Take time for one of Athens’ hidden treasures
There’s more to Athens than the Parthenon. Take the ancient sanctuary known as the Amphiaraion, for instance.
Even the normally staid Oxford Classical Dictionary calls the Amphiaraion “charming.” You’ll think so too, if you give it a chance.
Thirty miles north of Athens, the Amphiaraion is an easy day trip: Just catch the bus to Kalamos that leaves from the corner of Mavromateon and Ioulianou streets near the National Archaeological Museum. Get off at the small village of Kalamos, and a large sign in the town square directs you down a rural lane to the ruins.
A path from the road leads into the site. On your left, you pass a long line of ancient marble statue bases, all boasting Greek or Latin inscriptions in honor of forgotten VIPs whose missing statues were either burned for lime or melted into chamber pots long ago.
Farther on is a small ancient theater with finely carved marble thrones, each one bearing an inscription in honor of a priest of Amphiaraus who sat there thousands of years ago. To the right are the ruins of a little temple of Amphiaraus.
Amphiaraus is one of the more colorful figures of Greek mythology. One of the original seven heroes who fought against the nearby city of Thebes in the time of Oedipus, he took part in the war even though he knew through his powers as a seer that he was doomed never to return home. He fought at the insistence of his wicked wife, who had been bribed with the gift of a magic necklace.
But Amphiaraus didn’t die in battle like most of his comrades – instead, the gods opened a chasm in the path of his chariot and he disappeared into it alive. He came to be honored as a semi divine hero, and it was this bucolic spot on the border between the territories of Athens and Thebes that became his principal place of worship.
Popular as early as the fifth century B.C., the shrine held a Lourdes-like appeal for the sick, since Amphiaraus was a god of healing and oracular dreams. The normal practice was to sacrifice first a pig, and then a sheep on the great altar next to the temple; and then to sleep in a special building reserved for that purpose while wrapped up in the bloodstained fleece. (It isn’t hard to imagine that such bizarre sleeping arrangements might well beget some memorable dreams.)
Worshippers were supposed to throw a gold or silver coin into the spring near the temple; apparently Amphiaraus did not accept small change. He did accept gold cups, though – the Greek philosopher Mendemus lived here for a while until he was accused of stealing some of the latter.
Few tourists find their way here. As you sit in the theater, the only sound you hear is likely to be birds singing in the pine trees covering the surrounding hillsides, a welcome change from the cacophony and crowding of nearby Athens.
I was almost alone at the site, save for a couple of other visitors. I happened to talk to one of them, a tall man in his 50s who was from Italy. As we strolled about the hillside in search of sometimes exiguous ruins, I learned that Massimo – spelled with a double S, as I saw from the card, elegantly printed in copperplate, which he lost no time in handing me – was an Italian who lived in Athens and taught his native language there.
A zealous Florentine, he made no secret of pining for his famous home. When I replied that at least he was fortunate in his Athenian sojourn, since the address on his card indicated Kolonaki Square, one of the most fashionable parts of town, he downplayed the idea, saying that in Athens even the poshest neighborhoods had so much street noise, it was difficult to sleep at night.
No, Italy was superior to Greece in every possible way, except for its higher prices and worse crime. He had to admit the Greeks were better off in those two limited respects.
Massimo remarked that he spent all of his weekends visiting archaeological sites near Athens. For instance, he’d been to the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous, but said the Amphiaraion was much more interesting.
I commented that he must really like archaeology. “Oh no,” he replied, “I hate archaeology, but in a country like Greece what else can you do on a weekend?”
Massimo invited me to drive back to Athens with him. We followed the road along the coast until we came to an unpretentious little outdoor restaurant next to the sea.
Entering the kitchen in customary Greek fashion, we inspected what was cooking before we ordered, and then we went back outside and sat down at a table that came complete with its own cat, which whined ingratiatingly. The food was good; the view was delightful.
The waves, breaking on the rocks a few feet away, provided a musical accompaniment to our al fresco meal, while beyond the choppy blue waters lay the island on Euboea, its green and yellow hills rising in successive tiers until they culminated in the peak of Mount Dirfis.
Directly across the strait on the opposite coast lay ancient Eretria, whose inhabitants were enslaved by King Darius during the Persian Wars and carried off to Persia, where their descendants were destined to be visited many centuries later by the wandering Greek sage, Apollonius of Tyana.
Just up the coast was the Euripus, where Euboea approaches the mainland so closely that a bridge links the two, and whose mysterious tides are said to have so perplexed the philosopher Aristotle that he committed suicide in unphilosophical frustration.
The combination of history and nature was, as usual in Greece, impressive, and I exulted in the glorious scenery and the snappy sea breeze that whipped our tablecloth around, even while I pretended to listen as Massimo descanted on the incomparable perfections of Italy.
Ed Yarborough lives in Grass Valley.
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