EPIDAURUS (Epídhavros) is a major Greek site visited for its stunning ancient theatre, built around 330–320 BC. With its extraordinary acoustics, this has become a very popular venue for the annual Athens Festival productions of Classical drama, which are staged on Friday and Saturday nights from June through until the last weekend in August. The works are principally those of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus; given the spectacular setting, they are worth arranging your plans around, whether or not you understand the modern Greek in which they’re performed.
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The theatre is just one component of what was one of the most important sanctuaries in the ancient world, dedicated to Asklepios (god of healing) and a site of pilgrimage for half a millennium, from the sixth century BC into Roman times. In addition to its medical activities, the sanctuary hosted a quadrennial festival, which followed the Isthmian Games.
Now a World Heritage Site, restoration and reconstruction work is perpetually under way, so varying areas of the site may be temporarily closed.
The ancient theatre
Epidaurus’s ancient theatre is the primary sight. With its backdrop of rolling hills, this 14,000-seat semicircle merges perfectly into the landscape, so well, in fact, that it was rediscovered and unearthed only in the nineteenth century. Constructed with mathematical precision, it has an extraordinary equilibrium and, as guides on the stage are forever demonstrating, near-perfect natural acoustics – such that you can hear coins, or even matches, dropped in the circular orchestra from the highest of the 54 tiers of seats. Constructed of white limestone (red for the dignitaries in the front rows), the tiered seats have been repaired, though the beaten-earth stage has been retained, as in ancient times.
Most of the ruins visible today are just foundations – the sanctuary was looted by the Romans in 86 BC – but a visit to the museum helps identify some of the former buildings. The finds displayed show the progression of medical skills and cures used at the Asklepieion.
The sanctuary of Asklepios
The Asklepian sanctuary, as large a site as Olympia or Delphi, holds considerable fascination, for the ruins are all of buildings with identifiable functions: hospitals for the sick, dwellings for the priest-physicians, and hotels and amusements for the fashionable visitors to the spa. The setting, a wooded valley thick with the scent of thyme and pine, is clearly that of a health farm.
The reasonably well-labelled site begins just past the museum, where there are remains of Greek baths and a huge gymnasium with scores of rooms leading off a great colonnaded court; in its centre the Romans built an odeion. To the southwest is the outline of the stadium used for the ancient games, while to the northeast, a small sanctuary of Egyptian gods suggests a strong influence on the medicine used at the site.
North of the stadium are the foundations of the Temple of Asklepios and beside it a rectangular building known as the Abaton or Kimitirion. Patients would sleep here to await a visitation from the healing god, commonly believed to assume the form of a serpent. The deep significance of the serpent at Epidaurus is elaborated in the circular Tholos, one of the best-preserved buildings on the site. Its inner foundation walls form a labyrinth, thought to have been used as a snakepit. Another theory is that the labyrinth was used as an initiation chamber for the priests of Asklepios, who underwent a symbolic death and rebirth, a common theme in ancient religion.
Snakes alive: healing in ancient Greece
Temples to Asklepios, god of medicine, were once found across ancient Greece, and his symbol, the staff and serpent, is still seen today on everything from ambulances to the logo of the World Health Organization. Although quite advanced surgical instruments have been found at Epidaurus, healing methods were far from conventional. Harmless snakes are believed to have been kept in the building and released at night to bestow a divinely curative forked-tongue lick. In other cases, snakes might have been used as a primitive kind of shock therapy for the mentally ill. The afflicted would have crawled in darkness through the maze-like Tholos guided by a crack of light towards the middle, where they would find themselves surrounded by writhing reptiles.