The Hellenic Festival, usually held in late spring each year, has featured the Epidavros Festival as an integral part of its program for the past forty years. The ancient Greek classics are recreated in the beautiful and acoustically stupendous well-preserved theatre located in the pine-clad hills not far from Nafplio. Guests are treated to an experience that rival the performances of the historic Greek actors.
However, it is not the 2,000-year-old theatre that earned Epidavros its UNESCO World Heritage listing, it is the world’s first hospital that is given this honour, though modern visitors often hear of the theatre before they learn of the healing centre’s age-old fame.
Long ago, word spread of the miraculous healing that transpired here and the sick came from as far away as Rome to seek a cure for their ailments. Asclepius, the god of medicine, was reputed to be the son of Apollo and Coronis. Legend has it that he was born at Epidavros. After the mother died while giving birth, Apollo took his son to Mt. Pelion to be instructed in the healing arts.
Eventually, Ascelpius was worshipped all over Greece, but his birthplace was considered one of the most important sanctuaries. Researchers believe that snake venom was used to cure illnesses, along with herbal medicines and careful diet restrictions. The site was the scene of massive constructions from the 7th century BC to the 6th century AD.
Alongside the buildings dedicated to honoring Ascelpius and his noble deeds, were Greek and Roman baths, an odium where festivals were held and a stadium for athletic competitions. There were buildings designed to house and feed the pilgrims and those in need of medical treatment. The healing centre was kept from prying eyes by tall columns separated by delicately carved screens.
Statues of Asclepius were usually carved with a coiled snake accompanying the healer. Many medical organizations use the symbol of a snake coiled around a rod or staff as part of their logos.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were of two minds as to whether or not we would make a day trip to Epidavros. We had seen so many ruins of Roman theatres during our ‘Circle the Mediterranean’ trip the previous year, and the thought of another huge theatre site, though it was Greek and not Roman, held little appeal. However, when we mentioned our reluctance to see Epidavros, the owner of our pension was aghast. He felt that Epidavros far exceeded Mycenae in importance and interest, and urged us not to miss it.
We had come to appreciate Yannis’ enthusiasm over the course of our two weeks at his hotel, so we took his advice and made the short trip by bus. We had passed through the parking lot of the site on our trip to and from Ermioni, and so the landscape held few surprises for us along the way. However, shortly before reaching Epidavros, we entered a small town and found the police had blocked all traffic from passing through.
At first, we thought there had been a major accident ahead, but as the bus inched forward when the vehicles ahead of us turned onto the narrow side streets, we could see that some form of protest was taking place in the middle of the road. Eventually, we were the only vehicle left heading east, and we could see another KTEL intercity bus approaching from the opposite direction. The side streets were simply too small for large buses to bypass the blockade.
We were finally close enough to see the protesters and realized they were young students, most probably from the local high school. They had prepared large banners proclaiming their concerns and were giving voice to their anger as well by shouting and chanting in unison. We weren’t able to read the signs or understand what they were saying, but eventually, I poked my head out of the bus door and asked a young man if he spoke English.
He smiled and explained in simple terms, no complete sentences, that the students were enraged at the government’s proposal to begin charging tuition fees for higher education. With the Greek economy in crisis, cuts in services and higher taxes are inevitable, but it will be difficult for students and parents to accept that free education may be a thing of the past. I later learned that most students must travel to Athens for post-secondary education and tuition fees on top of the high cost of living in the capital would be an extra burden for struggling families.
The driver of our bus was on his mobile phone speaking with someone, and suddenly he encouraged the five foreign passengers, the only ones remaining on the bus for the trip to Epidavros, to get down and catch a ride to the site with a waiting car. We followed his instructions but when the students saw us, it seemed that they agreed to move a little further along the road so that our bus could make a detour.
We waved to the protesters as we boarded the bus, and I gave them the thumbs-up sign. I felt some sympathy for them and knew that without a higher education, they would be seriously hampered from making a good life for themselves during the coming years. The good times are over for Greece and for several other countries in Europe; only time will tell how the Eurozone weathers the current economic crisis.
Within minutes we were dropped at the entrance to the historic site and were told that the bus would be back to pick us up at 3:45pm. That didn’t leave us a great deal of time to explore, especially as the gates were supposed to be open until 5:00pm during the winter months. As we approached the ticket booth, a sign showing the site’s hours had been amended to show a closing time of 3:00pm. Was this yet another form of protest by government workers?
We made straight for the Epidavros theatre and found it as well preserved as outlined in our guidebook. However, we were more impressed by the incredible acoustics; a coin dropped on the stone at the center point of the stage can be heard easily from even the highest seats. We had been chatting with an American English professor who was on the bus with us, and we each took turns reciting a few lines of poetry for the others to listen too from the top.
As expected, our interest in the theatre was short-lived, so Anil and I headed for the small museum and toured the very small collection of sculptures and other artifacts stored there. There were at least five staff members lolling around the entrance, but not one offered any information or showed any interest in our presence. Before long, we headed out to the historic site of the ‘world’s oldest hospital’.
The buildings of the ancient healing centre have been almost completely obliterated; only the bases and broken pieces of massive stone columns remain. Years of painstaking work have been done to understand the nature and purpose of each of the many buildings and reconstruction has begun on some of the more important structures. This has caused great controversy, as there are those who believe that ruins should remain ruins.
There are others who feel that partial reconstruction helps visitors to understand the ancient sites better and to visualize what the amazing buildings were once like. The archeologists working at Epidavros have taken great care to use a different coloured stone so that the old and the new are clearly differentiated.
I would have to say that I fall into the ‘partial reconstruction’ camp after visiting Epidavros. I came away with a new appreciation for this centre of early medicine, one that for me would have been difficult to comprehend without something more than a series of stones no more than ankle high.
We felt very rushed for time at the site and well before 3:00pm, the staff starting ushering the very few visitors towards the gate and out of the museum. It seems that closing time to them meant that they should be in their cars and driving towards the town rather than closing the gates and locking them. I had to wonder if this behaviour is demonstrated during the busy summer months as well.