Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Messene's archaeological charms

The so-called city of statues continues to yield rich finds almost twodecades after professor Petros Themelis took up excavation and restorationwork on the site


MUCH less publicised than the touristy destinations of Delphi and Olympia, Ancient Messene is by no means a poor relative. An important Hellenistic centre - often referred to as "the city of statues" for having yielded a rich crop of marble sculptures - the Peloponnesian city, founded in 369BC when Epaminondas restored Messenians to their country, has turned out to be an inexhaustible treasury that continues to reveal its secrets.

The ancient city is situated at the foot of mount Ithome, where an 8th-7th century BC settlement had already existed prior to Messene's founding. The mountain's summit is crowned by the Monastery of Voulkano, a 16th-century convent which was built over the strategically placed sanctuary of Zeus Ithomatas, Messina's patron god. Nestled between the mountain and the ancient site is the well-watered village of Mavromatti, the base since 1987 of an archaeological team that, under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens and the supervision of Crete University professor Petros Themelis, has been conducting excavation and restoration works on the site.

In Pausanias' footsteps

"Pausanias is our main source," Themelis told the Athens News. The traveller and geographer who set foot in Messene in the middle of the 2nd century AD is known for his precise and detailed descriptions of the ancient cities of the Peloponnese, Attica and Boeotia. Nevertheless, there are a few inconsistencies which Themelis believes can be put down to the traveller's processing of his draft notes into a fully-fledged account of his impressions following the end of his wanderings. "Until recently we have been led to believe that the sanctuary of Messene [one of the principal deities of the city together with Zeus Ithomatas] was in the wider area of Asklepieion," said Themelis, "but now we have identified it in the Agora."

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