The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings. If one could speak one would become melodious…. (Henry Miller)
Tucked away in a quiet valley in the northeastern Peloponnese, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Epidaurus is attributed by many as the cradle of modern medicine. Once the greatest place of healing in the ancient world, the sanctuary here was dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine. Pilgrims, many having travelled great distances, would make sacrifices at the altars and purify themselves before entering the Abaton – or incubation hall- where they awaited Asclepius to visit them in a dream and either cure them in their sleep or show them what treatments to follow. Dreams and visions were reported to the priests at the site, who, guided by Asclepius, would then prescribe medicines, diets, exercises and even surgery. Their use of herbs, cleaning rituals and surgical instruments marked the transition from belief in divine healing to scientific innovation.
Asclepius had many sanctuaries erected in his honour but Epidaurus is the most important -not only because of the great variety of treatments available here, but also due to the belief that this was his birthplace.
Accounts vary about his origins but the most common story is he is the son of Apollo and a mortal mother- Coronis.
Coronis had an affair with a mortal man named Ischys and was killed to avenge Apollo’s honour. The baby was snatched from the flames of the pyre – cut from Coronis’ womb – and so he was named Asclepius, meaning ‘to cut open’ in Ancient Greek.
He was raised by his father and educated by the tutor, Chiron the Centaur. From a young age, he showed interest in medicine and the art of healing.
He married Epitone, Goddess of Soothing Pain. They became parents to many children, including Hygieia, Goddess of Health, and Panacea, Goddess of Medicines.
After his death, he was recognised as the god of medicine, healing, rejuvenation and physicians.
To facilitate the cures, the site included a two storey dormitory with 160 rooms. parts of the building were cut off from the rest – allowing for isolation due to contagious diseases etc. There were several temples, including one dedicated to Artemis (his aunt!) and a circular Tholos which housed an underground maze.
Sacred dogs roamed freely through the healing temples – it was believed that their saliva had curative powers so pilgrims would allow them lick their wounds! Non- venomous snakes were also used in the healing ritual and they too had the freedom of the sanctuary – slithering around the dormitories as the patients slept and dreamt!!
The ancient Stadium hosted athletic games every four years in honour of Asclepius. When first constructed, in the 5th century BC, spectators had to stand but limestone seats were added in the late 4th century BC.
The BIG attraction in these here parts is the Theatre. Almost perfectly intact, the enormous half-moon limestone structure could accommodate 14,000 people. Apart from its symmetry, this marvel of ancient engineering is remarkable for its near-perfect acoustics – you can hear a pin drop from even the highest tier!
Hidden by trees and earth for centuries, the theatre was revealed during the first systematic excavation of the sanctuary in 1881. Nowadays, it hosts the Epidaurus Festival every summer.
The small Archaeological Museum was established in 1897 to store and exhibit the findings of the excavation. It houses parts of the sanctuary buildings as well as statues, medical tools, coins, etc.