Writtings on south-facing stone walls of Delphi.

Classical Ruins

Driving around the countryside to find broken remains of myth and legend.

The Classical Age of ancient Greece, when Athens was at her cultural and economic height, took place mainly between 479 B.C.-- when an alliance of city-states decisively deterred Persian invasion-- until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Greece had emerged from the "dark ages" in 750 B.C. as a society that rewarded individual freedom and free thinking, where a gallon of olive oil was worth three days of skilled labor, and an island culture which fostered mercantile exchange throughout the Mediterranean region. With steady and strong economic growth over three centuries, Athens became the cultural center of the Mediterranean world and Greek the language of international trade.

Infighting between city-states led to their defeat by Alexander the Great and 150 years of Macedonian rule. The Romans invaded during the second century B.C., and Greece was plundered by this new empire now realizing the significant economic gains from military conquest. Then the westward expansion of Christianity in the first century A.D. would bring an end to the old gods and myths that once characterized her culture. Some prominence would be reclaimed in 330 with the division of the Roman empire into east and west, and after the collapse of the Western Empire in the eight century the Byzantines became Greek in language and perspective until conquered by the Turks in 1453. Greece, as an independent state, was not fully realized until demise of the Ottomans in 1830. But by then international trade had taken on a new scope, and so this arid landscape has not been able to recover the level of influence it had during ancient times. But the old myths, and beautiful islands on the warm Mediterranean Sea, has attracted plenty of tourism that we would see in the coming days.

Greek Vacation: London Stopover - Pelion Peninsula - Classical Ruins - Aegean Islands

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Here we've just landed in Athens [Tuesday, July 22], which came as great relief getting out of Heathrow, and met up with Sukanya's mom. We stayed in the Plaka, or the old part of Athens around the Acropolis, and went for a nighttime walk around the area. The first shot is the roof of the Parthenon; the second is a shot of the complex form Mars rock, where in 399 B.C. Socrates was sentenced by his fellow citizens to drink Hemlock. Tonight was balmy and jovial with many young people sitting atop the rock. Someone even brought a guitar.

Here's the Acropolis from our hotel room [Wednesday, July 23]. Now it seems kinda strange that we go all the way here without actually visiting the Acropolis, but schedules were weird, and it just didn't happen. I could have gone the morning I took this shot, but exhausted from all the travel hassles we've been having-- and not sleeping well in the hot and humid climate-- I just stayed in bed. We planned to be in Athens the last day anyway, but it didn't work that way. There is evidence a cult of Athena occupied the hill as early as 650 B.C., but all the structures were built during 400-450 B.C. Everything around here is being reconstructed anyway for the upcoming summer Olympics.

The next site we visited, after heading north to the Pelion Peninsula, then heading west across the interior, was the temple complex at Delphi. This is where the Oracle inhaled geothermal fumes and chewed on bay leaves, then portended the future of kings and wars. Given recent events in the stock market and Silicon Valley, this is perhaps as good an approach as any to predicting the future. I don't know what chewing on bay leaves would do, but oleander was growing all over the place and the two leaves can look similar.

The temple ruins of Delphi lies on the northern wall of a steep granite canyon, that begins in the mountains of central Greece, and extends out to the Gulf of Corinth at the city of Itea. You can see the coast from the city of Delphi not far from the ruins. This is from our hotel balcony along the northern canyon wall [Sunday, July 27], first looking right toward Itea, and then looking left up the canyon.

Here's a view of the canyon from the bottom of the temple complex, which includes a marketplace, amphitheater, and chariot stadium. This shot is looking down from the road toward the circular Tholos, a short distance away from the main temple complex [Saturday, July 26].

Broken columns were scattered about as we climb the hillside. It's quite large temple complex, and the structures here were built during different periods-- mainly during the Greek Classical age, but appreciated by the Romans as well. The Pythia, or priestesses of Apollo, drew good incomes from forecasting the future for kings and generals. And this is an appropriate place for a temple of Apollo: it's blazing hot and blindingly bright out here. In the distance you can see the dirty, humid air that hung over Greece throughout the week and a half of our visit. If this heat keeps up, I may just fall into a trance muttering incomprehensible predictions of the future myself.

There are also many texts inscribed in the south facing walls. Quite a lot is chiseled in stone here; I understand texts of Aristotle on Socrates is included on these walls. And all face south. I was looking for some facing in a different direction so I could get a better shot in good light, but all were on south facing walls now covered in shadow this late afternoon.

This is something we heard all over the countryside of central Greece, but rarely saw. It's the cicada that in swarms produced an eerie buzzing sound from the trees. I understand the adults only live 30-40 day once emerged from the ground where larva feed on tree sap, so this may be just a summer phenomenon.

Towering granite walls form the backdrop of the temple, whose remnants you can see on the hill. Further up, we encounter the polygonal wall, whose irregularly shapes stones fit, or at least once did, seamlessly together.

Gazing up at the columns that once formed the temple of Apollo.

Now looking down at the complex from the top. The amphitheater dates back to the classical era, but this one was built mainly by the Romans. The rectangular temple of Apollo is just beyond that. At the very top, above the amphitheater, is a stadium-- again dating to the classical age but rebuilt by the Romans. This is where the Pythian games took place that were an ancient competitor to the Olympics.

The next stop in our tour of ancient ruins was in Epidavros (or Epidaurus), on the eastern Peloponnesian Peninsula between Sparta and Athens. It's an ancient Greek spa where water from healing springs would be diverted into private baths and patients could come and sooth their ailments away. But there's more: including archeological remains of a hotel, marketplace, stadium, and an amphitheater so large I think it could easily seat the current population of the entire region within an hours drive from here. Archeologists say this was once a hospital. But given how extensive the sight is, and the contents that have been uncovered, there is little doubt in my mind-- this is the ancient Greek version of Las Vegas.

Much like Delphi, its fate comes from the simultaneous building up and looting of the Romans, the rise of Christianity leading to the abandonment of sites associated with pagan gods, their reverting to nature over the centuries, and final collapse by earthquakes leading to the present state of disrepair.

The amphitheater at Epidavros [Sunday, July 27]. The brochure says the site enjoyed a mild climate, but clearly it keeps getting drier, and at least as hot, the further south we go. Communities are small and infrequent around here, much smaller than they were once reported to be. There would have had to be a much larger local population to ever fill this theater.

Cheap seats from ancient times.

Finally a little shade as we look over the old dormitory complex.

Carved stones of all shapes and sizes with occasional inscriptions scattered about.

Water... please... water... shade... sunscreen...

Ancient aqueduct leading from the healing springs to the bath house. Nowadays there's no sign of these springs. What I wouldn't give to submerge in a cool healing spring right now.

Ancient columns from the site, subjected to the elements over the years.

The final ruins that we visited [Tuesday, July 29], the Temple of Poseidon on the Island of Poros, occurred mostly by accident. Galatas is about an hours drive southeast on the Peloponnesian Peninsula from Epidavros, and from there it's a five minute ferry ride to the island of Poros where we planned to catch a ferry out to Hydra before returning to Athens and on to Santorini. The day after visiting Hydra, having missed the early ferry ride back to Athens, we spent the extra time driving around the island and happened upon this site. No major excavations, no museums, no admission fee, just a sign explaining what is here, and free range to explore.

Ruins of the temple of Poseidon. It's still as blazing hot as it looks, muggy, and there's still that infernal hum of the cicadas that permeates the entire countryside. The wall that has been unearthed still appears to be in pretty good condition, although the columns have been worn down to their bases. Here Sukanya taught me an East Indian saying: "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." Yeah.

The site of the temple has a nice view over rustic olive farms below.

Olive trees in Greece have a very similar biology to the oak in California. In nature they grow scattered randomly about the grassy hillsides, sometimes in clusters around ravines. When cultivated, they take 50 years before producing olives, and orchards can live for several hundred years as trees become increasingly broad and twisted with age. Unlike olives, acorns have basically no economic value. These are all trees growing around the temple site.

To the east, gazing over the Aegean, this little cove can be seen from the temple.

So we headed down and found a rocky beach, with a shady beachside cafe operated out of a trailer. Here we enjoyed some soft drinks and preserved cherries we got back on the Pelion Peninsula. There were some yellow jackets around, exactly like the American kind, who wanted to enjoy them as well.

Any appreciation of ancient architecture warrants some analysis of the economic situation that created it. The pyramids of Egypt have long been thought to have been built from slave labor, but recent archeological evidence suggests the workers were paid and the building was funded by the rich agriculture of the Nile Delta. How much the labor was conscripted versus driven by religious devotion to the Pharaoh may be debatable, but what is certain is the construction of Rome was paid for by military conquest, as were the palaces of Europe during colonial subjugation. The building of Greek Temples, however, appears to have been the result of robust sea-faring trade, driven by a free market with a low tax burden that allowed the Greek economy to thrive during ancient times.

The biggest irony of this vacation is that the best Greek sculptures from the classical era, which we would presumably be coming to Greece to see, are actually in the British Museum-- next to the Egypt exhibit. Since time was short, we passed right by the Greek and Roman statues, figuring on seeing plenty of them later on. The statues remaining in Greece were mostly in museums closed for renovation because of the upcoming Olympics. From the Island of Poros, the final chapter of the vacation would be a hopeful, but perhaps overly optimistic attempt to escape the searing heat by basking in the sea breeze on pleasant ferry rides to islands in the Aegean Sea.

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Inscriptions of Aristotle and Socrates on the south facing wall of the Apollo temple at the Delphi complex. In later Greek culture, it was the temple of Apollo where fortunes were told. Before that it was at a temple to an earth goddess just down the hill from where this picture was taken.
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Columns still standing from the temple of Apollo, at the center of the complex at Delphi.
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Tiled room within a market complex at the ruins of Epidavros.
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