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Ancient Nemea, (23-4-2016)
In the past, many years ago, I had been led as a pilgrim of the patrimonial heritage to the sacred land of ancient Nemea. Only that my companions and I failed to find the archaeological site open, due to an unexpected delay on the way there. What a disappointment! And what a frustration! To arrive right in front of the entrance and not be able to enter! To reach the site and not see and participate in a world that comes from the past and is present in its own way! And then É stood, as I recall, speechless with my greedy look staring afar, through the fence’s railings with a deep sorrow, at the three ancient columns of the Nemean Zeus temple, which remained still despite the times!
This time, with the beautiful weather of February which announces the advent of summer according to an old Hellenic saying, I arrived at Nemea, not with the old companions, but with my partner. At the ancient and the new one, for a different purpose of course. At the latter, to purchase the famous local wine that is called “Agiorgitiko”, known as “mavro” or “mavroudi” of Nemea, one of the finest and richest in colour Hellenic red grapes varieties, and at the first one, in order to take part by the ruins with the distant past of the land.
That is to say, we arrived there for two sacred reasons! And it’s a great thing going to one place have your two loves satisfied! That for the patrimonial inheritance and the other for the good wine, given as gift from the munificent Dionysus, which is considered of equal value heritage. At the first one we gave in passionately right on the spot! The other one, since we purchased it, we had enough time, always in moderation, to enjoy and to delight it!
Our first stop was at the archaeological museum, where evidences of human presence are exhibited, which can tell us about the different aspects of Nemea’s history in their own way, as unearthed by the excavations. All these have a unique characteristic, for Nemea, since it was not a city-state (polis-kratos), but a panhellenic religious and athletic centre, did not have permanent residents and therefore was politically controlled by the cities of Kleones and Argos. All, then, the portable findings displayed in the museum, come from elsewhere and specifically from the athletes and visitors who arrived at Nemea from different places in Greece.
Informative maps and models of the main archaeological site and the Stadium; coins from many places, like Korinthos, Sikyon, Argos, Athens, Aegina, Eleusis, Megara, Thebes, Tanagra, Opountioi Lokroi, Arkadian League, Chalkida, Lamia, Elis, Ermioni, Messina, Achaean, Macedonia, Sparta,…., some of them are enlarged in photographs so you can see their imprint; grave goods “kterismata”, agricultural tools, tables for sacrificial offerings, tribute items to gods “anathimata”, athletic equipment, such as discuses, dumbbells, javelin points, scrapers or “stlegides” which were used by athletes to clean their bodies from sweat, oil and dust at the end of the games, “skyphe”, meaning drinking cups, coins and votive reliefs of the Byzantine era,… and many more are exhibited in the museum, which make known to the visitor part of life that once existed at Nemea, and went through good and bad times, as it happens to the human race.
But beyond that, as we moved on to a different spot in the museum, a surprise was expecting us! The “treasure of Aidonia”! This treasure, consisting of two golden ring-seals, two golden rings and one made of amber, three signets made of agate, amethyst, and steatite, dress’s golden jewellery, golden beads and beads made from semiprecious stones, amber, majolica and glass paste, after being exploited by the illicit dealers of antiquities and wandered abroad, returned where it belongs. Indeed, this treasure constitutes proof, which takes us mentally to the distant Mycenaean era, and comes from the cemetery of Araethyrea, city, which Homer1 calls “eratini”, namely delightful, joyous, remarkable! This cemetery, in which there are twenty one Mycenaean graves, is situated above today's village named “Aidonia”, hence the treasure’s name, where most of them have been looted! Because some people’s passion for enrichment can not be stopped! Many others are left wondering and philosophizing about the disturbance of the deceased’s quietness, about the pillage of their grave gifts, even for the value of that good, which is called ancestral and invaluable heritage!
Well, having toured all around these and holding in our hands the thorough guide of the museum, Zeus’s sanctuary and the Stadium, as well as the guide book to the Hidden Entrance, we left the museum and proceeded to visit these places.
Zeus’ temple dominates the archaeological site. Here, he has the epithet Nemean, since he is not related to the thunderer and clouds-gatherer Olympian Zeus, but is god of shepherds and livestock farming, symbol of the valley’s identity as land not cultivable during that distant period, but suitable for pasture, namely for grazing.
The temple was built around 330 B.C. and the interest is that all three ancient architectural orders are distinguished on it! Specifically it has an exterior (peristyle) of the Doric order, an interior colonnade of the Corinthian order and on top of the architrave there was a second interior colonnade of the Ionic order. Today, of course, someone can get a partial idea of all these from the three columns that withstood through the years, and the others, which after the restoration give a sense of how the temple was. Naturally, in order to have a full perception of this idea you must let your imagination work! And, if you believe in the power of wishes, address some to Nemean Zeus or to any other god, for a miracle to occur and this restoration to be continued, which requires a strong will, and apparently, financial resources!
There are cypress trees south of the altar and the temple, which were planted in the holes of the Sacred Grove that existed 2000 years ago! More southerly, there was a row of «Embassies» of cities-states, which were used as places of accommodation for their citizens during the games. Almost adjacent, there were restaurants for their feeding. Also, a two-storeyed guesthouse (xenon) provided housing for the athletes and a bathroom assured their cleanliness. There were, also, isolated houses which provided accommodation for the priests, judges, supervisors and for all others who were needed to carry out the games. On the west side there were the hippodrome, a small exercising place for the athletes, one tank with three sections that ensured the water supply and the fenced monument of Opheltes, which existed even when Pausanias2 passed by there. Inside the archaeological site, during the early Christian period, a magnificent Basilica was built with the use of architectural parts from the ancient buildings, where today’s visitor can see only its remains.
Walking under the tender sun of February, around and over the ancient stones, accompanied by some daring lizards, little Opheltes came to my mind, the remains of whose shrine we saw. Unfortunate little Opheltes, who was even called “Archemoros”, that is the beginning of a bad destiny! His remembrance brought emotions and once we sat on a firm ancient stone, to take a short break, I started telling my partner about his sore story:
Once, they say, there was a king and priest of Zeus in Nemea, Lycurgus, who was longing with his wife, Eurydice, for becoming parents. Not only for having a child, but also, when the time would come, a crown prince for the throne. The time came and the couple cuddled a son, whom they named Opheltes. He was an only son and the king requested and received a Delphic oracle which advised him that the child should not touch the ground before he starts walking!
But the fates determined otherwise!
One day, as Hypsipyle, a servant-slave who was looking after little Opheltes, was taking him for a walk in the valley of Nemea, she came across with the Seven Generals, who had started out from Argos heading towards Thebes. They asked her for water and she led them to a spring called Adrasteia. There, she laid the child on a layer made of celery and cared for giving them water. But in a blink of an eye, a snake bit the child and he died!
The generals considered the death of the child as an ominous sign for their expedition – as it was proven, the interpretation was correct – and in order to placate the Gods they performed epitaph games, so the Nemean Games were established, during which the jury (Hellanodikes) was dressed in black outfits indicating their grief and was wearing crowns made of wild celery as symbol of victory!
Truly a sad story! But, life finds the way to change mourning into games and glory! Opheltes may have passed away while he was a baby, but his name was associated with the establishment of the games, which were taking place at Nemea and which in a way are revived by the contemporary inhabitants!
-Sad story indeed, repeated my partner, but very educational! But, time is passing, we must visit the Stadium too!
The Stadium is located on a hill southeast of the temple of Zeus. The moment we arrived there, the attendant showed us the way and we moved on. At a very short distance from the entrance, we reached the locker room, a simple orthogonal structure, some columns of which still exist, not in full height, though. Few meters away, next to the entrance of the Hidden Entrance, there was a sign listing the names, of all those who contributed to the maintenance and improvement of the site.
The architecture of this construction has the seal of the Macedonians’ presence in the region, for which, among others, Stephen G. Miller3 states: “May 3, 1978, the vaulted entrance tunnel to the stadium at Nemea was discovered along the west side of the running track. It could be dated securely to 320 B.C. or a little earlier, and was located at Nemea - one of the four panhellenic sanctuaries of antiquity - in whose games only Greeks might participate. The significance of the Nemea tunnel for the history of architecture and for the ethnicity of the ancient Macedonians could not be overstated.”
Another piece of evidence of the Hellenic origin of the Macedonians, which is recently disputed by some, but also a special monument, which in a way resembles the Hidden entrance of Olympia’s stadium, for which Pausanias4 mentions: “there exists the entrance which was called Hidden (Kripti) through which the Judges (Hellanodikes) and the athletes were entering the stadium…”
Stephen Miller,5 who is considered the soul of the site’s excavation, is telling vividly about the whole attempt and he writes at one point: “Rather more cheerful discoveries came in the form of dozens of graffiti scratched on the walls of the tunnel. On the north wall, just inside the eastern entrance, for example, is a partially preserved name: “TELESTAS” which is almost certainly to be identified with an Olympic victor in the boys’ age group in about 340 B.C. Above Telestas, someone in another hand scratched “NIKO” = I win! About 6 meters into the tunnel, and also on the north wall, someone wrote his admiration: “Akrotatos is cute (kalos). To this yet another person added his own opinion: “to the guy wrote it”. Thus, the tunnel provides us with yet another significant discovery which is not so surprising, but emphasizes the human continuity between the ancient Greek and us: people love to write their names on public property.”
Ourselves, being in the same place, didn’t engrave our name anywhere as a minimum stigma of our presence there! Besides, this vanity would not be allowed by our respect to the ancestors’ creations! However, what we did with great reverence, almost with awe, was to walk through the Hidden Entrance with a slow pace and be mentally transferred, as much as that was possible, to those days centuries ago when the Nemean Games were celebrated. At an instant, while in the middle of the tunnel, we even felt that, as if they were Drosoulites (moving shadows), the dressed-in-black jury would pass next to us, and the athletes with the naked, spread with oil bodies, ready for the good game and the fair judgement!
As we got out at the other side and walked on the small passage, which is the extension of the tunnel, we faced the Stadium, which was built around 330-320 B.C. on two natural ground cavities and was connected to the sanctuary of Nemean Zeus with the Sacred Street “Hiera Hodos”. After the statutory sacrifices on the temple’s altar, the procession of Judges and athletes walked through this passage.
Simple, bedded with soil, like when it was created, the stadium obtained its athletic identity again, since in the context of the Nemeads – this year, the sixth one will be held – athletic games are celebrated there every four years, in which not only Greeks participate, as it happened in antiquity, but citizens from all over the world. The ancient athletic ideal, as it is experienced in Nemea, far from any kind of commercialization and its consequences, fascinates its followers and brings them to the ancient stadium in order to take part in the games and, if they win, to be crowned with the wild celery wreath!
We, pilgrims of this land, standed looking at what our time has brought to light! Remains of another time, which are here and speak to us! If you exclude the timeworn Judges’ seats, what is left of the gutters or anything else time respected, this stadium looks like it preserves part of its original magic, since today’s spectators are sitted on the same slopes, breathe under the same verdant foothills and after all watch the games under the same sky!
Under the same sky! It, which no modern oppressor will ever manage to deprive from us! Because it, like the earth “doesn’t have handles for somebody to lift it on their shoulders”,6 like Makriyannis once said, and go away!
These words, the moment that our tour was about to end and while we were again passing through the Hidden Entrance and then by the locker room, filled my soul with emotion, or probably with sorrow, since the homeland's enemies, uncountable times, have come dressed as our “friends”, as Elytis7 once wrote! These words of the revolutionary fighter, and Elytis’ too, brought to the forefront the lyrics which Seferis was inspired by him in the poem “Salamis in Cyprus”:8
“The earth has no handles
for them to lift it on their shoulders and take it away.
They are not able, however thirsty,
to sweeten the salt sea with half a cup-full of water.
And those bodies of flesh and blood
formed and shaped from one soil of a land unknown to them
have souls within them.
Now they assemble tools to change these souls.
It will not be possible. They will only undo them,
if souls can be undone.
It does not take long for the corn to ripen
no time is needed
for the yeast of bitterness to rise,
no time is needed
for evil to raise its head,
and the sick mind drained empty,
no time is needed
for the filling of this with madness.
There is an island.”9