As our trip neared its end, we made last two stops as a full tour group at Epidaurus & Mycenae. I’ll break these up into two posts, since I went a little over board on the history of Epidaurus (but it’s interesting, I promise).
On our way to our first stop in Epidaurus, we picked up our tour guide, Sofia, and she began to tell us about the surroundings as we made our way to the ancient site. One story she told us was about how Hercules’ 11th labor was to retrieve the golden apple of the Hesperides (a group of nymphs), which is said to have taken place in the valley we were driving through. And the “golden apple”? That is an orange. Today, as well as for many, many years, the area surrounding Nafplio are covered in orange groves, since this part of the country has the best weather to grow them. So, as we drove through the thousands of orange trees, Sophia regaled us with stories of ancient times and how they are relevant today until we pulled up to Epidaurus.
Epidaurus was a small city-commune built in 800 BC under the command of Asklepios (aka Asclepius, but I’ll go with the Greek spelling). He wanted to create a place where people who were having physical or mental ailments could come and be treated; in a sense, this was the first sanatorium/hospital. Epidaurus based his therapy on providing serenity, and so he created the largest sanctuary in all of Greece.
Statue of Askelpios in the Epidaurus museum
Asklepios was said to be Apollo’s son, and therefore was looked at to be a demi-god, but in actuality, he was just a very smart and talented therapist who had a genuine desire to help those in need. He was the first person to have ever attempted operating on cancer (mastectomies) and also was actively working to cure prostrate cancer. Before this, there is no written (or spoken) history of anyone understanding what cancer is or attempting to solve the problem in any medical way. At this sanatorium/hospital, there were many neurosurgeons (remember – this is BC times!!!!), and Epidaurus is where aneurysms were first diagnosed. The therapists also would prescribe aspirin (!) and actively created new medicines to help with ailments. The reason that the snake is part of the symbol for medicine is because Asklepios used snake venom to create the first painkillers. Besides surgery and pharmaceuticals, Asklepios also had baths built. These are not Roman baths, as they were used for hydrotherapy and water therapy.
The presumed highlight of Epidaurus is their pristine amphitheater, but I thought all of the history of medicine we learned about was insane. They showed us tools that the surgeons would use, and how they had numbing creams, and were able to recognize cancer, and it is crazy to me how much medicine has changed as well as how much of it has remained the same. I N S A N E. Anyway, it would not be a blog post about Epidaurus if I did not talk about the amphitheater so, here it goes:
The amphitheater was built in this medical commune because the Greeks believed that to be completely healthy, you had to be physically healthy (so there was a stadium), spiritually healthy (so there were temples), and mentally healthy (so there was an amphitheater and music hall to provide entertainment). The amphitheater was built in 400 BC and was used every four years as part of a mini Olympic-type games they would hold in Epidaurus. In order to break up the games, there were plays that would hold the attention of those less interested in running and more interested in ~intelligent things~.
Mom in front of the amphitheater
What makes the amphitheater so impressive is that it was buried during an earthquake by dirt, making it completely held in time while it was under the ground. When archeologists came to begin their dig (1881), they found a pristine, 15,000-seat amphitheater that is still almost entirely in tact.
It was very impressive to see something so old be completely built up and not in ruins, but honestly, UNESCO should play up the medicine angle rather than the amphitheater angle. What made this trip even more special is that, as I look now on the Internet, there is no one place that talks about how important this site was/is to modern medicine.
We were very lucky to have Sophia as our guide, since she knew everything there was to know about this site and answered all of our questions about both medicine and theater. However, we couldn’t stay long because we had to head out to Mycenae: one of the oldest historical sites in Greece!