Nestling amidst pines and other fragrant foliage in a secluded, woody gorge around 49 kilometres (30 miles) north of Athens near the coastal village of Kalamos in north-east Attica, we find the Sanctuary of Amphiaraus (Amphiaraos).
Amphiaraus was a Bronze Age King of Argos, a mortal with the ability to predict the future, who was transformed after death into a healing divinity. Although he is one of the lesser known ancient Greek gods, his powers as a healer and a seer made him popular enough to have twelve temples and sanctuaries dedicated to him around the country.
The Amphiareion may be quite small by comparison to other sites, but there is much to see and to fire the imagination here. Amongst the many ruins of the sanctuary dedicated to the cult are the remains of a small amphitheatre and a Doric temple. One of the most distinguishing features of Amphiareion not commonly found on other sanctuaries of the time is an intriguing ancient water clock (Klepsydra), believed to be the first of its kind – a reminder of the geometric and mathematical skills of ancient Greeks.
According to myth, Amphiaraus was not born in the normal way, but emerged from a spring, in the vicinity of Oropos near the present location of his temple. However, Homer also wrote that he was the son of Oicles, who was descended from the seer Melampus, and Hypermnestra, daughter of Thestius. There is another myth that Apollo, rather than Oicles, was his father.
The legendary Amphiaraus was renowned as one of the hunters of the notorious Calydonian Boar and a participant in the expedition with the Argonauts. He shared the throne of Argos with Iphus and Adrastus, who owned the immortal horse Arion, given to him by Herakles (Hercules).
Adrastus was planning to attack Thebes to help his sons-in-law, the princes Tydeus and Polynices, to reclaim their lands. However, with his prophetic powers, Amphiaraus foresaw that this would be a bad move since everyone but Adrastus would be killed in the battle.
So why did he go along with the plan against his own better judgement? Simply because his wife told him to do so! Amphiaraus had married Adrastus’s daughter Eriphyle, having promised to obey her word in all decisions. Eriphylle, the ultimate fashion victim of her time, accepted the offer of a necklace – not just any old necklace, but one that belonged to Aphrodite’s daughter Harmonia – from Polydices. In exchange, she agreed to persuade her husband to go to Thebes.
Despite Amphiaraus’s warnings, the seven Argive leaders and their armies laid siege to Thebes. During the battle, Amphiaraus killed Melanippus, one of the Theban leaders. At the same time, the goddess Athena was about to immortalise Tyndeus. Amphiaraus reckoned Tyndeus had been instrumental in arranging the ill-fated campaign and thus, didn’t deserve such status. So he cut off Melanippus’s head and made Tyndeus drink the brains; an act which made the squeamish goddess retreat, leaving Tyndeus to meet a mortal end.
By the end of the battle, only Adrastus and Amphiaraus were left alive. Adrastus, as prophesied, survived to tell the tale as his mythical horse, Arion, outran the enemy. Amphiaraus, fleeing on his chariot from the angry son of Poseidon, was awarded a godly place in the Underworld when Zeus himself stepped in to save him. Zeus threw a thunderbolt that opened the earth in front of him and closed it behind the falling chariot.
Legend says that when Amphiaraos was exiled from Thebes the earth opened and swallowed both him and his chariot.
The men of those days [the age of heroes], because of their righteousness and piety, were guests of the gods, eating at the same board; the good were openly honoured by the gods, and sinners were openly visited with their wrath. Nay, in those days men were changed to gods, who down to the present day have honours paid to them–Aristaios (Aristaeus), Britomartis of Krete (Crete), Herakles the son of Alkmena, Amphiaraos the son of Oikles, and besides these Polydeukes and Kastor [the Dioskouroi (Dioscuri)].
Worshipped from then on as a god at the sanctuary in Oropos among others, Amphiaraus was likened to the other healing gods, including Asklipios. He was even reputed to have been the father of Iaso, the healing god of recovery.
The Amphiareion was the most important of all the temples dedicated to Amphiaraus. It is on the border of Attica and Boeotia in the vicinity of a spring, which is said to be the one mentioned in the myth of Amphiaraos, on the banks of the ancient Charadra stream (now Mavrodilesi), which flowed into the sea at Delphinion, a small local port south of Oropos. Over two millennia ago, it was easier to travel by sea than by land, so most of the pilgrims would have arrived via the ports of nearby Delphinion and Oropos. The latter port, now a quiet seaside village, was a thriving maritime hub in ancient times due to its prime location opposite the city of Eretria in Euboea.
Some of the ruins on the site date back to the 6th century BC. Certainly, the sanctuary was extremely popular with Athenians, particularly during the plague in the late 5th century BC, when they came in search of a miracle cure. They would come along and leave votive offerings to the god, cleanse themselves in the ceremonial baths, then sleep on the skin of a sacrified lamb awaiting visions with medical advice from the god.
I think that Amphiaraos most of all dedicated himself to interpreting dreams: it is clear that, when he was considered a god, he set up an oracle of dreams. And the first thing is to purify oneself, when someone comes to consult Amphiaraos, and the purification ritual is to sacrifice to the god, and people sacrifice to him and to all those whose names are on (the altar), and – when these things are finished – they sacrifice a ram and spread out its skin under themselves, lie down waiting for the revelation of a dream.
The temple was built in an unusual six-columned Doric style during the Classical period in the 4th century BC, when the worship of Amphiaraus was most prominent. It contained a massive white marble statue of the god. Also unusual was a small room at the back of the temple, which must have been a special cult chamber or a treasury. A little later the same century, the stoa appeared. Its thick walls were inset with stone benches; possibly where the in-patients reclined, hopeful of the god’s healing touch.
The theatre, with its massive marble front seats for the priests and nobility, was added in the 2nd century BC.
As well as the ritual healing and annual festivities, the athletic event known as the Greater Amphiareian Games took place here every five years. Two late 5th-early 4th century BC reliefs offer an inscribed list of victors up to 338 BC as the earliest evidence of these games. To meet the needs of guests, the sanctuary had a long curved bench facing the sacrificial altar outside the temple, allowing spectators to enjoy the rituals. There were also two bathing pools at opposite ends of the site next to the stream. Across the ravine, were rooms and stoas separated by narrow walkways.
On the slope leading down from the accommodations is the Klepsydra, which literally means the ‘water thief.’ This is a stone water clock of great importance in the study of ancient methods of timekeeping because it is an example of an inflow water clock. This proves that the ancient Greeks had worked out that an inflow clock, which measures time by the filling of a known volume from a constant rate of inflow, is much more accurate than an outflow water clock in measuring graded levels between full and empty. This clepsydra had a central, square reservoir with a steep stairway on the south side to allow access to a round bronze plug at the bottom.
After Rome took control of Greece in 146 BC, many well-known Romans, such as the general Marcus Agrippa, Sulla, Brutus and Pausanias were frequent visitors to the Amphiareion. Some archaeological evidence of their presence remains in the inscriptions on seating and on the bases of votive offerings and statues. One of the most notable is an inscription dated 42 BC which honours Brutus’s assassination of Caesar as a Tyrannicide.
The Site Today
The ruins of the sanctuary provide a stunning display on both sides of the leafy ravine. Dominating the site is the ancient theatre. Around the front of the stage we will see five individual marble seats, with sculpted decoration and epigraphs, which were used by the temple priests.
Leading to the theatre we find the columns of the long stoa, and the dormitory (Enkoimiterion) where patients stayed awaiting their cure. Keep a close eye out for famous, or infamous names inscribed on the stonework throughout the sanctuary.
Outside the temple are the remains of the huge altar, which was divided into sections with inscriptions to a number of gods and heroes. On a low stone slab in the middle of the temple just one enormous arm of the white marble cult statue of Amphiaraus remains. From this we can picture the size of the original complete statue.
It is possible to stroll among the buildings of the small settlement where the visitors to the Games and other events would stay. Close to these we can admire the simple, yet effective mechanism of the Klepsydra, and the water channels that linked the baths to the natural waterways.
Following our visit to the sanctuary, there are several good local restaurants, both in the local villages of Kalamos, and on the seafront at Kalamos or Oropos to the north. The trip can also be combined with a visit to Rhamnous, which lies around 18 kilometres on the coast to the south-east, and Marathon a little further south.
Entrance cost Full: €2, Concessions: €1
Opening days/times: Mon-Sun 08:00-15:00. Closed on most public holidays.
Tel.: +30 22950 62144, 210-32.13.122, 32.40.563
Other: Small parking bay on road opposite entrance.
Free admission on certain days:
6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
18 April (International Monuments Day)
18 May (International Museums Day)
The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
First Sunday each month from November 1st to March 31st