Bassae, meaning ‘little vale in the rocks’, is an archaeological site in the northeastern part of Messenia, Greece. It was here in the 5th century BC that the Phigaleians built a sanctuary to the cult of Apollo Epicurius, which still stands today.
At one time, the Messenian people fled to Bassae, seeking sanctuary there during the war with the Spartans.
History of Bassae
The Temple of Apollo Epicurius was built at the height of Greek civilisation during the second half of the 5th century BC (420-400 BC). It was dedicated to Apollo Epicurius by the Phigaleians, who believed the god of sun and healing had protected them from plague and invasion.
The temple was first noticed in 1785 by the French architect J. Bocher, who stumbled upon it accidentally whilst building villas in Zante. Upon returning to look at the temple a second time, he was murdered by bandits, and it was not until 1812 that a group of British antiquaries rediscovered the site, and removed some slabs from a frieze and transported them to Zante.
In 1902, a systematic excavation of the area was carried out by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens, with further excavations taking place in 1959, 1970, an from 1975-79.
Though the Temple of Apollo Epicurius is geographically remote from the major polities of ancient Greece, it is one of the most studied temples because of its large number of unusual features.
The temple is unusual in that it has examples of all three of the classical orders used in ancient Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Inside, there was once a continuous Ionic frieze showing Athenians alongside Amazons and the Lapiths engaged in battle with Centaurs. Parts of these friezes were removed by the British and are now on display in the British Museum.
Bassae was the first Greek site to be added to the World Heritage List, being inscribed in 1986.
Being so far from metropolitan areas, the temple is less susceptible to acid rain which would dissolve the limestone; however, the Temple is presently covered in a white tent to protect the ruins from the elements.
Repair works are being undertaken on the columns, with two pairs of columns (out of 15) having been completed in the past 40 years.
Today, visitors have limited access due to these repair works, but can enter the tent and see the front of the temple.
Getting to Bassae
The journey to Bassae is significant, but scenic. From Athens, the temple takes just over 3 hours by car, along the Olimpia Odos, A8, E94, and A7 roads, with the final stretch being a long and winding tarmac road. The journey through the Arcadian mountains is beautiful, and there are places to stop along the way, such as Andritsaina, where you can drink a coffee in a small square in the shade of an over 500 year old Platanos tree.
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