A Guide to the World Heritage Sites of Greece
Greece is home to a large number of spectacular sites which have been places on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Archaeologist Heinrich Hall gives his personal tips when visiting the sites
The Temple of Apollo at Delos
Greece, the ‘cradle of western civilisation’, is home to a host of immensely significant sites, places of importance, interest, beauty and impact. Not all of them reflect the civilisation we call Classical Greece - they range from prehistoric citadels via Classical temples to Byzantine monasteries and beyond. Only 17 are on the UNESCO list so far although there are definitely more that deserve the accolade.
The Acropolis of Athens
The most obvious image of Greece and one of the most famous architectural monuments in the world, the Acropolis is the sacred rock that defines the heart of the city, ancient and modern. Settled since prehistory, it became the citadel of a Bronze Age realm in the 2nd millennium BCE, continued as a fortress in the Iron Age, but eventually was transformed into the formal religious centre of the Classical city. Its redesign after the famous Persian sack of 480 BCE, masterminded by the political leader Perikles and the artist Pheidias, began in 450 BCE, when Athens was at the height of her wealth and power.
The main monuments then built include the awesome (in the true sense of the word) Propylaia, the ornate Temple of Nike, the highly original Erechtheion and - of course - the mighty Parthenon, the enormous shrine to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, that has become the most recognisable image of Greece and of ancient Greek architecture. A visit to the Acropolis should also include the many shrines and sanctuaries along its slopes and the state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, with its wonderful collections devoted to Archaic and Classical art.
Heinrich’s tip: Walk up to the northeast corner of the Parthenon and line up your eyes on a level with the steps of its foundation. If you look along those steps, you will spot the incredible optimal refinement of the building: all its straight lines are actually curved, meaning that no two blocks are quite the same shape.
Caryatids at the Acropolis. (Images © Heinrich Hall)
The archaeological sites of Mycenae and Tiryns
These are the two best-preserved of the great Mycenaean citadels surrounding the Plain of Argos. Linked with the mythology of the Homeric heroes and of Heracles, the quintessential hero of the Greek mainland, they were the incredibly well-defended centres of the palatial civilisation we call Mycenaean, thriving between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Their huge ‘Cyclopean’ walls, complex gates, underground cisterns, so-called palaces, enormous tombs in their vicinity and many other features make them first-rate sites, expressions of a still poorly-understood ancient culture.
To this day, their remains are jaw-droppingly monumental and highly evocative but can be hard to understand without an expert guide who can bring them to life and help you understand their significance. Their interpretation can be helped by the superb accompanying museums at Nafplio and at Mycenae itself – because once again, it is not just the architectural remains that have a story to tell, but also the fascinating artefacts associated with them: jewellery, weaponry, painted vases, figurines and frescoes.
Heinrich’s tip: If you drop by Tiryns in late summer, you may come across the German (Heidelberg University) excavation team. If you ask nicely, they might show you what they’re up to.
The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
Near the shores of the Saronic Gulf, the setting for the Sanctuary of Asklepios is a place renowned for its serene atmosphere, its setting in a particularly peaceful and verdant Mediterranean landscape with the scent of pine trees wafting across the site, but especially for its ancient theatre.
The latter is considered the most beautiful and most perfectly proportioned of its kind, creating a strong sense of focus, helped by the superb acoustics and an impression of harmony that belies its enormous size: it seats over 14,000. The remains of the nearby sanctuary, dedicated to Asklepios, the God of Healing, are also fascinating because they show the structure and functions of an ancient health resort.
Epidaurus is a soothing and refreshing place to visit, humbling and elevating at the same time. It is especially impressive during the summer festivals, when a series of plays (not all of them ancient) are staged at night, using no artificial amplification.
Heinrich’s tip: guides do all kinds of things to demonstrate the amazing acoustics, such as clapping their hands, dropping a pin, striking a match and so on. Much more effective: stand on the top tier of seating (or sit) and make a friend standing in the middle of the circular orchestra simply say something in a low, casual voice!
The Palaestra at Olympia (Image: © Heinrich Hall)
The archaeological site of Olympia
One of antiquity’s most famous places, Olympia is the site of a major pan-Hellenic (all-Greek) sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and locale of the original Olympic Games. Its remains, mostly from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE, are extremely interesting making it easy to imagine the place in its heyday, when thousands of spectators and athletes would flock to its groves every four years to celebrate the father of the gods and observe the competitions.
The monuments visible at Olympia include the famous Temple of Zeus, once home to the gold-and-ivory statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the venerable Temple of Hera, the bouleuterion or council chamber, an ancient hotel, the training facilities and - of course - the mother of all stadiums. The fact that all of the Greek World attended the Games meant that the participating city states all tried to be visibly represented and commemorated on the site, making it a microcosm of ancient Greece.
The site also includes a superb museum, full of first-rate sculpture, weaponry, athletic equipment and much more, including the wonderful statue of Hermes by Praxiteles – one of the very few surviving pieces by one of the most famous ancient sculptors.
Heinrich’s tip: To understand the sheer size of the Temple of Zeus, don’t concentrate on the single re-erected column. Have your photo taken next to the fallen ones on the southern side – no scale is more effective than your own size!
Heinrich is co-editor of the Blue Guide to Greece: The Aegean Islands. This is the first full Blue Guide treatment of all the Greek Aegean islands in a single volume. It contains a wealth of detail on all aspects of these popular destinations: early history and archaeology, Classical and Byzantine art and architecture, Venetian and Ottoman monuments, and present-day concerns such as where to eat, which beaches to visit, and how to get from island to island.
You can travel with Heinrich around the sites in Greece as he is an expert guide for Peter Sommer Travels. Peter offers a number of specialist led tours to Greece. For more information, see Greece tours
This article was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of Timeless Travels Magazine.
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