The Asclepeion of Kos is one of the most impressive sanctuaries consacrated to Asclepius, the greek god of medicine.
Here, pilgrims flocked in order to be healed. There were several types of rituals that included a period of incubation in dormitories. Since non-venomous snakes were sacred to Asclepius, they were often left to crawl on the floor were patients slept. The healing process consisted in the dream that the patient would have inevitably had, due to the uncomfortable posture to which he was compelled, or to the awareness to sleep with snakes. The following morning, then, the minister of the temple, interpreting the dream, would have made the diagnosis and prescribed a therapy.1
Moreover, here is were Hippocrates is said to have received his medical trainings, prior to develop his own humoral theory which prepared the ground for the occidental medicine. The archeological site is around 3.5 km south west of the city centre, in the area of Panagia Tarsou, which is substantially important from a symbolic point of view. It became the real symbol of the island, but is also one of the long-lasting sights in Greece, along with the Asclepeion of Trikala, Epidaurus and Athens.2
The discovery of the ruins
In AD 554/551 a terrible earthquake, described by the historian Agathias Scholasticus, hit the Asclepeion, that remained buried for about 1350 years. The ruins were then discovered by a German doctor of Literature, Rudolf Herzog, with the significant help of Iakobos Zarraftis on October 9th, 1902. The reason for the excavations was the discovery, in 1891, of an Egyptian papyrus in which was testified the existence of sculptures and paintings of the Asclepius' temple in the famous Asclepeion of Kos. However, were the Italians that had the merit of restoring and securing the site. In fact, in 1928 Luciano Laurenzi, an Italian archaeologist, started excavations in the lowest level towards the east side of the first terrace (andiron) and managed, in 1930, to find the Roman Thermes (baths), only a part of what had been discovered by Herzog.
Restoration works started in 1938 with the help of the greek government and continued until 1940, due to the Greco-Italian War, which marked the beginning of the Balkans campaign of World War II. The particularity of the restoration was that the architectural structures chosen resembled the Italian architectural style.3
Description of the findings
The origins of the Asclepeion are traced back to the 4th century b.C. (in the ages that are commonly known as the Hellenistic and Post Hellenistic periods), as it is shown by the three terraces (andira) that were an Oriental element adopted by Greek tradition after the conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great.
In order to easily find the monuments we are going to describe, look at the following pictures and the number indicated in each title.
Original pictures from D. De Mattia, "Il tempio romano dell’Asklepieion di Kos: nuovi dati per la sua anastilosi"
Thiasos, 1, 2012, pp. 61-80. Edizioni Quasar di Severino Tognon
The first flight of steps (1)
The three levels were connected by a marble staircase. Parts of the ancient stair can still be seen. In fact, today, visitors can climb the 113 wide steps of the marble staircase that leads to the three successive terraces.
The thermes (2)
On the first terrace there are the "Thermes", remains of baths of the 3rd century AD. Their construction was intensely influenced by Roman architecture, as it is evident from the long arched walls. A short distance to the west there are the ruins of baths, that included the three typical rooms of the tradition: calidarium, frigidarium, tepidarium. The pools, that have marble floors, and the heated rooms can still be seen. According to achaeologist Laurenzi, these baths were made of materials taken from a hellenistic building which “might have been standing in the very same place”.
The first terrace and the thaumaturgic fountain (3)
A staircase with 24 steps leads from the Propylaea to the first terrace. Here there used to be a colonnade of the third century b.C., whose foundations, as well as a running water fountain, can still be seen. Behind the colonnade we can see the foundations of the rooms where patients, visitors, athletes and pilgrims used to stay during the "Minor and Great Asklepieion Games of Kos", that were held from the middle of the 3rd century BC.4
The temple of Xenophon (4)
The right side of the first terrace hosts an arcade and behind it there was the statue of the Nike and other votive statues depicting the sick or diseased body parts. According to some archaeologists, in this area there was the temple of Aphrodite with the famous statue of Prassitele. To the left of the staircase of the first level, there is a statue of the god Pan, with his pipe, while the water flows under his feet. To the right of the staircase there is an inscription of a small temple of the famous physician Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, who was the personal physician of Emperor Claudius.
The temple C (5)
Beside the external walls of the upper terrace you can find the so called "temple C". Numerous researches conducted by Wolfgang Ehrhardt sentenced that, once realized the temple in the 3rd century BC, it became evidently necessary to rebuild the themple C on the basis of a new orientation, this time with a front open to the east and almost perfectly aligned with the adjacent temple. The plan outlines a construction of the type oikoi, a diagram which provides two rectangles placed side by side, with the major axis oriented approximately in the east-west direction. Rebuilt by Herzog with four columns in antis, the colonnade had to be Doric, as demonstrate the elements of the stylobate. The capitals can be dated back to the 3rd century, as it is attested by several comparisons with contemporary monuments of Kos. The shaft of the column, as it appears from the collar, refined in the same block of the capital, was punctuated by twenty grooves from profle rather flat, large 7-7.5cm, separated by sharp edges as they were discovered, according to one of the semplification plan that was typical of that period.
Finding similarities with the Asclepeion of Epidaurus and Oropos, Herzog suggested that the building could be identified as a first abaton, where Asclepius appeared in the healer sleep to the sick and prophetized them the cure.5
The temple B (6)
Turists can still admire a Corinthian temple, of the second century AD, probably dedicated to Apollo. Located in the second terrace, the temple was built during the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) or during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Vero (A.D. 161-169). It is a peripteral temple with 6 x 9 columns in Corinthian order, on a stylobate of 10,32 x 15,47 metres. The seven columns, which were reconstructed during the Italian occupation, are in white marble. They are composed of three drums, with 24 flutes and two crowns of acanthus leaves growing around a votive basket in the edge. The abacus upon the capital has concave sides to conform to the outscrolling corners of the capital, with a rosette at the center of each side.6
The Greek inscription reads as follows: "Propileon/ Kos Dion Ek"
The third flight of steps (7)
The temple A (8)
(picture from Lanckoronski 1892, Tav. IV) (picture from Lanckoronski 1892, Tav. XXIII)
The third terrace hosted a Ionic temple of Asclepius, that had a central role in the ritual. The cella of this temple was used as a "treasury" and patients and visitors would drop their offerings into it. In the middle of the terrace there are the remains of an Altar dated back to the 3rd century BC. It had a rectangular marble shape with sculptural decorations. This altar constituted the benchmark of the Asclepeion. The altar was reached up a slope from the west, making it easier for people to carry the sacrificial animals. There was a small colonnade around it, and next to this there were the famous sculptures of the sons of Praxiteles.
Unfortunately, today there are few traces of the Doric temple located in the third terrace, that was extremely important non only for a religious point of view, but also for navigation, as it could be seen by those approaching Kos by sea.7
At the top of the terrace there is a sacred grove, where, according to Pausanias, “nobody was allowed to be born or die”.
Another particularity of this unique sanctuary is that the cutting of the cypress-trees was forbidden, as ancient inscriptions stated. It is known that the sacrilegious senator Poplius Turullius (31 BC), one of Julius Ceasar's assassins, was sentenced to death because he had cut trees to build ships for the Roman fleet.
After you have climbed the huge staircase, you are literally on the top of Kos. The scenery is breathtaking and this is why the Asclepeion attracts every year thousands of tourists.8
- Photos and main text by Simone Stefanini moc.liamg|69enomis.ininafets#| and Giuseppe Sasdelli ti.oohay|illedsaseppesuig#| (December 2015)
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- D. De Mattia, "Il tempio romano dell’Asklepieion di Kos: nuovi dati per la sua anastilosi", Thiasos, n.1, 2012, pp. 61-80
- S. Ferri, "Asklepieion", Treccani, Enciclopedia dell' Arte Antica (1958)
- M. Livadiotti, "Lo hestiatorion dell’Asklepieion di Kos", Thiasos, n. 2, 2013, pp. 39-58
- Alice Walton, "The Cult of Asklepios", Cornell Studies in Classical Philology, n. 3, Cornell University, published by Ginn & Company, 1894, pp. 136