We had got a taste for Greece in 2013 when after touring Turkey, we took the opportunity to visit Rhodes and Crete, finishing off with a few days in and around Athens. The following year during our travelling season we headed back to Athens and rather than spending time there, we immediately collected a hire car and headed for Nafplio on the Argolis Gulf in the Peloponnese. The trip only took us a couple of hours, enabling us to settle into our hotel and be ready for the next few days of touring based out of Nafplio. The previous year we had visited the Corinth Canal on a day bus tour that didn’t take us to Corinth. This was probably why we decided to put Corinth high on our list of places to spend quality time in.
Corinth (Korinth) is an ancient Greek town situated in the foothills of a mountain that loomed over its position in the highly strategic location that is the end of the Gulf of Corinth. Trading ships coming from the east on the way to Athens or Asia Minor could take the short cut down the Gulf, role over the isthmus on wooden logs and be in the Aegean Sea and on the way to Constantinople before their foolish rivals who chose to go all the way around the Peloponnese. There were a number of attempts to dig a canal through this isthmus that connected the Peloponnese to the rest of Europe, including one by Emperor Nero but the version we visited was completed in the early 1890s.
Whilst humanity began living in the area and taking advantage of the fertile soils from around 7000BCE, the earliest city began after the ‘Dark Ages’ around 800BCE. From then on, life in Corinth was complex and never dull as ruling powers changed hands from home-grown tyrants to invading empire builders such as the Romans, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks. I have attached a summary of these periods of Corinthian history here; a blog of a simple day visit to the complex archaeological zone of Corinth is too short for the full story of Corinth’s long and often painful story of wars and destruction.
We met our guide for the morning in the carpark just outside the entrance to the archaeological area. Our tour started off outside the Museum; alongside the front wall of the Museum was a row of statues, dressed in togas, but missing their heads. These statues were not named but were from the Roman period when Corinth was rebuilt under orders from Julius Caesar. We visited the museum at the end of our tour and again there were many more statues that have been recovered from the site but they are generally all of Roman origin. Any statues from before the complete destruction of Corinth by a Roman Army in 164 BCE must have either been destroyed in that process or taken back to Rome as loot. (The graphic image below of a burning Corinth is a painting by 19th architect, Thomas Allom from 1870.) The only exception to this observation are two prized statues in the museum; two Kouroi from the 6th century, two free-standing youths that were dug up by looters in 2010 in a village not far from Corinth. Their survival, first of all from being buried in a cemetery for the last two and a half thousand years and then being rescued before being sold illegally on the world market, is a great survival story.
Heading down the path from the Museum, the dominant feature on the skyline is the Temple of Apollo. All that is left of this temple, built around 560 BCE, are its platform and seven remaining huge columns. It must have survived much of the Roman army’s destruction in 164 BCE as it was restored in the Roman period to act as a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor. Just like all the other conversions of defunct religious buildings throughout Greece and Asia Minor, the Temple of Apollo was converted into a Christian basilica in the Byzantine period.
The images below give some idea of the survival process of what was left of the Temple of Apollo over the last four centuries. The painting on the left is from 1751 and shows 12 columns standing and the building situated on the temple’s platform behind the columns is most likely the residence of the local Turkish Bey. The image on the right is a photo from 1927 and shows only seven columns still standing. The columns that have gone missing since the 18th century may have been taken down and used in new buildings. The other reason may be damage from the earthquake of 1858. Around this time, the citizens of ancient Corinth would have moved to ‘New Corinth’.
The diagram below-right models what a section of ancient Corinth might have looked like during the Roman period. After inspecting the Temple of Apollo we continued on to examine the remains of the agora or market place on the right side of the complex. It was a large, generally open space surrounded by shops on each side and at the western end, a series of smaller temples dedicated to the likes of Hercules, Poseidon and Hermes. The photo on the left shows an arched remnant of one of the shops on the north side of the agora. There is not a great deal to see of the vibrancy of the original agora, unlike the description left to us by the traveller Pausanias who visited Corinth sometime between 143-161 CE. “In the middle of the market-place is a bronze Athena, on the pedestal of which are wrought in relief figures of the Muses. Above the market-place is a temple of Octavia, the sister of Augustus, who was emperor of the Romans after Caesar, the founder of the modern Corinth. On leaving the market-place along the road to Lechaeum you come to a gateway, on which are two gilded chariots, one carrying Phaethon the son of Helius (Sun), the other Helius himself. A little farther away from the gateway, on the right as you go in, is a bronze hercules…”
Another visitor who went to Corinth in 50/51 CE, earlier than Pausanius, is Paul of Tarsus. Paul was in town and presumably regularly in this agora, perhaps selling his tents with a couple of tent-making friends he made in Corinth. Chapter 18 of the Acts of the Apostles relates the story of some trouble Paul got involved in with some members of the local synagogue.
So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanour or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.”
The ‘place of judgement’ mentioned above is in this agora and is called the Bema (Speaker’s Platform). It is an interesting experience to be close to the actual spot where Pausanius and St Paul, walked, talked and gazed with interest at everything around them. The image below of the remains of the Bema in the Corinth Agora captures the close up view as well as the Acrocorinth in the background.
From the agora we walked in the path of Pausanias who describes the next significant site in ancient Corinth.
“After this is the entrance to the water of Peirene. The legend about Peirene is that she was a woman who became a spring because of her tears shed in lamentation for her son Cenchrias, who was unintentionally killed by Artemis. The spring is ornamented with white marble, and there have been made chambers like caves, out of which the water flows into an open-air well. It is pleasant to drink…”
Approximately 1900 years later, much of the Fountain of Peirene is still in place, aged and battered, but alas no sign of the spring water that once flowed freely here.
A nearby sign gave more details to add to Pausanius’s notes… “Human activity is attested in the area from the Neolithic period, and the first efforts of water management date to Geometric period (1100 to 750 BC)…by the 2nd century BCE, it consisted of six chambers providing access to three deep draw basins supplied with water by conduits excavated hundreds of metres back under the forum. The water was stored in four huge reservoirs.”
After strolling down to the edge of the Archaeological site, we had seen the major items on our guide’s list so we headed back to the Museum at the start of our trek. On the plan of the Corinth Archaeological site placed early in this article, it shows both an ancient theatre (4thC BCE) and an Odeon that were built on the other side of the site from the agora. These two places were not open when we visited there and if you look at what is left of the theatre in the photo below, you can see why!