to give birth.
The whole Greek world followed Hera’s order – with the single exception being Delos, a floating, unimportant, barren, rocky and windswept island that thought it had little to lose by giving sanctuary to Leto. So, with a haven in Delos, Leto rested under a stately palm tree and gave birth first to Artemis and then Apollo.
Today, Delos comprises rich and extensive archaeological ruins from antiquity when, as Apollo’s sanctuary, it was a prosperous and cosmopolitan Mediterranean trading port and attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek world. Even today, a trek to the summit of Mount Kynthos, the highest point on Delos, will reveal modern dedications and small shrines to Apollo.
The ferry ride to Delos from Mykonos is about 30 minutes; however, visitors are not allowed to stay on the island – apart from archaeologists working there.
In antiquity there was a law in place that forbade births and deaths on the Island. Pregnant women and persons gravely ill were transported to the adjacent island of Rheneia to avoid breaking the sacred law.
A stone’s throw south of Athens lays Aegina, an unspoiled and historic Greek island endowed with splendid archaeological remains, beautiful beaches and charming harbour towns.
Located between the Attica and the Peloponnese, the island of Aegina (Aigina) is part of the archipelago known as the Saronic Gulf Islands which are regarded by Athenians as their own a little secret paradise to escape to from the hustle and bustle of the capital. (Salamis, Poros, Hydra and Spetses are the other Saronic Gulf Islands)
In the 7th and 6th centuries BC, Aegina was a mighty maritime state that rivalled Athens in power and prestige.
Aegina minted the first ancient Greek coins (marked with a tortoise) and traded and established colonies throughout the Mediterranean. However, the imperial ambitions of Athens eventually eclipsed and then conquered Aegina in the 5th century BC.
Between 1826 and 1828, Aegina town became the first capital of the new Greek state after winning independence and the new government of Greece was set-up there.
Aegina Town is a picturesque harbour town, overflowing with colourful fishing and coastal boats and a lively waterfront lined with neoclassical buildings, taverns, churches and many stands selling Aegina’s famous pistachios, considered the tastiest in the world.
On eastern side of the island, set atop a pine crested hill, stands the impressive 5th century BC Temple of Aphaia, which is one of the best-preserved ancient temples from the ancient Greek world. Dedicated to Aphaia, a local goddess, the perfectly proportioned Doric Temple has twenty-five of the original 32 monolithic limestone columns still standing.
The Temple of Aphaia, together with the Parthenon in Athens and Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, form a perfect isosceles triangle which continues to mystify scholars today.
Aegina is easily reachable from the port of Piraeus, with many ferries available throughout the day ranging from approximately 40 minutes to 75 minutes in travel time.
Nemea is on the north-eastern part of the Peloponnese in the prefecture of Corinthia, southern mainland Greece. Ancient Nemea is the old stamping ground of Heracles and a precinct and sanctuary sacred and dedicated to the God of Nemean Zeus.
Situated amongst gentle rolling hills overflowing with Greece’s premier vineyards lays Ancient Nemea, famous in Greek mythology as the place where Heracles slew the ferocious Nemean Lion.
There’s no sign of Heracles these days, but the local red wine is known as the ‘blood of Heracles’ and among the sacred cypress trees at Nemea’s sanctuary of Zeus, the timeless 4th century BC Temple of Nemean Zeus currently endures as the proud witness to the legendary feats of antiquity.
Nemea was not actually a permanently inhabited town, but one of four famous ancient Greek Panhellenic sanctuaries (Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia were the others) where festivals (Games) took place in rotation in the late summer every two years. During the classical period, all four Games were of an equal importance and the ancient Athenians awarded free meals for life to her citizens who won a crown at any of four games.
According to the oldest myth, the establishment of the Nemean games is attributed to the death of the prince Opheltes, the infant son of Nemean Priest King Lykourgos and Eurydike.
When Opheltes was born, the King consulted the Pythian oracle of Delphi on how to ensure the well-being of his new son. The Pythian oracle responded the baby must not touch the ground until he could walk. The nursemaid, entrusted by the king to look after his son, was walking through a meadow with the Royal baby when she was approached by the “Seven champions marching against Thebes” asking her for something to quench their thirst.
The nursemaid placed the infant down momentarily on a bed of wild celery to fetch them water from a nearby stream. Tragically, a snake that lay concealed in the celery killed the baby prince. The “Seven Against Thebes” took this death as a bad omen (which it turned out to be) for their own mission and renamed the baby Archemoros “Beginner of Doom” and to appease the gods they held the funeral games, hence founding the Nemean Games.
In honour of the infant prince Opheltes, the Games Judges wore black robes of mourners and victors received a crown of wild celery. This was normal practice for the duration of the Nemean Games through the centuries.
By the end of the 5th century, the sanctuary of Zeus had been destroyed and the Games were transferred to Argos, a nearby powerful city of ancient Greece. The games returned to Nemea around 330 BC when the city was raised from ruins by a burst of building activity that included a new Temple and Stadium of which are to be seen today.
Unfortunately, the new prosperity was short-lived when the games were once again transferred to Argos with the sad fact they were never returned to Nemea. Over the following centuries, the sanctuary was abandoned and the temple columns were knocked down and used for other building projects.
Fortunately for us, the temple has been restored in parts and so has the stadium, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many including the University of California at Berkeley operating under the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and with the permission and supervision of the Archaeological Service of the Ministry of Culture of the Hellenic Republic. The Director of those excavations was Professor Stephen G. Miller.
The Nemean games resumed in 1996 thanks to the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, a movement intended to resurrect the competitive and egalitarian spirit of ancient Greek athletics. They have been held every 4 years since and are open to anyone who wishes to take part.
I have been to Ancient Nemea several times and I have always found it a highly rewarding site to visit. It has a splendid museum and the Temple of Nemean Zeus and the Stadium are outstanding examples of their time.
Ancient Messene, also known as Ithomi, lies in the fertile foothills of Mount Ithomi, just below the stone houses of the charming traditional village of Mavromati. It is in the southwest Peloponnese prefecture of Messenia, 32 kilometres northwest of Kalamata.
The classical city-state was founded in 369 BC on the foundation of ruins that go back as far as the Bronze Age. It became the capital of the greater region of Messene after being librated by Theban general Epaminondas, who defeated the Spartans two years earlier (371 BC) at the battle at Leuktra.
The Archaeological Society of Athens has largely excavated and restored the vast archaeological site. It is one and is one of most impressive sites in Greece; however it’s not very well known to most travellers in the region.
One of the many highlights is the 3rd century BC ancient theatre which has the cavea (seating) carved into the hillside. During the Roman period, the theatre was enlarged, and the façade of the scene building had three storeys. The theatre held the meeting between King Philip V of Macedon and Aratos the Sikyonian in 214 BC; the day following the revolt of the Messenian people.
Further highlights include the Stadium and Gymnasium architectural complex, the 2nd century BC Hellenistic Sanctuary of Asclepius, the political and religious heart of the city and the 9 kilometres long circuit wall, made of enormous limestone blocks and with battlement towers built during the 4th century BC to protect the city.
The archaeological site of ancient Messene is on the UNSECO Tentative List, which comprises properties considered of being cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List.
The birthplace and spiritual home of the Olympic Games, Ancient Olympia continues to captivate as it did for a thousand years from 776 BC, when Greeks assembled in war and peace to celebrate the games and life.
Ancient Olympia is magically set in a lush valley between two rivers in the western Peloponnese prefecture of Elia, southern Greece. Dedicated to the Ancient Greek God Zeus, the games which according to one legend were established by Ancient Greek Hero Herakles to honor the achievement of his 12 labours.
The games were held here every fours year’s from 776 BC onwards for over a thousand years and remarkably the champion’s name of each event is recorded.
Amidst its shady groves of pine, olive and blooming Judas trees, Olympia’s evocative ruins of its celebrated past are on show, including the remains of the Palaestra where the athletes trained, the stadium where the foot races were held and the hippodrome where the horse events took place.
At its centre, in the sacred sanctuary, the glorious 5th century Temple of Zeus lays in ruins. Its colossal Doric columns lay toppled in the ground unmoved since being destroyed by tremendous earthquakes in the 6th century. Comparable in size to the Athenian Parthenon, The Temple of Zeus housed the long-lost 12-metre high golden statue of Zeus, created by the Greek sculptor Pheidias (Phidias) and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Finally, its marvellous museum is full of world-class exhibits and masterpieces of antiquity, including 5th century BC statue of the winged Nike by the sculptor Paeonius (or Paionios) of Mende and the Praxiteles’ marble statue of Hermes, possibly the finest figurative sculpture ever made.
Ancient Olympia is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zeus released two eagles from the opposites ends of the world and proclaimed that where those eagles met would be forever known as the centre of the earth. Those eagles met at Delphi.
Delphi, the mystical Oracle of Apollo, is magnificently situated on the slopes of the towering limestone Mount Parnassus and overlooks the olive tree abundant deep valley of the River Pleistos in the provincial unit of Phocis in upper central Greece. Delphi was first occupied in late Mycenaean times, probably around the 15th century BC, and that the Earth Goddess Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life, was venerated at the site. The cult of the Greek God Apollo was established at Delphi in the 8th century BC.
For over 1000 years from 800 BC onwards, Delphi was the spiritual, psychological and geographical centre and symbol of unity of the Ancient Greek world.
Delphi became a focal point for intellectual enquiry as well. A social networking and meeting place where ideas, innovations, inventions, discoveries, activities, and stories were shared. Rulers, Kings, Emperors, Tyrants, Statesmen and Politicians. The who’s who of the Ancient World and Greeks, seeking guidance for establishing new settlements, made the arduous trek to consult the Oracle of Apollo.
The Temple of Apollo is the most important building of Delphi and had been rebuilt several times in ancient times.
The existing ruins belong to the 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, which was the last rebuild of the Temple. The temple has six re-erected columns and originally had 6 Doric columns at each end and 15 Doric columns at each side. The walls of the pronaos or forecourt had approximately 147 inscriptions of aphorisms from the seven sages of Ancient Greece. Known as the Delphic maxims, the aphorisms were between 2 and 5 words and are philosophical and moral messages that are still as relevant today.
The interior of the Temple of Apollo included the inner sanctum or Adyton, which was a sunken area of the temple where the oracles were given by the Pythia (High Priestess). The Pythia was seated on a tripod above a fracture in the earth where 2 fault lines crossed from which hydrocarbon gases, possibly ethylene, were released. Once in a trance-like state, she would voice prophecies by Apollo, which then would have been noted and conveyed to the visitor by the priests.
One of antiquity’s most famous men, Alexander the Great, consulted the Oracle prior to him embarking on his legendary conquests. Unfortunately, the Pythia’s answer to Alexander’s enquiry was considered vague by him and left him incensed. So, in a fit of rage, Alexander stormed into the sacred chamber and dragged the Priestess by the hair out of the temple. He did not let up until she provided him with an appropriate reply. He released her when she screamed “You are invincible my son!”
One of the very last messages (362 AD) was directed to Pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate who wanted to restore the Temple of Apollo. the message is read:
Delphi as an influence ended in the 4th century AD when it was closed by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius. The city was abandoned to constant earthquakes and gradually fell into ruins.
Delphi was also famous for being one of the 4 major religious sites in Ancient Greece to hold the Panhellenic games. The other sites were Nemea, Isthmia and Olympia. The Delphi games were known as the Pythian games, in honour of Apollo and were held in the summer every four years (2 years after each Olympic Games). Besides athletic contests and chariot races, music and poetry competitions were held in honour of Apollo, who was the Greek God of the arts.
Delphi was designated in 1987 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.