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ATHENS HISTORY Hidden in plain sight

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A NARROW little valley is traversed by a lazy river and bounded by picturesque rock formations, its green grass is strewn with spring flowers, birdsong is in the air and ancient columns gleam in the sun.

Unbelievably, this peaceful scene is barely 3km as the crow flies from the hustle and bustle of Athens International Airport, at the sanctuary of Artemis in Vravona, ancient Brauron, one of the loveliest archaeological sites in Attica but also one of the most important.

The area had been settled since prehistory - in fact the hill overlooking the site was fortified in Mycenaean times. BrauronĘs role as a sanctuary probably began in the 9th or 8th century BC. Initially of mainly local significance, it was raised to higher status in the 6th century BC, when Athens was ruled by the Peisistratid tyrants who came from the area.

They established it as one of the cityĘs most important extra-urban sanctuaries, with a separate branch, the Brauroneion, on the Acropolis itself. Brauron thrived until Roman times but was eventually flooded and buried in soil.

Playing the bear

The sanctuary appears to have served as a kind of boarding school for pre-teen Athenian girls. Every four years it was the focal point of the Arkteia, a major festival that involved girls dressing up in saffron-coloured robes and “playing the bear” - apparently entailing a ritual dance.

The symbolism is somewhat mysterious but scholars assume that it has something to do with the wild aspect of womanhood, perhaps a kind of symbolic taming, to prepare the girls for their domestic role as wives.

The site, only partially excavated in the mid-20th century, is quite compact. To the left, just beyond the entrance, what appears to be a large limestone paving is actually the end of the processional road that led here from Athens.

What you see is the surface of a crossing over the Erasimos stream, probably from the 5th century BC and thus one of the oldest standing bridges in Attica. Its surface is marked by indentations caused by the wheels of hundreds of carriages passing over it during the life of the sanctuary.

Turning right just beyond and ascending the slope towards a mediaeval chapel, one enters the most sacred part of the site. Just below the chapel, massive but badly damaged foundations are what remain of a large three-roomed temple from the 5th century BC.

In an inscription, it is called the Parthenon, the earliest known use of that name for a temple - like Athena, Artemis was a virgin (parthenos) goddess. The chapel itself probably stands in the place of a smaller but even older temple.

To the south and east, a ravine-like fissure in the limestone bedrock contains remains of several walls. This area, possibly a collapsed cave, is assumed to be the grave of Iphigeneia, mentioned in various sources.

In myth, King Agamemnon - his ships stuck in Aulis due to a lack of wind - decided to sacrifice his daughter Artemis so as to secure his fleetĘs voyage to Troy. In one version of the story she was saved to become the first priestess at Brauron.

Drinking parties

Finally, the visit leads to the most visually striking structure on site, built in the floodplain below the temples. It consists of a large courtyard surrounded by Doric colonnades, behind which two flights of rooms form an L-shaped arrangement.

Only the northern row of columns was ever completed. Re-erected in the 20th century, it indicates an impressive building. A second colonnade stood to the north. An entrance passage interrupting the western flight of rooms bears wheel ruts similar to those on the nearby bridge.

The 10 nearly square chambers are andrones, ritual dining or feasting rooms for the symposion, the traditional banquet that formed one of the centres of upper-class male Athenian life. Around their walls, the raised platforms for the couches on which revellers lay are still visible, as are the metal attachments that held them in place.

In some of the rooms low marble tables for food and drink can also be seen. At 11 three-man couches per room, the complex could simultaneously hold a feast for more than 300 people, a clear indication of the sanctuaryĘs significance.

So, the next time you are in the area, maybe to pick someone up from the airport, or to buy Swedish furniture, donĘt miss this wonderful treat - just give yourself an extra hour or two to drop by the ancient sanctuary of Brauronian Artemis.

* The sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron is located near the coast by a secondary road between Markopoulo, Porto Rafti and Artemida. It is signposted from Markopoulo. The site is open from 8.30am to 3pm (winter opening hours); admission is 3 euros (concessions 2 euros). The same hours apply to the museum, which charges the same admission prices separately

Reorganised, reinvigorated

A VISIT TO the sanctuary of Artemis in Vravona, in what was ancient Brauron, is pleasant in itself but crowned by a further blessing: just a few minutes from the excavation is the siteĘs museum, reopened last year after extensive reorganisation. The displays - well-designed, equipped with instructive labels and fine lighting - contain a host of high-quality artefacts organised thematically in five rooms so as to explain the history of the site and its complex functions.

It is one of the most exemplary local collections in Attica, providing true insight into the life of an ancient sanctuary and the surrounding Mesogeia region, with finds ranging from the Final Neolithic (4th millennium BC) to the Byzantine period. There are more highlights than can be listed here.

Among them are a detailed model of the site, a charming collection of statues of children - whose protection was one of the key functions of Brauronian Artemis - a series of fascinating reliefs showing worshippers approaching the deity and hundreds of votive offerings to the goddess, including jewellery, household items and even toys.

Respect the family
(Brauron Archaeological Museum, room 2)

THIS RELIEF from the mid 4th century BC is one of several from Brauron that show entire families in the act of sacrificing to Artemis. The goddess herself is on the right, fittingly depicted at larger size than mortals. She holds her attribute, a bow, and is accompanied by her symbolic animal, the deer.

The approaching worshippers, identified by an inscription as the family of “Aristonike, wife of Antiphates from the deme of Thorai”. The area referred to is probably near modern Saronida on the west coast of Attica. At least three generations are depicted. The sacrifices brought include a bull at the front and something carried in a large box on a servantĘs head at the far left. The physical juxtaposition of the deity and the group of humans throws an interesting light on ancient religion as “real” practice.

by Heinrich Hall

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