Olympia's Archaeological Museum shows off sculpture from the site's many temples. Olympia, Peloponnese, Greece.

Greek Conflict: Exploring Ruins and Ancient Wonders

The mountains and valleys of the Peloponnese nurtured some of the world's most important cultures. Here's a look at some of the ruins that help bring us their stories.
Glauke Fountain in Ancient Corinth.
Georgios Makkas
Ancient Corinth
A settlement that began to take shape as early as 5,000 b.c. flourished as one of the most important and wealthiest cities of classical Greece. Corinth was a major trading center with two ports -- Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth, a gateway to the Greek colonies in Italy, and Kenchreai on the Saronic Gulf, connecting Corinth with trading routes throughout the Middle East. Boats were hauled between the two ports on the Diolkos, a stone-paved ramp. Among the city
Acrocorinth in Ancient Corinth, Peloponnese, Greece.
Georgios Makkas
The acropolis of Corinth, standing sentinel some 540m (1,772 ft.) above the coastal plain, has been a lookout post, place of refuge, and shrine since the 5th century b.c. Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Turks all added to the ancient walls. These three rings of massive fortifications, pierced by gates, ramble across the craggy mountaintop -- a formidable deterrent to armies attempting to cross the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land separating mainland Greece from the Peloponnese. The ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite stand atop the highest reaches of the peak, and in ancient times the reward for the climb to these heights was the company of one of the temple
Old mosque at Nafplion, Peloponnese, Greece.
Yannis Lefakis
This lovely city is rooted not in antiquity but in the more recent past, graced by monuments built by the Franks, Venetians, and Turks. The surrounding Argolid Plain, however, is littered with ancient ruins. Nafplion is a convenient base from which to visit Tiryns, Argos, Mycenae, Ancient Nemea, and Epidaurus Tiryns. A jumble of massive stones -- some, known as Cyclopean, weighing as much as 15 tons -- were once part of the walls surrounding this Mycenaean hill fort.

Homer praised the city as
Building blocks at Tiryns, Peloponnese.
Yannis Lefakis
The short-lived Mycenaean civilization dominated much of the southern Mediterranean from around 1500 to 1100 b.c. Its greatest city is cradled on a bluff above the fertile Argolid Plain and surrounded by deep ravines between two barren craggy peaks -- a somber setting for this citadel-palace that Homer linked with power, riches, and tragedy. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, launched the Trojan War when the beautiful Helen, wife of his brother, Menelaus, was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris. Upon Agamemnon
Ruins of baths at Argos.
Yannis Lefakis
One of the most powerful cities of the ancient Peloponnese saw its heyday in the 7th century b.c., under the tyrant Phaedon, until it was eventually eclipsed by Sparta. The scant remains scattered around the modern market town include a theater that, with room for 20,000 spectators in 89 rows of seats, was one of the largest in the ancient world. The Romans re-engineered the arena so it could be used for mock naval battles and channeled the water into the adjacent baths.

A small Archaeological Museum shows off local finds; among them is a clay figure of a squat, heavy-thighed woman, unearthed at nearby Lerna and thought to be the earliest representation of the human body yet to be found in Europe. Two ancient citadels (free admission; daily 8am-6pm), the Aspis and the much higher Larissa, are perched on adjacent peaks above Argos, accessible via a circuitous road or a steep path.

Photo Caption: Ruins of baths at Argos.
Cistern at Mycenae.
Yannis Lefakis
Cistern at Mycenae.
Ruins of the Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea. Peloponnese, Greece.
Ancient Nemea
Gently folded into the foothills of the Arcadian Mountains and surrounded by the famous Nemean vineyards, this once-great city was famous throughout the ancient world for the Nemean Games held every two years. Like those at Delphi, Olympia, and Corinth, they attracted athletes from throughout the Greek world. Coins from every Greek city have been unearthed among the ruins and, along with athletic gear and other artifacts, are on display in a small museum. Legend has it that the games were founded to honor Hercules, who slew a ferocious lion lurking in a den outside Nemea, the first of the 12 labors he was assigned in penance for killing his own children. According to another myth, the games were founded to honor Opheltes, son of the Nemean king. The oracle at Delphi predicted health for the young prince if he remained off the ground until he could walk.

One day his nursemaid set him down in a bed of parsley while she showed soldiers marching toward Thebes the way to a spring, and in her absence a serpent strangled the boy. Judges at the games wore black in mourning, and the victor was crowned with a wreath of parsley. Nemea was also famous for its Temple to Zeus, surrounded by several remaining columns but mined extensively for a Christian basilica nearby. The 4th-century-b.c. stadium is still largely intact, and a vaulted tunnel leads from a locker room to a running track where ancient races were run and modern ones still are, under the auspices of the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games (www.nemeagames.gr). The tunnel is one of the great marvels of ancient engineering and sheds new light on the development of the arch. Once thought of as a Roman innovation, this arch present in a pre-Roman structure suggests that troops traveling with Alexander the Great during his India campaign in 326 b.c. may have introduced the architectural concept to the Mediterranean world.

Details: www.nemea.org. Admission includes stadium and museum, 7€. May-Oct Tues-Sun 8am-7pm, Nov-Apr Tues-Sun 8:30am-3pm.

Photo Caption: Ruins of the Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea. Peloponnese, Greece.
Epidaurus, most famous for its theater, was also a center of healing, where remedies included the flicker of serpents' tongues. Peloponnese, Greece
The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus was, with the Asklepion on Kos, one of the most famous healing centers in the Greek world. Asklepios, son of Apollo and god of medicine, was worshiped in the beautiful temple at Epidaurus (like much of the sanctuary, undergoing restoration) by cure-seekers who were housed in an enormous guesthouse, the Kategogeion. They were treated in the Abaton, where Asklepios came to them in their drug-induced dreams and dispensed advice on cures. The round Tholos appears to have housed the labyrinthine chambers for the healing serpents that could allegedly cure ailments with a flicker of the toungue over an afflicted body part.

Chillingly evocative of ancient medicine are the 2,500-year-old medical instruments on view in the small museum, but given the large number of votives and inscriptions of thanks offered by grateful patients, the pine-scented surroundings may have offered some relief. The magnificent theater at Epidaurus is one of the best preserved from the ancient world. Buried for close to 1,500 years, the 55 tiers of seats and the stage remain much as they were, and acoustics are so sharp that a stage whisper can be heard at the top of the house.

Details: www.odysseus.culture.gr; Admission 6€, includes theater, sanctuary, and museum. May-Oct daily 8am-7pm, Nov-Apr daily 8:30am-3pm.

Photo Caption: Epidaurus, most famous for its theater, was also a center of healing, where remedies included the flicker of serpents' tongues. Peloponnese, Greece
Historical city of Sparta, Greece.
Panagiotis Karapanagiotis
Travelers are likely to be disappointed if they visit Sparta in search of vestiges of the most powerful city-state in ancient Greece. Modern Sparta, laid out on orange-tree-shaded avenues along the River Eurotas, is animated and affable, but very little remains of the city that had the might to conquer Athens in the Peloponnesian War. The militaristic Spartans never created a monumental city. As Thucydides, the 5th-centuryb.c. Greek historian, prophetically observed: "If the city . . . were destroyed, and its temples and the foundations of its buildings left, remote posterity would greatly doubt whether their power were ever equal to their renown. Their city is not built continuously, and has no splendid temples or other edifices." A theater from the 2nd century b.c. and other scant remains of ancient Sparta are scattered about a park at the north end of town. Near the entrance stands a statue of Leonidas, the king who led 300 warriors in a heroic stand against the 250,000-man Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 b.c.

Adolescent boys from the elite warrior class were initiated into the Spartan ethic during rituals at the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, farther north along the river. They were whipped until the marble altar was splashed with their blood. Romans revived the practice as a spectator sport and built the 3rd-century amphitheater to accommodate travelers who came from throughout the empire to witness the spectacles (off Tripoli road; unattended; free admission). Spartans were as ambivalent about art as they were about architecture, and some bas-reliefs and a bust of Leonidas said to be from his tomb are among the relatively few works from ancient Sparta on view in the town's modest Archaeological Museum. More imposing are the Taygetos Mountains looming just to the west, snowcapped well into June; their presence impressed even the Spartans, who felt that the tall range set them far apart from the rest of the world.

Photo Caption: Historical city of Sparta, Greece.
Driving over the Langada Pass, Taygetos, Greece.
Langada Pass
This route through the Taygetos Mountains is one of the most scenic drives in Greece, climbing through stands of evergreens to the summit at 1,524m (5,000 ft.). The most dramatic segment begins about 20km (12 miles) west of Sparta, where the road clings to the cliffs of the Langada Gorge. From these heights, the Spartans threw babies deemed physically unable to become soldiers.

Photo Caption: Driving over the Langada Pass, Taygetos, Greece.
Ruins of Nestor's Palace, Peloponnese, Greece.
Nestor's Palace, Hora
Mycenaean King Nestor built his palace around 1400 b.c., and the two-story structure was destroyed about a hundred years later in a fire that was no doubt fueled by vast quantities of oils kept in large clay vases in a warren of storerooms. We know much about old King Nestor and the palace, known to the ancients as Pylos, from Homer. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, he portrays Nestor as a wise elder statesman given to telling longwinded stories to his many guests. Among these visitors was Telemachus, who came to the palace seeking news of the whereabouts of his father, Odysseus. Because of these ancient associations with hospitality and the extent of the well-preserved remains (parts of the walls still stand), the palace is more welcoming than the stony rubble of Mycenae or Tiryns.

The king conducted state business in a large throne room that surrounded a circular hearth and was decorated with colorful frescoes. His adjoining apartments include a bathroom still equipped with a terra cotta bathtub, including a step that the king, 110 years old in Homer's accounts, may have used to get in and out. An enormous wine cellar and golden drinking vessels have been unearthed at the palace, a legacy of the king's legendary hospitality, but the most important finds are 1,200 clay tablets inscribed with Linear B script, a form of early Greek. These are the only examples of Linear B to be found on the mainland, and the discovery links the mainland Mycenaeans with Minoan Crete, where Linear B was prevalent. Some of the tablets, as well as enticing palace frescoes, are in the Archaeological Museum in nearby Hora.

Details: www.culture.gr; Admission 3€ each for palace and museum. May-Oct daily 8am-7pm, Nov-Apr daily 8:30am-3pm.

Photo Caption: Ruins of Nestor's Palace, Peloponnese, Greece.
Ancient Messene, Peloponnese, Greece.
Ancient Messene
The most extensive fortifications in the Greek world ramble for 9km (5M miles) across the rolling foothills of Mount Ithomi amid olive groves and pine forests. The Thebans built the walls as a deterrent to their war-hungry neighbors, the Spartans, whom they had finally defeated in 369 b.c. after centuries of warfare. The walls are interspersed with four gates that are like miniature fortresses in themselves, 9m (30 ft.) high and punctuated with slits for launching arrows on the lower levels. The Arcadian Dipylon is a double gate, flanked by square towers and with portals leading into and out of an interior courtyard rutted with the wheels of chariots. A small village, Mavromati, has sprung up within the walls, and around it are scattered the ruins of a theater, a temple, a sanctuary of Asklepios, and a Synedrion, or meeting hall for town officials. From the site, a road ascends to the summit of Mount Ithomi, where a view across what seems to be all of southern Greece is enhanced by the ruins of a temple to Zeus and an abandoned medieval monastery.

Details: www.culture.gr; Free admission. Daily dawn-dusk.

Photo Caption: Ancient Messene, Peloponnese, Greece.
Corinthian columns first appeared on the Temple of Apollo Bassae, Arcadian mountains. Peloponnese, Greece.
Temple of Apollo at Bassae
One of the most beautiful and best-preserved temples in Greece is dedicated to Apollo Epikourios and stands in splendid isolation atop an Arcadian mountain. The word Epikourios means "helper" in Greek, and the nearby village of Phylagia commissioned the temple in 420 b.c. in thanks to Apollo for deliverance from an outbreak of the plague. It's been conjectured and contested that the architect of the temple was Iktinos, who designed the Parthenon in Athens; whether or not this is the case, the temple is remarkable for several elements, including the first use of Corinthian columns and a north-south orientation, a departure from the east-west orientation of most Greek temples and a concession to the steep slope.

Unfortunately, you will not be able to enjoy some of the temple's greatest visual splendors: a frieze depicting battles with the Amazons and the Lapiths and other works was long ago removed to the British Museum in London, and the temple is currently wrapped in a white tent as protection against the elements as restoration work drags on year after year. Even so, coming upon this glorious marble and limestone jewel box tucked away on its aerie is one of the great pleasures of traveling in the Peloponnese.

Details: www.culture.gr; Admission 3€. May-Oct daily 8am-7pm, Nov-Apr daily 8:30am-3pm.

Photo Caption: Corinthian columns first appeared on the Temple of Apollo Bassae, Arcadian mountains. Peloponnese, Greece.
Ruins in Olympia, Greece
Some of the most storied ancient ruins in the world, host to the famous games, are surrounded by rolling countryside carpeted with pine and hardwoods. Plan to spend the night in Olympia and explore the ruins by day. The Alpheios and Kladeos rivers rush past the remains of the sanctuary and city founded around the 10th century b.c. to honor Zeus and his older sister and wife, Hera. The Temple of Zeus once housed a statue of the god, sculpted by the great Phidias, sheathed in gold, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Temple of Hera was graced with Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus, the only work by the great sculptor Praxiteles to survive the centuries, now in Olympia's Archaeological Museum.

The superheroes who bring most visitors to Olympia are not gods but ancient athletes. Remnants of the city's games, inaugurated in 776 b.c., are copious; the stadium, gymnasium, training hall, and dormitories are scattered around the foot of the Kronion Hill. Legend tells us that Hercules, assigned 12 labors for slaying his children, rerouted the Alpheios to clean out the stables of King Augeas. Then he relaxed by mapping out the stadium with his toe and running the length without taking a breath (192m/ 630 ft.) to work off steam, and in so doing, established the city and the games. Athletes from throughout Greece were granted safe passage to the games under the Ekecheiria, a truce that promoted the notion of a united Greece. In their footsteps came spectators, touts, vendors, poetry reciters, entertainers, and prostitutes, and the 5-day festivities were both a forum where city-states could commingle peaceably and, in part, a wine-fueled bacchanal. The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity tells the story of the ancient contests; the Museum of the Olympic Games chronicles the modern games, resurrected in 1896; and the Museum of the History of the Excavations in Olympia documents the excavations, beginning with 1766, when British antiquarian Richard Chandler discovered the ruins.

Details: www.culture.gr; Admission 6€, combined ticket with Archaeological Museum 9€. May-Oct daily 8am-7pm, Nov-Apr daily 8:30am-5pm.

Photo Caption: Ruins in Olympia, Greece