Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus

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Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus

In the peaceful hinterland of Epidaurus, with its mild climate and abundant mineral springs, is the sanctuary of the god-physician Asklepios, the most famous healing centre of the Greek and Roman world. The sanctuary belonged to the small coastal town of Epidaurus, but its fame and recognition quickly spread beyond the limits of the Argolid. It is considered the birthplace of medicine and is thought to have had more than two hundred dependent spas in the eastern Mediterranean. Its monuments, true masterpieces of ancient Greek art, are a precious testimony to the practice of medicine in antiquity. Indeed they illustrate the development of medicine from the time when healing depended solely on the god until systematic description of cases and the gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience turned it into a science. 

The area was devoted to the cult of healing deities since Prehistory. A Mycenaean sanctuary dedicated to a healing goddess stands on the Kynortion hill, northeast of the theatre. It was founded in the sixteenth century BC over the remains of a settlement of the Early and Middle Bronze Age (2800-1800 BC), and functioned until the eleventh century BC. Unlike other sanctuaries of this period, it is unusually large. This early sanctuary was replaced c. 800 BC by another, dedicated to Apollo, a god with healing abilities, worshipped here as Apollo Maleatas. The worship of Asklepios, the sanctuary's main healing god, traditionally considered as the indigenous son of Apollo and Koronis, granddaughter of Malos, king of Epidaurus, was established in the sixth century BC. Asklepios, protector of human health and personal happiness, was a very popular deity with an ever-increasing number of worshippers. The sanctuary at Kynortion was quickly overwhelmed by a great number of visitors, so a new sanctuary was founded in the plain, approximately one kilometre northwest of Kynortion Hill, on the site where, according to the myth, Asklepios was born. The two sanctuaries, one dedicated to Apollo Maleatas and the other to Asklepios, were subsequently known under the common name of 'Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios'. 

The new sanctuary developed around the Sacred Well, which was later incorporated into the portico of the Abaton, and in the area of Building E, where the first ash altar and the site of ritual feasting were located. The well played an important role in the healing process, which included cleansing and enkoimesis, or hypnosis, of the patients near its waters. The enkoimesis emulated the periodical death and rebirth of divine powers after they returned inside the earth - the source of life. The god appeared to a patient during his enkoimesis, which corresponded to periodic death, advising him on the treatment he should follow. 

Continuous warfare and misery in the fourth and third centuries BC led people to seek even more the protection and help from Asklepios, the philanthropist god, making the sanctuary one of the richest of its time. Several important buildings were erected in both the mountain and plain sanctuaries during this period: the Classical temple, the altar of Apollo, the Great Stoa, the priests' residence and the Temenos of the Muses in the former; the temple of Asklepios, the Abaton, the Tholos, the theatre, the stadium, the Banqueting Hall and the hostel in the latter. The Asklepion suffered from the raids of Sulla and of Cilician pirates in the first century BC, but flourished again in Imperial times and particularly in the second half of the second century AD, when the Roman consul Antonine financed the refurbishment of old buildings and the construction of new ones. Pausanias visited the sanctuary and admired its monuments, which he described in detail (2, 26), during this period. In the following centuries the sanctuary was razed several times and suffered particularly under the Goths in 267 AD. In the mid-fourth century BC, the plain sanctuary was refurbished one last time and a portico connecting many of the existing buildings was constructed at its centre according to Roman fashion. Despite the 426 AD official ban on ancient pagan religions, worship continued in the sanctuary until it was abandoned following the destructive earthquakes of 522 and 551 AD. 

The Asklepion of Epidaurus was first investigated by the French Scientific Expedition of the Peloponnese in 1829. P. Kavvadias of the Greek Archaeological Society excavated the site in 1870-1926, uncovering the sanctuary's most important monuments. Limited excavations were conducted by G. Roux of the French School at Athens in the area of the Abaton and in Buildings E and H in 1942-43, and by I. Papadimitriou of the Greek Archaeological Service in 1948-1951. A. Orlandos undertook the restoration of the theatre in 1954-1963. New excavations by the Archaeological Society are in progress at the sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas under Professor V. Lambrinoudakis since 1974, while a special committee of the Ministry of Culture founded in 1984 under the name of Work Group for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus (currently Committee for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus) oversees the conservation and presentation of the monuments in both sanctuaries. Recent work at the Asklepieion has both radically altered the aspect of the archaeological site and provided new evidence for the spatial organization, chronology and use of several buildings.

The Asklepieion at Epidaurus comprises two sanctuaries dedicated to two healing gods: the earlier sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas on Mt. Kynortion and the later sanctuary of Asklepios in the plain, where the famous healing rituals took place. 

The sanctuary in the plain is the largest and better known of the two. The entrance to the modern archaeological site is located on its southwest side, but the sanctuary was originally accessed from the north through the Propylaia, a monumental Doric gate of the third century BC. A sacred road beginning in the coastal town of Epidaurus passed through this gate and led to the Doric temple of Asklepios, of which only the foundations are now visible at the centre of the sanctuary. Several buildings related to the cult of Asklepios and the healing rituals surrounded the temple: the Abaton, where the patients' enkoimisis, or hypnosis, took place, the Tholos or Thymeli, a circular peristyle building, which housed the mystical chtonic cult of Asklepios, and the Banqueting Hall where the patients dined. Buildings for the needs of the patients and worshippers, and others used during the Asklepian Games, which were established in the fourth century BC, surrounded the sanctuary. These included a large hostel of 160 rooms for the patients and their aids, baths, a palaestra, a gymnasium, an odeon, a stadium and the most perfect example of Greek theatre, remarkably adapted to the landscape, beautifully proportioned and with perfect acoustics. The remains of several small temples dedicated to Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite and to other deities related to the cult of Asklepios, such as Hygeia, Machaon, Telesphoros, Hypnos and Epione, are also preserved. A complicated hydraulics system consisting of channels and settling basins, of which parts are still visible today, brought water from the mineral springs of Kynortion to two distribution points in the northeast part of the sanctuary, the Doric Spring and the Sacred Spring. 

In the northeast part of the sanctuary one can see mostly remains of the second century occupation phase, which include the library, baths, small temples and the so-called Stoa of Kotyos, recently identified with the Sanctuary of the Egyptians, dedicated to Asklepios, Apollo and Hygeia (as Osiris, Horus and Isis respectively). Also visible are the remains of the fourth century AD portico, which incorporated parts of earlier buildings, mainly the Katagogion. 

The smaller mountainous sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas was continuously occupied from the Early Helladic period (apsidal building) to Roman times. The three terraces of the Mycenaean temenos with its open-air ash altar and area for ritual feasting are still visible. Parts of the tufa foundations of the temple of Apollo erected in 380 BC over the ninth century BC ash altar and of the small Archaic temple of the seventh century BC are preserved on the lower terrace. A monumental tetrastyle altar was built in the Classical period east of the temenos. In the fourth to third centuries BC, during the sanctuary's most important construction period, a terrace wall was raised along the sanctuary's northern limits. This wall was lined by a portico facing south. An extremely rare small open-air sanctuary of the Muses dates to this period. The remaining visible monuments - that is, the propylon, or entrance gate, the Skana, or restored Hellenistic house of the priests, the basin of Antonine, of which a large part of the roof is preserved, and a fountain - all date to the second century AD.

Site Monuments:

1. The Ancient Theatre

The theatre of Epidaurus represents the finest and best-preserved example of a classical Greek theatre. Even by today's standards, this monument stands out as a unique artistic achievement through its admirable integration into the landscape and above all the perfection of its proportions and incomparable acoustics. It was built in 330-20 BC and enlarged in the mid-2nd century AD. The Theatre had 34 rows of limestone seats, divided into 12 sections and it could seat about 6000 persons. It was extended in the 2nd c. BCE with the addition of 21 rows, divided into 22 sections, to double the original seating capacity. The orchestra has a diameter of 20.30m and is encircled by a strip of marble. It is made of packed earth with a thymele (altar) in the center. 

The two Parodoi to the left and the right of the skene (scene) provided access to the orchestra of the theatre. Only the foundations of the scene survive today, while the two Parodoi double stone door frames are modern restorations.

The theatre is marvelled for its exceptional acoustics. Any sound on the open-air stage, whether a stentorian voice or a whisper, a deep breath or the sound of a match struck is perfectly audible to all spectators, even in the topmost row of seats, that is, nearly 60 m away. The answer to what makes the sound transmit so well comes from recent scientific studies: The arrangement of the stepped seating rows acts as an acoustic filter that deadens low-frequency background sounds, such as the murmurs of the audience, while amplifying the high-frequency sounds from the stage. Once again in use today, the ancient monument floods with theatre devotees during the annual summer Festival of Epidaurus.

2. The Tholos or Thymele

The Tholos / Thymele (altar) was built between 365 and 335 BCE and was the work of the eminent architect Polyclitus the Younger and was the most perfect circular building of ancient times. The monument’s round shape was created by three rings of limestone, traces of which are still visible today. The 26 outer Doric columns gave the building its good proportions and austerity, while the inner columns of Corinthian order bestowed lightness and grace to the monument. Inside the Tholos, black and white paving created a unique geometric design, reminiscent of a diamond, which drew the gaze. There were beautiful painted scenes all around the wall. The god’s dwelling was underground, below the floor, in dark maze-like corridors. Asclepius offered healing and relief from there.The Tholos was the centre of chthonic cult of Asclepius (i.e. related to the underworld). We have not yet uncovered its secrets and it remains one of the most enigmatic buildings of ancient times.

3. Τhe Stoa of Abaton (Enkoimeterion)

The abaton was used as a place of incubation for worshippers. This particular one was designed as a place for sleeping, so that those who had pilgramaged to consult Asclepius who be able to sleep and wait for the healing god to visit them in a dream, either showing them treatments to follow or curing them of their complaints as they slept. If in need of further treatment, i.e. surgery, the worshippers consulted the priests, who were guided by Asclepius' knowledge.

4. The Katagogion

The traces of the largest building of the Asclepieion, the Katagogion, standout. This building was a hostel for the patients, their escorts, as well as pil-grims to the sanctuary during their stay at the Asclepieion. The two-storeybuilding had 160 rooms, as people would come in large numbers. In fact many rooms had their one inner courtyards. It dates to the late 4th - early 3d c BCE.

5. The Estiatorion "Gymnasium"

After the baths comes the Gymnasium complex with the monumental Propylon and the Gymnasium proper or Ceremonial Dining Hall, which were erected in the 4th c. beginning of the 3rd c. BC. The building, 69 x 75 m, is one of the biggest in the Asklepieion and comprises a large colonnaded court with halls arranged around it and a double colonnade on the north side.

The colonnade was Doric in style while the columns of the halls were Ionic, as were those of the secondary colonnade. The position, size and layout as well as the furnishing lead to the conclusion that it was a ceremonial dining hall where the devotees held the Dinners in which they invited the god to participate, according to the inscriptions. There was a little Odeon in the peristyle court of the original 2nd c. BC building, when the Propylon was converted into a temple of Hygeia.

6. The Stadium
Where a river once flowed, over time a natural depression was created in the land, which in the 5th century BC was utilised to construct a stadium.
Crowds of visitors would come every four years to attend the Greater Asclepieian Games, the glorious festival of Asclepius. Sporting events, as well as rhapsody, musical and drama contests were some of the many events held there.The track is 181.30m long and 21,50m wide.
7. The Temple of Asclepius
The main building found at the archaeological site was the Doric temple dedicated to Asclepius. The temple was six columns by eleven columns, which housed a cult statue of Asclepius which no longer remains.
Pausanias writes that: "The image of Asclepius is, in size, half as big as the Olympian Zeus at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff, the other hand is holding above the head of a serpent; there is also the figure of a dog lying by his side." [2.27.2]
As the site plan shows, there are two alters next to the Temple of Asclepius. The earlier alter is large and would have likely been the alter used by the Greeks. The size of the alter is impressive compared to the size of the temple. It suggests that the religious ritual of the Epidaurians would seen the sacrifice of a large amount of animals, thus showing the popularity and volume of visitors of the sanctuary.
The smaller, newer alter would have probably been used by the Romans, who also frequented the sanctuary.
8. The Temple of Artemis
At the Asclepeion, there was also a temple dedicated to Artemis. Perhaps her significance to a sanctuary of healing is that she was the goddess of childbirth, the protector of young women, and bringing and relieving disease in women.
She is also the aunt of Asclepius.
9. The Baths

In the course of our visit we come across the remains of the ancient baths complex. Baths were very important in the functioning of the sanctuary, aswell as a necessary precondition for cleansing the body.
A stone pipe, portionsof which can be seen today, carried water to the bathtubs and basins in therooms around the large courtyard.
In Roman times, two pools were added, as well as sufficient water cisterns toserve the water needs