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Day Trip Three: Ancient Ithome/Messene

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsDay Trip Three: Ancient Ithome/Messene

Those people with a car will be able to visit the village of Mavromati, below which spread the ruins of Ancient Messene, quite easily in the space of a day. Bus travelers, however, may well choose to stay overnight in this delightful and peaceful spot; otherwise, it is possible to hire a taxi for the return journey to Kalamata, 30km away. (It is always a good idea to make such arrangements for accommodation and private transport before setting out from Kalamata.)

Ancient Messene

Note that Ancient Messene is not to be confused with modern Messini, a rather dull market-town separated from its namesake by a distance of 20km. Sign-posts are often confusing: look out for signs to both Ancient Messene and Ancient Ithome, which are one and the same place. The confusion arises because of the name of the mountain, a natural fortress that protected the ancient settlement, which was re-named Messene, after the first queen of the region. In the very misty past, Mount Ithome was home to the cult and the statue of Zeus Ithomatos, the Zeus of Ithome. Intrepid spirits who are also fit in body will doubtless want to climb up to the summit, Zeus’s home, where the old Voulcano Monastery is also to be found: the “new” one is lower down the mountain. (I have never done this, I regret to say, but am told the views across mountains and valleys are simply stupendous.)

Ancient Messene, Amphitheater

Patient readers of these pages will have discerned some time ago that they are in the presence of a history freak, a strictly limited and amateur one, mind you. Of course, Greece is a paradise for such people: all those layers to be sifted. In most places, it is almost impossible to walk far without stumbling over something ancient, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval and so on.  To recap: there were four Messenian wars, not counting the periodic and futile rebellions that the Messenians engaged in against Sparta. The fourth, the Ithome War, (464-456BC) culminated in the defeated Messenians’ being expelled and forced to take up residence in Nafpaktos, on the Gulf of Corinth, near where modern Antirio now stands. In 399 BC, the hapless exiles were expelled from Nafpaktos and Cephalonia as well, and so wandered on to Sicily.

But in 371 BC, the great Theban general Epameinondas defeated the Spartans in the Battle of Mantineia: it was his post-war strategy to build two large settlements in order to restrict Spartan movement henceforth. One of these towns was Megalopolis, through which travelers pass on the way south. (It is worth a detour off the main road in order to find and wonder at the ancient theater and settlement.) The other was Messene. (Those who controlled the two cities of Acro-Corinth and Messene controlled the Peloponnese.) And so the long-suffering population, after generations of their number had lived their lives in foreign parts, was able to come home.

The walls that Epameinondas ordered built (c. 369 BC) were so strong that they protected the settlement for seven centuries: Messene had been in decline for some time before the AD 395 invasion of the Peloponnese by the Goths sealed its fate. These walls formed a circuit 9km long, and parts are still in excellent repair: even where they are not, some towers still stand, rearing up over the landscape. Before descending into the valley-plain to investigate the ancient ruins, drive or walk through Mavromati, and find the best-preserved part of the wall, the Arkadia Gate, which is about 1km from the modern village. As with the ruins of the town, excavation is still going on, and Roman ruins have been discovered on the other side of the very impressive structure. Note the sarcophagi near the gate.

The gate really consists of two, separated by a round courtyard, in the walls of which statues of guardian divinities sat in the niches that are still to be seen. At the side of the gate that the visitor sees first, there is a toppled lintel that leans against the gateway. Legend has it that an old woman was carrying the lintel on her back, but could do so no longer and so set it here. Beneath the lintel and the wall there are what appear to be the marks of chariot wheels and the imprint of a horse’s hoof in the stone worn smooth by time. Pass through the gate and walk a little farther in order to see clear views of other ramparts and towers.

After visiting the wall, turn back towards Mavromati: the site museum is on the corner of the road that leads down to the ancient settlement. I first came to the site more than 30 years ago, when the then road, farther towards the village, was for pedestrians only; along the side of the track one could see that enterprising peasants had made use of bits of ancient marble column, placing them judiciously among the blackberry bushes in order to construct a rough kind of fence for their small properties. In Mavromati itself, a spring gushes out of a wall of rock in the tiny plateia, very probably the same source for the water that played in the ancient Klepsydra Fountain. Thirty years ago, this spring water found its way down to the channels that still surround the main part of the settlement, the Asklepieion.

Gillian Bouras, Ancient Messene

Like so many Greek sites, this one is very picturesque. Take in the views from Mavromati itself, where the houses rise in tiers up the mountainside. The ancient settlement lies in a virtual basin, with more mountains surrounding it. On the site side of the one and only road into Mavromati there is a large taverna, where one can sit outside, eat traditional Greek food, and goggle and boggle at the view: there is no better way, apart from an airplane flight, to absorb the extent of the settlement, which is growing steadily as excavations continue.

Way back then, at the time of my first visit, the excavations had revealed less than half of the area now uncovered. The story of the excavations is an interesting one in itself. Intrepid and indefatigable traveler-writer Pausanius visited the city between AD 155 and 160, about 530 years after its foundation, and three centuries after the Romans conquered Greece; that’s quite a long time ago, but his travel diary remains a valuable source of information. (Look for the Penguin publication of Pausanius’s travels, edited and richly annotated by the late and much-lamented Oxford academic Peter Levi.)

The site attracted adventurous travelers of the 19th century, such as the English Leake and the French Blouet, but it was not until 1895 that excavations were started under the leadership of the Greek archaeologist Themistokles Sophoulis. Other famous names are those of George Oikonomos, Swedish N. Valmin, and Anastasios Orlandos: the latter worked on the site from 1957 until 1974. From 1986 until today, the work has continued, and at an increasing rate, under the leadership of Professor Petros Themelis. European money has been poured into the enterprise, and the result has been that the buildings, both sacred and public, mentioned by Pausanius, are now there for all the world to see: by great good luck, no other settlement was built on the site of Ancient Messene, so the buildings simply sat, waiting, under protective layers of earth. Money has also been used to build protective roofs over vulnerable areas such as the Sanctuary of Artemis, which is to the west of the Asklepieion, the central part of the first stage of excavation.

Visitors get their bearings at Ancient Messene

After a gap of some years, I revisited the site fairly recently, and was awe-struck by the magnificent gymnasium, a new discovery since my previous visit. It is said that comparisons are odious, but many people will inevitably compare Ancient Messene with Ancient Olympia. However, Vassilis Zambaras, a native of the nearby Meligalas area, points out that the two places are not really similar. Ancient Olympia was a sacred site set apart for a specific purpose: Ancient Messene was a living, bustling metropolis, inhabited all day every day by a population going about its business. Meeting-places, decorative features such as fountains, places of worship, areas for honoring the dead, facilities for the arts and sports, are all still there.

The site is now very well equipped with explanatory diagrams and information displayed near each important building, but there is so much to see and absorb that the involved visitor might consider buying a guide book before actually exploring the site. Look for Ancient Messene, which is published by the Greek Ministry of Culture and written by Professor Themelis. This work can be, on occasion, slightly too technical for the general reader, but the translation and writing are clear, there is a wealth of information, and many fine photographs are included in the text.

The museum and its collection here have had a very checkered history. The building was begun as early as 1968 with a modest number of finds (about 300) from the site. But for various reasons the original museum never opened its doors to the public. The present building, now deemed inadequate for even a small number of the 10,000 finds discovered over the past 20 years, was finally opened to the public in March 2000. But the decision had already been made to build a much larger and more appropriate building on another site. When that will happen is, of course, in the lap of the gods.

In the meantime, the part of the collection that is on display, designed to be representative of the collection as a whole, is well worth a look. For people such as your writer, who tend to suffer from a degree of what can only be termed museum fatigue, the three rooms of statues, figurines and reliefs are very manageable. One room contains a model of Ancient Messene’s Asklepieion as it would have been in its heyday, and is a welcome aid to those people who find leaps of the imagination rather hard to accomplish. This room also contains some of the work of Damophon, who was the most famous sculptor of the mature Hellenistic period in southern Greece: see, for example, his Head of Apollo, and the foot of the colossal statue, Fortune. Pausanius was very taken with Damophon’s work, and recorded for posterity the fascinating fact that he was asked by the Eleians to repair Pheidias’s gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Stadium, Ancient Messene

Of other works, the robed statues, with the flow and folds of material almost seeming real, are very attractive, while the group of a lion and deer above a frieze of running animals exudes a raw power that is both appealing and disturbing. I am also fond of the Hermes and the statue of Artemis Laphria. Also on display are lamps from Corinthian workshops, and from Messene itself: the latter date from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. In the atrium and on the verandah of the building are statue bases, grave stelae, and a rare stone stele that bears ancient musical notation. (For current information, Tel: 27240 51201.)

Water-rich Messenia

© Gillian Bouras, 2009.

Photos © Elizabeth Boleman-Herring.