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Unearthing Greece

Greece heaves with ancient archaeological wonders, but which ones do you really need to see? Classical civilisations expert Eleni Argy picks 10 of the best, from the world-famous landmarks to the hidden treasures.

ACROPOLIS OF ATHENS
The Acropolis of Athens is regarded by many as the pinnacle of all sacred sites in Greece. The rocky 156-metre-tall promontory that overlooks Athens was first fortified in the 13th century BC, but it wasn't until the middle of the fifth century BC, when the power of Athens was at its peak, that many of the site's most notable buildings - including the Temple of Athena Nike and Erechtheion - were constructed. Most impressive of all, though, is the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the capital's patron goddess Athena; its imposing presence over Athens is a reminder and reflection of the magnificence and wealth of Athens during the golden age of Perikles. Visitors shouldn't miss the new and very impressive Acropolis Museum, which displays the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon and a video presentation on the monument.

DION ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
Mount Olympus, Greece's highest peak, safeguards the site of Dion, an ancient city named after the Greek god Zeus (in modern Greek, Dias). Excavations at Dion, an area of 150 hectares, revealed luxurious mosaic-laden houses, workshops and baths all laid out in a grid-like plan within the city walls, indicative of early town planning. Outside the living quarters are ruins dating from the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD including a Macedonian tomb, a Hellenistic theatre, and a sanctuary devoted to the Egyptian gods Sarapis, Isis and Anubis. A visit to Dion is best combined with a hike up Olympus, where the dramatic landscape transports you straight to heaven.

DELOS
Surrounded by the Cyclades is the island of Delos, the birthplace of the deities Apollo and Artemis. Delos holds UNESCO status for being a place of substantial religious significance from the seventh century BC to the pillage by Athenodoros in the first century BC. In the fifth and sixth centuries BC, Delos underwent "purification" as per instruction from the Oracle of Delphi, believed to be the voice of Apollo: births and deaths on the island were forbidden, so terminally ill people and pregnant women were transported - along with the bodies of the exhumed - to a nearby island. Visitors to the island can stroll amid the temples and exquisite mosaics, walk the Sacred Way flanked by the Terrace of the Lions and view the much-photographed pillars topped with large erect phalli at the shrine of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and merriment who is commonly worshipped in nearby Mykonos today.

DELPHI
It's easy to see why the ancient Greeks considered Delphi the navel of the earth (the omphalos), as there is an air of magic at this UNESCO site's dramatic setting beneath Mount Parnassus, about 185km north-west of Athens. After Apollo slayed the monstrous python that guarded the area (as the story goes in Greek mythology), the site was dedicated to his worship, and it was here, in the Temple of Apollo, that the Oracle of Delphi sat in a seemingly intoxicated trance-like state and served as the voice of Apollo in foretelling the future. This practice is maintained today in various cafés where intoxicated Greeks predict the future of the world, with ouzo their nectar of choice.

OLYMPIA
Olympia is the most celebrated religious and athletic centre in Greece. This sanctuary to Zeus, dating to 3000 BC, is nestled in Mount Kronios's foothills in the western Peloponnese and it was here that the Olympic Games of 776 BC, the predecessor to the modern-day games, was held. Back then competitors who excelled at boxing, jumping, wrestling and running were honoured with olive wreaths for their Herculean athletics - modest prizes compared with the sponsorship deals awarded athletes today. The site is laden with sanctuaries, treasuries, monuments and temples. Don't miss the spectacular collection at the on-site Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus
The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is considered by UNESCO to be "one of the purest masterpieces of Greek architecture" for its integration into the site, the perfection of its proportions and its extraordinary acoustics. When you visit, sit in one of the 14,000 spectator seats and have a friend drop a coin in the centre of the theatre's stage; the acoustics are such that you'll hear it land no matter where you're located. This incredible theatre is still used for performances today. The site was also used as a healing sanctuary during the fourth and fifth centuries BC. It was believed that patients who slept in the site's enkoimitiria (sleeping halls) would be visited in their dreams by the god of medicine, Asklepios, who would instruct them on the appropriate treatment for their illness.

MYCENAE
The Peloponnese is a must for history buffs, especially the archaeological site of ancient Mycenae, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bronze Age citadel is said to be the palace of the great mythical king Agamemnon and is a crucial thread in the intricate web that is Greek mythology and history. Pack your copies of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey so you can brush up before you enter the imposing Lion Gate that leads to the remains of the palace and grave circles. The extraordinary gold jewellery, weaponry and pottery found at the site are housed in the Mycenae Archaeological Museum and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. You could also make a trip to the nearby Mycenaean fortress of Tiryns.

Aigai
The site of Aigai owes its World Heritage listing to being the first capital of ancient Macedonia, and the burial site of the Macedonian kings. In one of the tombs archaeologists uncovered a solid gold larnax enclosing what many historians argue are the remains of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. This and other precious funerary artefacts, including a golden oak wreath crown and various items of weaponry, are displayed in the on-site underground museum, approximately 80km south-west of Thessaloniki. Nearby is the site of ancient Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and excavations of the area have revealed intricate mosaics and temples built in the fourth century BC. Those pompous kings of Macedon sure knew how to flaunt it.

AKROTIRI
The idyllic island of Santorini owes its natural beauty - sheer steep cliffs and red- and black-sand beaches - to a devastating volcanic eruption in the 17th century. The eruption also froze a village in time, much like the well-known site of Pompeii in Italy. The preserved findings at Akrotiri - the sewerage system and hot- and cold-water pipes, the advanced two-storey architecture, and the elaborate wall paintings depicting a vibrant community active in trade, farming, artistry, war and religious rituals - mirror Plato's writings of the sophisticated kingdom of Atlantis that was obliterated in a blast. The astonishing excavations are currently closed for renovation, but you can view the site's treasures at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

PALACE OF KNOSSOS
Legend warned that those who dared to enter the astounding palace of King Minos in Crete would not come out alive because this labyrinthine palace was also home to the minotaur: a half-man, half-bull. Theseus, the future Athenian king, slayed the monster and emerged following a thread tied to the entrance with the aid of the Cretan princess Ariadne. It wouldn't be a Greek legend without a love story. Excavations unearthed a vast complex of 1300 interconnecting chambers - royal quarters, shrines, treasuries, work rooms and banquet halls and detailed wall frescoes illuminating the lifestyle of Minoans from 2000 BC to 1350 BC. A temporary exhibition attached to the Herakleion Archaeological Museum (currently under renovation) displays the famous artefacts recovered from the site.


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