Greece is home to many archaeological sites and monuments and their distinctive prestige and charm reflects the various periods that have combined, through history, to produce such a rich culture.
For the modern day visitor, these landmarks offer a superb opportunity to journey through this exceptional mosaic of culture and history that have left an indelible mark on every region of the country.
The importance of many of Greece’s monuments – not only for the nation but for the world – has been recognised by UNESCO, which has listed many of the country’s archaeological sites and cultural areas as Monuments of Cultural Heritage.
Probably the best known of Greece’s monuments is The Acropolis of Athens, a breathtaking example of ancient Greek architecture that stands in harmony with its natural setting. Evidence shows that the site was inhabited from a very early period (4000 – 3000 B.C.), but its golden era was in the fifth century B.C. when Athens was at its peak. The finest sanctuary of ancient Greece, The Acropolis was dedicated primarily to the goddess Athena.
Naturally the Gods provided the inspiration for many ancient monuments, and western Peloponnese is the archaeological site of Olympia, the most celebrated sanctuary of ancient Greece. Dedicated to Zeus, the father of the gods, it sprawls over the southwest foot of Mount Kronios, where the Alpheios and the Kladeos rivers meet, and is embedded in lush, green surrounding countryside.
In central Greece, near Delphi, at the foot of Mount Parnassos, sits the archaeological site of the Pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Delphi, which had the most famous oracle of ancient Greece and was at one time regarded as being the centre of the world. Among the Gods worshipped here were Apollo, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes and Dionysus.
The city of Thessaloniki has a wealth of early Christian and Byzantine cultural landmarks, including the Basilica of Hagia Sophia (featuring fine examples of Byzantine artwork) and the Church of St George (also known as The Rotunda). The hill-top acropolis also provides a spectacular view of the city.
The small coastal town of Epidaurus in the eastern Peloponnese, with its mild climate and abundant mineral springs, is home to the sanctuary of the god-physician Asklepios, and was renowned as the most famous healing centre of the Greek and Roman worlds. The site is still renowned today, not only for the magical qualities of it’s waters, but for its amphitheatre that still stands proudly 2,500 years after it was built and still hosts plays.
The archaeological sites of Mycenae and Tiryns (in the Peloponnese peninsular) are the remains of the two greatest cities of the Mycenaean civilization and are irrevocably linked to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Myceneans dominated the eastern Mediterranean world from the 15th to the 12th century B.C. and played a vital role in the development of classical Greek culture.
Another Peloponnesse based monument is the temple of Apollo Epikourios, one of the most important and most imposing temples of antiquity. Standing in the bare and rocky landscape of Bassae, the building is dated to 420-400 B.C. and combines a variety of novel ideas both in its external appearance and in its internal arrangements.
In the north, Vergina, in the Pierian mountains, is home to Aigai, the capital of the kingdom of Lower Macedonia. Archaeological evidence indicates this site was continuously inhabited from the Early Bronze Age and the unearthing of royal tombs in 1977 has made this a popular archaeological site to visit in recent years.
Medieval remains and stunning landscape typify Mystras, the ‘wonder of the Morea’, which is near Sparta. Mystras was built as an amphitheatre around the fortress erected in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William of Villehardouin. Reconquered by the Byzantines, then occupied by the Turks and the Venetians, the city was finally abandoned in 1832.
Away from the mainland, the Greek islands also have culturally important sites to explore. Perhaps the best known (because it exists side by side with popular tourist resorts) is the Medieval Town of Rhodes. Despite the name, it is actually populated by 6000 people who live everyday lives amongst the medieval buildings, mosques, traditional fountains, oriental motifs and Byzantine and Gothic era churches that constitute the area.
The small Aegean island of Samos has a rich history and has been inhabited by many civilisations since the 3rd millennium B.C. Here, you can find the ruins of Pythagoreion, an ancient fortified port with Greek and Roman monuments and a spectacular tunnel-aqueduct, as well as the Heraion, temple of the Samian Hera.
Although many monuments are testament to Greece’s ancient past, there are numerous ‘living’ monuments that reflect the importance of the Greek Orthodox religion to the nation’s cultural heritage. The monastic tradition is strong in Greece and has provided the country with distinctive traditions and of course distinct buildings to house these traditions and the monks who maintain them.
The largest monastic community in Greece is located on Aghio Oros (Mount Athos), and is also known as the Garden of Panaghía (Virgin Mary). The first monks settled there during the 5th century, although the first monastic community wasn’t formed until the 10th century.
Aghio Oros is actually an autonomous administrative region within the Greek State. All twenty Athos monasteries lead a communal way of life, overseen by abbots, who are elected by the monks of each institution, and retain the title for life. Common mass, prayers, accommodation, meals and work are adopted by all monks, and the monasteries on Mount Athos are governed by the ávaton rule, which means women are forbidden from entering.
The second largest, and most important, monastery complex in Greece is Metéora. The first hermits settled here during the 11th century, though its oldest monasteries date from the 14th century. Of the 24 original monasteries there are only six in use today; the monasteries of Metamórphosis (Transfiguration), Varlaám, Ag. Nikólaos Anapafsás and Aghía Triada (Holy Trinity) are for monks, while the monasteries of Roussano and Aghios Stéfanos are for nuns. The monasteries of Metéora are UNESCO designated monuments of cultural heritage.
Other important monastic monuments are the Monastery of Daphní in Attica (11th century), Ossios Lucas in Fokida (11th century) and Nea Moní (New Monastery) on the island of Chios (11th century).