Epidaurus – Sanctuary of Asclepius

Epidaurus is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern medicine. It began as a sanctuary dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius. People, who suffered from illnesses, travelled long distances to be blessed by the deity. Over the years, the holy men at the site began using herbs, cleansing rituals, and other techniques that transformed the treatment from the divine to scientific. The knowledge developed here became the basis for future medical innovations.

For travellers curious about the roots of European culture, a visit here—with its hospitals and temples—provides insight into an early approach to medicine and a fascinating view into the healing cults of Ancient Greece and Rome. As well, the main buildings are excellent examples of the architecture of the era and the theatre, in particular, is considered a masterpiece.

Epidaurus, with its mild climate and abundant mineral springs, is the sanctuary of the god-physician Asklepios, the most famous healing center of the Greek and Roman world. The sanctuary belonged to the small coastal town of Epidaurus, but its fame and recognition quickly spread beyond the limits of the Argolid. It is considered the birthplace of medicine and is thought to have had more than two hundred dependent spas in the eastern Mediterranean. Its monuments, true masterpieces of ancient Greek art, are a precious testimony to the practice of medicine in antiquity. Indeed they illustrate the development of medicine from the time when healing depended solely on the god until the systematic description of cases and the gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience turned it into a science.

The area was devoted to the cult of healing deities since Prehistory. A Mycenaean sanctuary dedicated to a healing goddess stands on the Kynortion hill, northeast of the theatre. It was founded in the sixteenth century BC over the remains of a settlement of the Early and Middle Bronze Age (2800-1800 BC) and functioned until the eleventh century BC. Unlike other sanctuaries of this period, it is unusually large. This early sanctuary was replaced in c. 800 BC by another, dedicated to Apollo, a god with healing abilities, worshipped here as Apollo Maleatas. The worship of Asklepios, the sanctuary’s main healing god, traditionally considered as the indigenous son of Apollo and Koronis, granddaughter of Malos, king of Epidaurus, was established in the sixth century BC. Asklepios, the protector of human health and personal happiness, was a very popular deity with an ever-increasing number of worshippers. The sanctuary at Kynortion was quickly overwhelmed by a great number of visitors, so a new sanctuary was founded in the plain, approximately one kilometer northwest of Kynortion Hill, on the site where, according to the myth, Asklepios was born. The two sanctuaries, one dedicated to Apollo Maleatas and the other to Asklepios, were subsequently known under the common name of ‘Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios’.

The new sanctuary developed around the Sacred Well, which was later incorporated into the portico of the Abaton, and in the area of Building E, where the first ash altar and the site of ritual feasting were located. The well played an important role in the healing process, which included cleansing and enkoimesis, or hypnosis, of the patients near its waters. The enkoimesis emulated the periodical death and rebirth of divine powers after they returned to the earth – the source of life. The god appeared to a patient during his enkoimesis, which corresponded to periodic death, advising him on the treatment he should follow.

Continuous warfare and misery in the fourth and third centuries BC led people to seek even more protection and help from Asklepios, the philanthropist god, making the sanctuary one of the richest of its time. Several important buildings were erected in both the mountain and plain sanctuaries during this period: the Classical temple, the altar of Apollo, the Great Stoa, the priests’ residence and the Temenos of the Muses in the former; the temple of Asklepios, the Abaton, the Tholos, the theatre, the stadium, the Banqueting Hall and the hostel in the latter. The Asklepion suffered from the raids of Sulla and of Cilician pirates in the first century BC, but flourished again in Imperial times and particularly in the second half of the second century AD, when the Roman consul Antonine financed the refurbishment of old buildings and the construction of new ones. Pausanias visited the sanctuary and admired its monuments, which he described in detail (2, 26), during this period. In the following centuries, the sanctuary was razed several times and suffered particularly under the Goths in 267 AD. In the mid-fourth century BC, the plain sanctuary was refurbished one last time and a portico connecting many of the existing buildings was constructed at its center according to Roman fashion. Despite the 426 AD official ban on ancient pagan religions, worship continued in the sanctuary until it was abandoned following the destructive earthquakes of 522 and 551 AD.

The Asklepion of Epidaurus was first investigated by the French Scientific Expedition of the Peloponnese in 1829. P. Kavvadias of the Greek Archaeological Society excavated the site in 1870-1926, uncovering the sanctuary’s most important monuments. Limited excavations were conducted by G. Roux of the French School at Athens in the area of the Abaton and in Buildings E and H in 1942-43, and by I. Papadimitriou of the Greek Archaeological Service in 1948-1951. A. Orlandos undertook the restoration of the theatre in 1954-1963. New excavations by the Archaeological Society are in progress at the sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas under Professor V. Lambrinoudakis since 1974, while a special committee of the Ministry of Culture was founded in 1984 under the name of Work Group for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus (currently Committee for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus) oversees the conservation and presentation of the monuments in both sanctuaries. Recent work at the Asklepieion has both radically altered the aspect of the archaeological site and provided new evidence for the spatial organization, chronology, and use of several buildings.

2800 B.C. – 1600 B.C.
1600 B.C. – 1100 B.C.
9th c. B.C. – 6th c. B.C.

6th c. B.C. – 2th c. A.D.
2th c. A.D. – 6th c. A.D

The Asklepieion at Epidaurus comprises two sanctuaries dedicated to two healing gods: the earlier sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas on Mt. Kynortion and the later sanctuary of Asklepios in the plain, where the famous healing rituals took place.

The sanctuary in the plain is the largest and better known of the two. The entrance to the modern archaeological site is located on its southwest side, but the sanctuary was originally accessed from the north through the Propylaia, a monumental Doric gate of the third century BC. A sacred road beginning in the coastal town of Epidaurus passed through this gate and led to the Doric temple of Asklepios, of which only the foundations are now visible at the center of the sanctuary. Several buildings related to the cult of Asklepios and the healing rituals surrounded the temple: the Abaton, where the patients’ enkoimisis, or hypnosis, took place, the Tholos or Thymeli, a circular peristyle building, which housed the mystical chtonic cult of Asklepios, and the Banqueting Hall where the patients dined. Buildings for the needs of the patients and worshippers, and others used during the Asklepian Games, which were established in the fourth century BC, surrounded the sanctuary. These included a large hostel of 160 rooms for the patients and their aids, baths, a palaestra, a gymnasium, an odeon, a stadium and the most perfect example of Greek theatre, remarkably adapted to the landscape, beautifully proportioned and with perfect acoustics. The remains of several small temples dedicated to Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and to other deities related to the cult of Asklepios, such as Hygeia, Machaon, and Telesphoros, Hypnos, and Epione, are also preserved. A complicated hydraulics system consisting of channels and settling basins, of which parts are still visible today, brought water from the mineral springs of Kynortion to two distribution points in the northeast part of the sanctuary, the Doric Spring and the Sacred Spring.

In the northeast part of the sanctuary one can see mostly remains of the second-century occupation phase, which includes the library, baths, small temples, and the so-called Stoa of Kosmos, recently identified with the Sanctuary of the Egyptians, dedicated to Asklepios, Apollo, and Hygeia (as Osiris, Horus, and Isis respectively). Also visible are the remains of the fourth century AD portico, which incorporated parts of earlier buildings, mainly the Katagogion.

The smaller mountainous sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas was continuously occupied from the Early Helladic period (apsidal building) to Roman times. The three terraces of the Mycenaean temenos with their open-air ash altar and area for ritual feasting are still visible. Parts of the tufa foundations of the temple of Apollo erected in 380 BC over the ninth century BC ash altar and of the small Archaic temple of the seventh century BC are preserved on the lower terrace. A monumental tetrastyle altar was built in the Classical period east of the temenos. In the fourth to third centuries BC, during the sanctuary’s most important construction period, a terrace wall was raised along the sanctuary’s northern limits. This wall was lined by a portico facing south. An extremely rare small open-air sanctuary of the Muses dates to this period. The remaining visible monuments – that is, the propylon, or entrance gate, the Skana, or restored Hellenistic house of the priests, the basin of Antonine, of which a large part of the roof is preserved, and a fountain – all date to the second century AD.

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UNESCO World Site

The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus is a remarkable testament to the healing cults of the Ancient World and witness to the emergence of scientific medicine. Situated in the Peloponnese, in the Regional unit of Argolis, the site comprises a series of ancient monuments spread over two terraces and surrounded by a preserved natural landscape. Among the monuments of the Sanctuary is the striking Theatre of Epidaurus, which is renowned for its perfect architectural proportions and exemplary acoustics. The Theatre, together with the Temples of Artemis and Asklepios, the Tholos, the Enkoimeterion, and the Propylaia, comprise a coherent assembly of monuments that illustrate the significance and power of the healing gods of the Hellenic and Roman worlds.

The Sanctuary is the earliest organized sanatorium and is significant for its association with the history of medicine, providing evidence of the transition from belief in divine healing to the science of medicine. Initially, in the 2nd millennium BCE, it was a site of ceremonial healing practices with curative associations that were later enriched through the cults of Apollo Maleatas in the 8th century BCE and then by Asklepios in the 6th century BCE. The Sanctuary of the two gods was developed into the single most important therapeutic center of the ancient world. These practices were subsequently spread to the rest of the Greco-Roman world and the Sanctuary thus became the cradle of medicine.
Among the facilities of the classical period are buildings that represent all the functions of the Sanctuary, including healing cults and rituals, library, baths, sports, accommodation, hospital, and theatre.

The site is one of the most complete ancient Greek sanctuaries of Antiquity and is significant for its architectural brilliance and influence. The Sanctuary of Epidaurus (with the Theatre, the Temples of Artemis and Asklepios, the Tholos, the Enkoimeterion, the Propylaia, the Banqueting Hall, the baths as well as the sport and hospital facilities) is an eminent example of a Hellenic architectural ensemble of the 4th century BCE. The form of its buildings has exerted great influence on the evolution of Hellenistic and Roman architecture. Tholos influenced the development of Greek and Roman architecture, particularly the Corinthian order, while the Enkoimeterion stoa and the Propylaia introduced forms that evolved further in Hellenistic architecture. In addition, the complicated hydraulic system of the Sanctuary is an excellent example of a large-scale water supply and sewerage system that illustrates the significant engineering knowledge of ancient societies. The exquisitely preserved Theatre continues to be used for ancient drama performances and familiarizes the audience with ancient Greek thought.

Criterion (i): The Theatre of Epidaurus is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architect from Argos, Polykleitos the Younger, and represents a unique artistic achievement through its admirable integration into the site as well as the perfection of its proportions and acoustics. The Theatre has been revived thanks to an annual festival held there since 1955.

Criterion (ii): The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus exerted an influence on all the Asklepieia in the Hellenic world, and later, on all the Roman sanctuaries of Escape.

Criterion (iii): The group of buildings comprising the Sanctuary of Epidaurus bears exceptional testimony to the healing cults of the Hellenic and Roman worlds. The temples and the hospital facilities dedicated to the healing gods constitute a coherent and complete ensemble. Excavations led by Cavvadias, Papadimitriou, and other archaeologists have greatly contributed to our knowledge of this ensemble.

Criterion (iv): The Theatre, the Temples of Artemis and Asklepios, the Tholos, the Enkoimeterion and the Propylaia make the Sanctuary of Epidaurus an eminent example of a Hellenic architectural ensemble of the 4th century BCE.

Criterion (vi): The emergence of modern medicine in a sanctuary originally reputed for the psychically-based miraculous healing of supposedly incurable patients is directly and tangibly illustrated by the functional evolution of the Sanctuary of Epidaurus and is strikingly described by the engraved inscriptions on the remarkable stelai preserved in the Museum.

The World Heritage property contains within its boundaries all the key attributes that convey the Outstanding Universal Value of the Sanctuary. The facilities that have been discovered in the Sanctuary represent all its functions during the entire duration of its use up until Early Christian times. These include the acts of worship, the procedure of healing with a dream-like state of induced sleep known as enkoimesis through the preparation of the patients, the facilitating of healing with exercise, and the conduct of official games. Since 1984, the Sanctuary has been designated as a zone of absolute protection in which no building activities are permitted.