What role has religion played in Greece throughout history?

Today, 81.4% of the Greeks are Orthodox Catholics. This is a huge percentage if you compare this to Christians in the UK or Protestants in the US. More impressive is the number when you imagine that modern Greece only exists since 1830. Before, the Greeks have been under Ottoman and Roman rule for years. Besides, when you mention Greek religion, you might think about Nike and Zeus. Ancient Greek goddesses and gods who lived long before the Orthodox religion. Confusing, the Greeks. So here is the story behind religion in Greece, and its impact on society.

From Temple to Church

Ancient Greece

Let’s start at the beginning, with Zeus and Nike. The ancient Greeks had a polytheistic religion. They worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses who were believed to control various aspects of the natural world and human life. These gods were thought to reside on Mount Olympus and were often depicted in art and mythology. Religion was deeply ingrained in everyday life, with festivals and rituals held regularly to honor the gods and goddesses.

Religion also played a role in politics. The city-states often had a chief priest or priestess who served as an intermediary between the people and the gods. In addition, religion was a source of cultural identity for the ancient Greeks. Each god or goddess was often associated with specific regions or city-states.

The Romans

The ancient Greek gods and goddesses were worshipped by the ancient Greeks. However, with the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C., the ancient civilization died as well. Now comes the time of the Roman influence in Greece, and with the Romans, Christianity. A process that took place over several centuries.

The ancient Greek polytheistic religion was practiced for thousands of years and deeply ingrained in society. The spread of Christianity in Greece was initially slow and faced resistance from some members of society. Early Christian communities in Greece were often small and faced persecution from the Roman authorities.

However, as Christianity began to gain acceptance and support from powerful members of society, it slowly began to spread and gain followers. The adoption of Christianity as the official state religion was a major turning point in the spread of the religion in Greece. This happened in the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century A.D. Emperor Constantine the Great, who was himself a convert to Christianity, supported the spread of Christianity He provided funding for the construction of churches and other religious institutions throughout the empire.

The start of the Orthodox Church

With the support of the state, Christianity began to gain widespread acceptance in Greece. Many of the traditional polytheistic religious practices and beliefs were gradually replaced with, or re-explained as, Christian ones. The ancient Greek gods and goddesses were often reinterpreted as Christian saints. Besides, many of the traditional religious festivals and holidays were replaced with Christian ones. It was the syncretism of Christianity with the traditional religion that helped it to spread in Greece. And so the history of the Orthodox religion in Greece begun.

The Orthodox religion in the history of Greece

The Orthodox Church has been an important institution in Greece, playing a central role in the cultural, social and political life of the country. It has played a role in shaping the country’s education, social welfare, and cultural heritage. The Orthodox Church has also been an important force in the preservation of Greek language, culture and tradition. Additionally, the Orthodox Church continues to play an important role in the Greece’s identity. Many religious festivals and holidays are still celebrated and are an important part of Greek society today.

Religion was what defined the Greeks

After the 4th century A.D the main religion in Greece has been the Orthodox religion. However, in these 1700 years, many other things changed in the country. There has been a Byzantine Greece, a Latin Greece and an Ottoman Greece. The country has been occupied by many other empires. Greece has split up and has been attacked. Yet, the Orthodox church survived.

This is what makes religion in Greece something special throughout history. There where times that the Church was the only thing preserving the Greek language, culture and traditions. However, occupants also had an influence on the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox religion during the Ottoman Rule

During the Ottoman period (1453-1821), the Greek Orthodox Church was placed under the authority of the Ottoman millet system. Which recognized the Greek Orthodox Church as an autonomous community within the empire. The Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to continue its religious practices, but its leaders were appointed by the Ottoman authorities. The Church’s property and finances were controlled by the state. The Church was also expected to support the Ottoman government and its policies.

This had a significant impact on the Church’s role in Greek society. The Church was not able to play its traditional role as an independent institution and was instead used as a tool of the Ottoman government.

The Orthodox religion in WWII

During the period of German occupation in WWII, the Greek Orthodox Church was initially seen as a potential ally by the occupiers. However, the Church and its leaders soon became vocal opponents of the occupation. Many priests and bishops actively supported the resistance and many were arrested and executed by the Germans. The Church’s property was also seized and its leaders were exiled.

After the war, the Church regained its independence and played a significant role in the reconstruction of the country. The role of the Church during the war helped to establish the Church as a symbol of national resistance and identity.

Religion in Greece today

Today, the Greek Orthodox Church is still the dominant religion in Greece. The religion plays a central role in the cultural, social, and political life of the country. Many schools and hospitals are run by the Church or by Church-affiliated organizations. The Church also continues to play an important role in the preservation of Greek language, culture, and tradition. Many religious festivals and holidays are still celebrated and are an important part of Greek society today. Additionally, the Orthodox Church continues to play an important role in the country’s political and social development, and it is considered as an important element of the Greek national identity

The Church of Greece is self-governed and administrates its own affairs, but it remains under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, it also has its own independent hierarchy, the Church of Greece, which is headed by the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

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What are the top historical sites in Greece?

Greece is often referred to as the birthplace of Western civilization. During ancient times, the country was home to some of the world’s greatest philosophers, artists, and scholars. These ancient Greeks lived in advanced structures and cities, of which the remains can be found around the country. Here are some of the top historical sites in Greece:

The 10 most famous archeological sites in Greece

The Acropolis

Located in the city of Athens, the Acropolis is a citadel that was built in the 5th century B.C. The Acropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the most popular tourist attraction in Greece. It is home to several important ancient buildings, including the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, and more:

  1. The Parthenon
    It is often believed wrongly that the Parthenon and the Acropolis are the same sites since the Parthenon is the most famous structure on the Acropolis. It is a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, built in the 5th century B.C. The Parthenon is considered one of the finest examples of ancient Greek architecture.
  2. The Theater of Dionysus
    Located on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, the Theater of Dionysus was the first theater in ancient Greece. It was built in the 6th century B.C. and was used for drama performances and other cultural events.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus

Located in the center of Athens, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is a temple dedicated to the king of the gods. It was built in the 6th century B.C. and is one of the largest temples from ancient Greece.

The Delphi Archaeological Site

Located in central Greece, the Delphi Archaeological Site is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was home to the Oracle of Delphi, a sacred place where people came to seek guidance from the gods. The site is home to several ancient buildings, including the Temple of Apollo and the Theater of Delphi.

  1. The Temple of Apollo
    Located at the Delphi Archaeological Site, the Temple of Apollo was a sacred place where people came to seek guidance from the god Apollo. It was built in the 4th century B.C. and is one of the most well-preserved temples in ancient Greece.
The Ancient Agora of Athens

Located in the center of Athens, the Ancient Agora was the center of public life in ancient Greece. It was home to several important buildings, including the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos. At the present time, the Agora is a popular tourist destination, with ancient ruins and artifacts on display.

The Theater of Epidaurus

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is known as the most well-preserved ancient theater. Above all famous for its amazing acoustics. Although the theatre is constructed in the 4th century B.C., it is still used for performances during the summer months. Due to the theatre’s exceptional preservation and architecture, it is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage.

The Palace of Knossos

Located on the island of Crete, the Palace of Knossos was the center of the ancient Minoan civilization. It was built in the 4th millennium B.C. Therefore, it is considered to be one of the oldest palaces in Europe.

Mycenae

The ancient city of Mycenae is one of the oldest archeological sites in Greece, constructed between 1350 and 1200 B.C. Although Mycenae is famous for its cyclopean walls and impressive lion gate, don’t forget to check out the underground cistern and tholos tombs. The site is located on the Peloponnese peninsula and is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage. Even though Mycenae is not as famous as, for example, the Acropolis, it is one of the most impressive ancient sites you can visit in Greece.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Although located in western Turkey, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was built in the 6th century BCE and was dedicated to the goddess Artemis.

The Temple of Athena at Lindos

Located on the island of Rhodes, the Temple of Athena at Lindos was built in the 4th century B.C. It is dedicated to the goddess Athena. It is a well-preserved temple that is popular amongst tourists.

The Archaeological Site of Philippi

Phillipi is located in Nort-East Greece and was named after the powerful Macedonian king Phillip II. The archeological site is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage. Phillipi offers a range of very different but interesting ruins. Examples are a theatre from the 4th century B.C., coupled with a forum from the 2nd century A.D., and a Christian church from the 4th century A.D. 

Archeological sites are everywhere

In conclusion, Greece is home to many important historical sites that are worth a visit. Whether you’re interested in ancient architecture, art, or culture, there is a site to suit your interests. From the ancient ruins of the Acropolis in Athens to the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, these sites offer a glimpse into the rich history and culture of Greece. 

Besides the list of sites provided above, the country offers a glimpse of history in even the smallest towns. Historical sites are literally everywhere, and in order to explore ancient Greece, you often don’t have to travel far. 

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Enter ancient Greece at Mycenae

Greece is famous for its rich amount of archeological sites. Building in the country is almost impossible due to the abundance of history hidden underneath Greek soil. As a result, even the smallest towns have archeological sites or museums. Most of these sites are fields, covered with ancient foundations and restored columns. The most famous sites might have a building that survived time, like the Parthenon in the Acropolis or the theatre at Epidaurus. At the ancient city of Mycenae, however, you can actually touch and enter the structures built thousands of years ago. This archeological site is a truly unique experience.

Location Overview

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1.5 – 2 hours

€6,- to €12,-
seasonal

Be careful

Yes

Location

Mycenae lies in the North of the Peloponnese peninsula, in the Argolis region. The ancient site is just 1 hour and 40 minutes away from Athens Airport by car, and the first famous archeological site you find when entering the Peloponnese.

The location of the ancient city is impressive. On top of a hill, overlooking the sea in the south, and de fields and mountains all around.

Mythology

Mycenae is an ancient city on top of a hill built from giant rocks. It seems almost impossible that human hands constructed this city so long ago. So, Greek mythology came up with an explanation.

According to mythology, Zeus and Danae (the daughter of the king of Argos, a city close by) had a son, Perseus. He wandered around the area that is now Mycenae and either dropped his cap or found a mushroom. A cap, as well as a mushroom are myces in the ancient Greek language. So we can not know which of the two Perseus was about to pick up. But when Perseus picked up his myces, he found a water spring. He decided to settle right there and called his city Mycenae.

Perseus wanted to fortify the city he was now king of and called the cyclopes. These one-eyed giants were strong enough to pick up large and heavy stones with ease. They created fortification walls that mark the outline of Mycenae till today. The Cyclopean walls, named after their builders.

History

Mycenae is over nine thousand years old. The first signs of human life in the area date back to the Early Neolithic Age in the 7th century B.C. However, not much of the early Mycenae survived through time, and the archeological site mostly tells the story of the city’s prime time.

Between 1350 and 1200 B.C., Mycenae was a major center of Greek civilization. The city expanded rapidly to a population of 300,000. Many buildings in the citadel were rebuilt, and the fortification walls were constructed. The Lion Gate, the tholos tombs, and the palace, for example, all originate in this time in ancient Greece. Unfortunately, because of this, not much of Mycenae before this time survived. 

After 1200 B.C., Mycenae lost its status as the center of power. The site got destroyed for an unknown reason. The citadel was partly rebuilt later but caught fire and then was slowly abandoned. The ruins of ancient Mycenae have been a tourist attraction since Roman times and have remained popular till today. The site has been on the list of UNESCO world heritage since 1999.

The archeological site of Mycenae

The archeological site of ancient Mycenae is one of the oldest in Greece. Eight hundred years older than the Acropolis and constructed two thousand years before the close by site of Mystras. However, the site is well preserved. A visit to Mycenae is like a visit to ancient Greece.

I have never felt more connected with history than during my visit to Mykines. There are ancient streets you can walk on, structures you can enter, spaces you can experience, and walls you can touch. At the site, there is a concrete path you can follow. This path leads you to all the impressive structures of the old city. I would recommend first entering the citadel and visiting the tombs at the beginning of the site afterward.

The Lion Gate

The most famous and first structure at Mycenae is the Lion Gate. This gate marks the entrance to the city in an impressive 3-meter (10 feet) tall wall. 

The reason behind the gate’s name is above the passage. There is a large, triangular, limestone slab with the image of two confronted lionesses. Although the heads are missing, the image in the stone is still clear and detailed. But more impressively, the lionesses are not just there for ornamentation. The limestone’s triangular shape gives stability to the giant rocks in the wall above the entrance. Without this stone, the gate would collapse.

Nature and History

After passing through the Lion Gate, you have entered the citadel. From the gate, a concrete path marks the route around the city. Along grave circle A, the palace, temples, and many other buildings. 

Cyclopean walls, constructed for fortification, enclose the entire citadel. From these walls, the view of the surrounding landscape is breathtaking and reveals how well-positioned this ancient city used to be. At a both strategic and defensive location in the area. You will be continuously drawn between being amazed by the ancient structures, to being astonished by the magnificent views.

The underground cistern

At the most eastern point of the archeological site, you can find a rare experience, the underground cistern. Although its entrance looks like a cave in the fortification wall, it is actually the beginning of a spectacular piece of architecture.

The cave marks the entrance of a passage. This passage is a staircase that leads 18 meters deep and at the end of this staircase, there is an even deeper structure. A well, made of clay, collects water from a natural spring. This well used to provide a continuous supply of water to the citadel, and is one of the oldest underground aqueducts you can visit in Greece.

Unfortunately, only a part of the tunnel is open to the public. However, this is enough to reveal how advanced and intelligent the Mycenaen civilization used to be. You can enter the tunnel, descend part of the stairs and see how deep down the staircase reaches. However, even the giant stones that enclose the stairs in an arc-like shape, are an art piece by themselves.

The tholos tombs

After visiting the ancient city of Mycenae, you can enter grave circle B. Located just outside of the city’s wall, the tombs of Aegisthus and Clymentemnesta are worth the climb down the steep hillside.

The tombs are called the tholos tombs. Tholo in Greek means dome, which perfectly describes the shape of the tombs as they are large underground domes, or beehive tombs in English. But how were these impressive underground shapes created?

First, the Greeks make a large round opening into a hill. Inside this opening, they placed huge stones in circular rows, on top of each other. Each row sticks out slightly over the previous one, to decrease the diameter of the circle of stones gradually. They continue this process upward, until the circle’s diameter is as small as a singular stone. This is the top of the dome.

After the Greeks completed the dome shaped-structure, they restored the hill, by adding soil on top of the tomb. The dome shape of the structure made it survive underground. The tomb of Clymentemnesta proves the strength of the dome design. When a theatre was built on top of it at later times, the structure was able to hold the weight.

The entrance to the tombs is a wide path leading into the otherwise hidden dome. This path is called the dromos in Greek. This dromos leads to the tomb’s entrance, marked by a gate, constructed similar to the Lion Gate. 

The tomb of Aegisthus is destroyed at the top. However, the tomb of Clymentemnesta is fully preserved and impressive. The scale of the tombs at Mycenae is unbelievable, and the acoustics inside adds to their size. They are real masterpieces of ancient Greek architecture.

Tips:

  • The whole site, except for the tombs, is accessible by wheelchair. However, the concrete path is very steep at some points, so keep this in mind.
  • Visit the site in the order described above. You will go from being amazed to being more amazed, and being beyond amazed!
  • Bring plenty of water and sunscreen when you visit the archeological site of Mycenae during the summer months. The location, on top of a hill, requires quite a hike, and shading is scarce at the citadel. Therefore, it is better to visit off-season. This period will also show a clearer view of the landscape around.
  • Don’t forget to visit the museum and the tomb of Agamemnon. The museum is located slightly downhill, on the North of ancient Mycenea. You can find the tomb on the road down to the village of Mykines.
  • Combine a visit to Mycenae with Epidaurus, Nafplio, the Sunken City, the Dolines of Didyma, or any of the beaches close by.
  • You will have to pay entrance to enter Mycenae. A ticket costs €12,- from April to October. Off-season and for children, the price is €6,-. There is another ticket available that is valid for three days and combines Mycenae with other museums and ancient sites in the area. This ticket costs €20,-.
  • Mycenea is open from 8 AM to 8 PM during the summer months. When traveling outside this season, you should check the opening hours before your visit since they change each month.

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Impressively deep and incredibly blue. The Corinth canal

The most popular holiday destination on the Greek mainland, Peloponnese, is known as a large peninsula in the South. However, technically, Peloponnese has been an island for almost 150 years. The Corinth canal separates this famous peninsula from the mainland of Greece as a narrow straight line of clear blue water.

Corinthea, Peloponnese

Natural / Architectural

1.5 hours

Free

Be careful

Yes

Location

The Corinth canal is at the border of the most southern peninsula of Greece, Peloponnese. Just one hour West of Athens Airport. The waterway cuts through the mainland in a straight line. From Isthmia in the East, on the coast of the Aegean Sea (Saronic Gulf). To Posidonia in the West, on the coast of the Ionian Sea (Gulf of Corinth). With this location, this man-made canal connects the two main seas of Greece.

History

Peloponnese reaches far South of Athens and has formed a dangerous detour for ships throughout history. The round around the famous peninsula put 185 nautical miles (340 km, 213 miles) in between the Aegean and the Ionian sea. And it comes as no surprise that even the Ancient Greeks understood that the two seas should be brought together.

Periander, who ruled Corinth in 602 BC, was the first to imagine the Corinth canal. He tried. But digging a 6.4 km (4 miles) long waterway turned out to be too advanced for his time. As an alternative, Periander created a diolkos. Dia means across in Greek, and the diolkos was a paved trackway to move boats across the land. This diolkos was in use for over two centuries.

The second attempt to create the Corinth canal happened in 67 AD. Emperor Nero and a group of 6.000 (!) of his slaves started work at the side of Corinth. Historians believe that during this attempt, almost a tenth of the waterway was constructed. However, Nero died long before completion, and construction came to a stop for centuries.

The idea of the modern waterway arose in 1830, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire when the Greek economy wasn’t strong enough to start. In 1882, with the help of an Austrian company, construction started. But soon came to hold (once more) due to financial issues related to the Panama canal. In 1890, and with the help of a Greek investor, the Corinth canal finally became reality. It opened in 1893, on October 28.

The Corinth canal in use

After more than two centuries of waiting for the Corinth canal to be opened, it turned out to be far from the success everyone had hoped for. The only 21 meters (70 feet) width at the bottom proved to be insufficient for larger ships. Big vessels do not fit, and many captains have difficulty navigating through. Not only the narrowness of the canal, but strong winds and currents as well, make the waterway a dangerous place, even for smaller boats.

Besides, the steep 90 meters (300 feet) tall canal walls have proven risky. Even for the most talented captains. Rock debris often falls down into the water. Closing the passage for weeks, months, or even years. Today, you can see many man-made fortifications of the walls. As well as wider parts that are a result of big land slides. Fully functional the waterway has never been in the 130 years it is open.

Visiting the canal

Despite the Corinth canal being a struggle for most boat owners, for us tourists, it is a spectacular place to visit. The canal walls are impressively tall and steep, and the water at the bottom is incredibly blue. The scale of this man-made project is unbelievable. And the fact that a big ship looks small here, makes you question your own size like nowhere else.

corinth canal white cliff walls with blue water at bottom and greenery around
The depth of the Corinth canal, seen from the old bridge
The old bridge

The best-known location to admire the Corinth canal is the old bridge. A steel structure, in the middle of the canal, on the main national road between Athens and Peloponnese. Here you can park your car and walk high over the water. In the middle of the bridge, you can feel the scale of this project, and seeing a ship passing underneath you in the clear blue water is exciting. 

For more excitement, there is an option to bungee jump, down along the canal walls. However, since my legs were already shaking of the height on the bridge, I will not be able to tell you about this experience. But if you’re not afraid of heights, please let me know how it is in the comments below!

What I can tell you, is that the famous old bridge is not the only place to experience the Corinth canal. It is the most popular one and makes the best Instagram picture, but it can be packed with tourists. I would really recommend you to visit Isthmia or Posidonia. The beginning and end of the waterway.

The submersible bridges

At the end of the 1980s, Greece constructed two unusual bridges at both ends of the Corinth canal. Reaching Isthmia and Posidonia, you might believe you have reached the end of the road. The clear blue water of the waterway blocks the passage to the other side, while a connecting bridge structure seems to be missing.

But when the last boat has passed through the canal, something incredible happens. Machines turn on, and from the depth of the crystal water, the silhouette of a structure appears. A wooden deck, complete with balustrades, emerges from the water. The bridge arrives. Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians can cross the water. Until the structure slowly dives back to hide at the bottom of the Corinth canal.

Isthmia is the perfect spot to have a coffee and enjoy the beauty of this tourist attraction without tourists, and in peace. The place is close to being abandoned. Which is hard to believe, coming from the over-crowded touristic old bridge, just 2 km (1.2 miles) away. Why have people stopped coming here? I think it’s a shame. At the old bridge, the canal is more impressive in size, but the best experience is found here. Besides, in Posidonia, the remains of the old diolkos are preserved! 

corinth canal at istmia big red ship towed by small blue boat in between rocks on blue water
A big ship passing through the Corinth canal at Istmia

Tips:

  • The Corinth canal is just an hour away from Athens and easily accessible by car from the highway. It is the perfect destination for a trip away from the city. Or as the start of a holiday in Peleponnese.
  • The Corinth canal is very close to two famous archeological sites on the UNESCO world heritage list. Combine your visit with Mykines (30 minutes) or Eupidaurus (1 hour).
  • During a hot summer day in Greece, it can be difficult to see clear blue water without being able to swim in it. But don’t worry. Around the site are many great beaches and beach bars perfect for a refreshing swim.
  • The name of the village Isthmia is chosen for a reason. Isthmia in Greek means a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across the water by which they would otherwise be separated.

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Experience the ancient theatre of Epidaurus

In the north of Peloponnese, close to Nafplion and just 2 hours away from Athens, lies the ancient city of Epidaurus. Epidaurus was a small city established in the sixth century B.C. Today, it is a big tourist attraction due to the most well-preserved ancient theatre. The site is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and is famous for its acoustics. Epidaurus is known as the most impressive ancient theatre in the world. But what is the true experience of visiting this place?

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1 hour

€6 – 12,-
depending on age and time

Yes

Yes

History

The city of Epidaurus was not like the average ancient city. Since the sixth century B.C., it is known as the healing center of the classical world. Ill people from all over Greece would come here to visit the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Treatment would involve a cleansing diet and healing through dreams. But there are also records from performed surgeries and the use of medication.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was created as a part of the healing practice. It was believed that the observation of dramatic shows could increase not only mental but also physical health. The original theatre was completed in the fourth century B.C. with 34 rows. Later, in roman times (2nd century B.C.), 21 more rows were added. The complete theatre provides space for about 14.000 spectators.

Architecture

The theatre of Epidavros is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architect Polykleitos. It is built as part of the Cynortion mountain and looks over the lush landscape below. Impressive and giant gates mark the entrance on both sides of the theatre.

The gate at the entrance of the theatre, against the high walls that surround the theater’s koilon or cavea.

From the entrance, you first see the perfectly circular stage, the orchestra, with a width of about 25 meters. The center of the stage is the center of the entire theatre. This spot is marked by a small circular stone, the thymele or altar. This is the stone on which the actor in ancient Greek times would stand to reach all the spectators with his voice.

Around the stage are the 55 rows of seats, the koilon or cavea. With a radius of 60 meters and at a 26-degree incline, these rows make the theatre most impressive. The scale and the height, the perfect symmetry, and the excellent preservation. The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the few places that make you understand the scale of ancient Greek society.

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Theatre experience

The instructions for visiting the theatre of Epidaurus are clear. You leave your travel partner on the circular stone plate in the middle of the stage while you start to climb up. After approximately 110 steps, you sit down on the highest row. When your friend below speaks, and you can hear every word.

In reality, however, I was not surprised when I tried to communicate with my boyfriend on stage. I could vaguely hear some of his words, but my ears mostly caught the sound of crickets around. How could it be that I was finally at this famous architectural masterpiece, and all I felt was disappointment? Was the whole story about the theatre just a way to lure tourists?

Aggrieved, I climbed down the stairs and sat in a row halfway in the theatre. When putting my phone back in my pocket, I heard a coin drop. Where did my money fall? I searched around but couldn’t see it. Another coin drops. What is happening? How can I be losing money I did not know I had with me?

Confused, I looked at the stage. And at this moment I realized just how special the theatre actually is. A man, standing in the middle of the stage, was dropping his coins. The sound started 40 meters away, but according to my ears, it sounded right next to me. That’s impressive acoustics!

The truth about the acoustics

What they often forget to tell about the theatre is how the material contributes to the acoustics. The theatre’s benches are made of limestone, except for the first marble rows for special guests. Limestone has the ability to filter out low-frequency sound and amplify high-frequency. With this material, the noise of the crowd is absorbed while the higher tones from the stage travel from bench to bench, to reach even the spectators in the highest rows.

This is why my boyfriend was surprised when I spoke to him from the stage, but reversed, the acoustics failed. His, and many other men’s voices, are too low to be amplified. So when you plan on visiting Epidaurus with a male travel partner, remember to use a coin!

The limestone benches and the theatre of Epidaurus

How did the theatre work in ancient times?

The material’s acoustics made me wonder. Did men plan in ancient Greek theatres? Or was it just women and boys before the age of puberty? Or is it the aging of the limestone that changed the acoustic aspects of the material?

No. 

The limestone properties did not change. And strangely, ancient Greek actors were men. One man, actually, during the time of the completion of Epidaurus. And although the number of men on stage changed over time, actresses were never allowed on an ancient Greek stage.

However, this one man used costumes and masks to define the different roles he played. And it is these masks that are the key to good acoustics. Ancient Greek masks both amplify the actor’s voice and change its acoustical qualities. It was the mask that helped the actor’s voice to work together with the limestone material and travel through the entire theatre. Amazing!

Tips:

  • Attend a theatre at the summer festival of Epidaurus. For a unique experience, Epidaurus offers ancient theatre plays, performed at the ancient theatre during the summer months. After sunset, you can watch a play from the same spot the Greeks used to sit thousands of years ago. For more information and tickets, check https://aefestival.gr.
  • Combine with a visit to the museum and the rest of the site. At Epidaurus, not only the theatre is well-preserved. Instead, the whole site provides a unique look into ancient times. 
  • Epidaurus is close to Mycenae, another UNESCO world heritage site. Mycenae is famous for its lion’s gate and well-preserved tombs.
  • When visiting during summer, the temperatures at Epidaurus might ask for a refreshing swim afterward. At Palaia Epidaurus, a picturesque town on the coast, 15 km away from the ancient site, you can find the sunken city of Epidaurus. Here, you can swim around the ruins of an ancient villa, a rare and exciting experience. Don’t forget to bring water shoes and snorkeling or diving gear.
  • The site of Epidaurus is well accessible for people with a disability. Paths are paved or asphalt. However, the theatre and the paths between the ruins are not.
  • Bring water, sunblock, and a hat. Not unlike anywhere else in Greece, temperatures in summer can rise to 40 degrees Celsius. Be prepared and protect yourself. Drink lots of water while you explore the ancient site.

Frequently asked questions

How to reach the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is easiest to reach by (rental) car from Athens in about two hours. For tourists, there are also many organized day tours to the site from Athens and other towns around. However, when joining these tours in summer, be prepared for high temperatures since you will reach in the middle of the day.

Do I have to pay an entry fee at Epidaurus?

Yes. A ticket for the ancient site of Epidaurus, the theatre, and the museum costs 12 euros per adult and 6 euros for children in summer. From November till March, tickets are half-price. There are a couple of days each year on which entry is free. Examples are the 18th of April, International Monuments Day, and the 18th of May, International Museums Day.

What are the opening hours of the theatre of Epidaurus?

In general, the site is open when the sun is up. From 8 am to 8pm in the summer months, and from 8 am till 5 pm during the winter. In April, September, and October it is best to check the opening hours before your visit. During holidays the site is either closed or has adjusted opening hours.

What is the best way to experience the acoustics of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

Drop a coin in the middle of the stage, and check how many people start looking around for money. Many guides tell you to speak from the center point of the theatre, but the best and most impressive experience is dropping a coin. You can literally hear a pin drop at all the 14.000 seats. 

Why do many Greek men have a beard?

While strolling around a Greek town or village, you might be surprised by an abundance of facial hair. And abroad, you are often able to recognize the Greeks by their beards as well. Although Greek men have a variety of facial hair, from mustaches to stubbles to full-grown beards, not often do you see a Greek cleanly shaved. Did you ever wonder why most Greek men have a beard?

It is genetics

Charles Darwin hypothesized that the process of sexual selection may have led to beards. Modern biologists agree that a beard shows sexual maturity and dominance for both animals and humans.

But according to this theory, it does not make sense that just us, Greek men, showed off our manliness by hair. And this is also a misconception. 

It is not true that one ethnic group is more “hairy” than another. All humans have more or less the same amount of hair follicles. But the size, length, and pigmentation differ. This creates the illusion that some people are hairier than others.

Throughout history, our genes adjusted and mutated due to the environment. As a consequence of gene mixing and climate effects, Greek men tend to have darker, thicker hair, which can be noticed as a richer beard. Especially compared to the much lighter northern European ones.

However, darker hairs are not an excuse for growing your beard. Of course, shaving machines and razors are available in Greece, but we tend not to use them as often. So, what are the reasons that Greek men let their beards grow?

Health benefits

Even though many people may associate a beard with poor hygiene, this is not true. A well-maintained beard can have several health benefits, including:

  • A beard protects the skin from UV rays. 
    This is especially important in a sunny county like Greece. After all, who needs sunscreen for the face?!
  • A bear keeps you warm. 
    Greece may be famous for the sun, but the majority of the county has cold winters. With temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius, a thick beard can act as nature’s scarf.
  • A beard protects you from allergies. 
    Greece’s landscape is full of flowers, plants, and trees. During springtime, many pollens fly around, and a beard forms an extra protective layer against them. No more sneezing for us!
  • A beard improves your psychology. 
    Numerous men feel more attractive when maintaining a beard. Furthermore, scientists have found that men with full beards are perceived as better at raising and protecting their children. 

The history of the Greek beard

For the ancient Greeks, beards were a sign of wisdom, manhood, and the pivotal moment from childhood into adulthood. Bearded men were highly appreciated in ancient Greek society. Socrates, Homer, Plato, and Pericles all had a beard, and even Greek gods were portrayed with a beard. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, asks Zeus to swear by his beard, which makes his promise sacred and inviolable. The beard was an obsession in ancient Greek times.

During the era of Alexander the Great, the high status linked to a beard, was diminished. The great general was a big fan of the clean-shaven look. But he also believed that a beard could be used by opponents to grab on to during combat. He ordered all soldiers to fight without facial hair. 

However, the identification of the beard as a symbol of age and wisdom arose among intellectuals. The philosophers of this time usually refused to shave. And later on, the beard came back to Greece. The Romans distinguished themselves from the Greeks by being shaved.

In the Byzantine era, the beard was emphasized as a sign of masculinity. At this time, an important role in court governance was played by eunuchs. These men did not produce testosterone and could not grow beards. Therefore, the presence of a beard proved that the man in question was anatomically complete. For this reason, to this day, the masculine is called “βαρβάτος”, barbatus, bearded.

During the Late Middle Ages, a shaved look was again the norm in Western Europe. This trend was linked to the imposition of celibacy on the part of priests. A trimmed face contributed to declaring the sacrifice of their male reproductive power. Again the presence or absence of a beard separated the Greek from the Latin.

Tradition and religion

From the beginning of history, humans used clothes, accessories, and even their bodies to indicate their social and economic status. From ancient Egypt until today, a beard can have many meanings. The length, the style, or even the absence of it. The meaning and status of the beard changed multiple times throughout history and will continue to change.

In Christianity, art depicts Jesus and many biblical characters such as Moses and Abraham with a beard. Most Orthodox Saints are portrayed with beards as well, thus for the clergymen, facial hair was an “inviolable law”.

Tradition is an important factor as well. The majority of the Greek heroes do not wear a cape, but they have beards. And who were the everyday heroes in Greece? The sailors, the captain, and the fishermen. They all maintain a beard.

Also, during mourning, we tend to grow our beards long. It is an Orthodox tradition, not to shave for at least forty days after a loved one passes away. However, during the 20th century, beards were not appreciated by the average domesticated Greek. They were a sign of dirty and rebellious youth, only to be worn by the hippies and the communist. 

The Greek beard today

Nowadays, the younger Greek men do maintain a beard for various reasons. As I mentioned earlier, we believe that we look more masculine and wise, which results in more confidence. 

But I consider convenience the most important reason! It is easier for most of us to grow our beard and trim it once per week or month than to develop a daily routine. We prefer to use those 10 minutes a day, to drink our coffee, talk with a loved one, or even take a nice afternoon nap.

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When a monk makes camp. Panagia Kakaniotissa

Just a few kilometers West of Myrina, on the island of Lemnos, is a church that is unlike any other. Panagia Kakaniotissa. A small church without a roof but covered by the tip of the mountain it was built in. This small church is one of the most unique churches in the world.

one of the most unique churches in the world inside a cave on top of a mountain
Panagia Kakaniotissa, image from greekcitytimes.com

History

The church was built in the 13th century, when the Ottomans took over the island of Lemnos. A few monks were able to escape from the Turks. Trying to find a place to hide, they found a secluded and inaccessible cave. Covered by the roughness of the volcanic landscape around, they felt safe enough to make camp.

But what would a monk in a camp be without a church? Nothing. So the monks built the Panagia Kakaniotissa church and were able to survive here throughout time. Not being found by the occupants of the island.

Experience

Today the church is still in use and made accessible to the public. Well, for as far as possible on its very remote location. Just north of the church is a parking lot, accessible by a dirt road. From here a poorly constructed path leads you through the volcanic landscape, up to the cave.

On the way, you will be surprised by the beauty of the landscape around. Although the area seems pretty dry, there are so many different colors around you. The volcanic stones in the area are like sculptures while the sea is visible on the horizon. You’ll visit not only one of the most unique churches in the world, but you will hike through a special landscape as well.

Volcanic rock shows the face of an angry man on the path toward the church.

Tips:

  • When going to this church, make sure to navigate to the parking lot. Navigation might make a mistake when you try to drive directly towards the church.
  • The hike to the church takes about 20 minutes.
  • Bring enough water and sunscreen with you. And when visiting in summer, it is better to go either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But make sure to be back before it’s dark, because the path, as well as the dirt road, can be dangerous in the night.
  • Although the stairs of the path are not very well constructed, it does make this hike safe for children.
  • Don’t try to visit during Easter, or maybe do if you want to explore the Greek culture. To this day, the church is still in use to celebrate this important Greek Orthodox holiday.
  • Halfway the path towards the church is a little seating area from which you can enjoy the view over the mountains and the sea.
  • Combine with a visit to the castle of Myrina or the traditional windmills in Kontias
Volcanic landscape on Lemnos overlooking the sea

The largest fortress of the Aegean Sea.

When you reach the island of Lemnos by boat, you’re welcomed by an imposing Castle. Built on a rocky and craggy peninsula at the tip of the island, the castle of Myrina is the largest fortress in the Aegean Sea. Over the past 1000 years it endured many battles.

Location Overview

Myrina, Lemnos
Archeology, Architecture
1.5 hour
Free
Be careful
No

History

The construction of the largest fortress of the Aegean sea was commanded in 1186 AD by the Byzantine emperor Andronicus Komnenos, on the site of an earlier ancient fortification. But even before finishing it, it was taken over by the Venetians, who completed the castle around 1214.

After this, many wars came. First, the castle came back to Byzantium and then it was taken by the Ottamans. From the 15th to the 17th century the island went back and forth between the Venetians and the Turks. And in the 18th century also the Russians showed their interest and ruled the island for a while. In 1912 the Greeks took over the castle of Myrina from the Turkish and since then it has been a part of Greece.

Visiting the castle today

Today the castle of Myrina is a monument for the public with many parts that are still standing. The castle has one entrance to the east side, the only point which connects it to the land. Inside the walls are cisterns, houses’ remains, an underground vaulted room, and even a mosque.

Today, this castle is uninhabited by people, but refuge for about 200 deer. The locals provide them with food and water. And when visiting the castle at sunrise or sunset is very common to spot at least one deer.

Tips:

  • To go to the castle, you walk a path for about 20 minutes from the main square in Myrina.
  • There is a very small parking next to Nefeli All Day Bar & Suites from where the walk to the castle is only 10 minutes.
  • The hike up to the castle is quite easy because it has concrete stairs. However, it is a climb up, making the site inaccessible for people in a wheelchair.
  • Inside the castle there is a lot of information about its history.
  • The castle is the perfect place to watch a beautiful sunset on Lemnos. However, don’t hang around for too long since finding your way back in the dark will be both difficult and dangerous.
Sunset on the Castle in Myrina. At the back is the shadow of Mount Athos.

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