Why Do We Ignore the Ancient Treasures on top of Mediterranean Mountains?
The mountains of the Mediterranean are permanent reminders of the past. The ancient Greeks climbed to their summits to offer sacrifices to the gods for centuries, even millennia, and handed down stories from generation to generation of the battles and myths which played out on their slopes – Zeus’s defeat of the Titans on Mt Olympus in northern Greece, for instance; or the legendary cave on Crete’s Mt Ida where the goddess Rhea concealed the infant Zeus from his father Cronus to prevent him from being eaten.
There are still traces of these ancient places of worship today. We know of about ten mountaintop sanctuaries with surviving material in mainland Greece and the Aegean, and many more in other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, including dozens on Crete. You might think that these reminders of European life from thousands of years ago would be among the most cherished and protected sites in the world. Instead they are mostly neglected, unloved and ignored.
Not long ago I climbed Mt Zagaras at the eastern end of the Helikon range, a couple of hours north-west of Athens. In ancient times this was a place of tourism and pilgrimage in honour of the Muses, the goddesses of artistic inspiration. The climb starts from the Valley of the Muses, near to the site of the village of Askra, where the Greek poet Hesiod lived. At the head of the valley are lots of columns scattered around the ground, with goats wandering in and out. For centuries this was the site of the great festival of the Muses, whose competitions attracted poets and musicians from all over ancient Greece.
- Mount Meru – Hell and Paradise on One Mountain
- Wonder of the Ancient World: The Grand and Powerful Statue of Zeus
- King Leonidas of Sparta and the Legendary Battle of the 300 at Thermopylae
Valley of the Muses. (Der Wunderbare Mandarin/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
Climbing a wide track to the east, you see beehives everywhere, and you can hear bees buzzing in the trees. After a couple of miles you turn uphill very steeply – about a 500m climb. Just below the summit ridge at the edge of a steeply sloping pasture is the sacred Hippocrene spring , which is famously said to have been formed by the hooves of Pegasus. It runs three or four metres below a gap in the rocks, with clouds of flies buzzing above. Fixed to the rock is a rusty chain and a plastic bucket: I had a small sip for inspiration.
From here it’s an hour west to the summit, scrambling along the big outcrops of rock which line the ridge. You can see for miles from the top. There are also the remains of a small building, which may originally have been an altar of Zeus, though some think it’s more likely to have been a watch post.
The summit of Mt Zagaras north of Athens. Jason König
I didn’t see another walker anywhere on Mt Helikon, or on any of the other mountains I climbed in Greece on that trip. But of all the ancient sites I have visited, I find it hard to think of any more memorable.
The lack of interest in these treasures is well illustrated by Mt Arachnaion in the Peloponnese region in southern Greece. Its highest point is home to the ruins of altars to Zeus and also Hera, queen of the Greek gods. It was a place for ritual and sacrifice dating back to the time of the Mycenaeans, Greece’s first ancient civilisation (1600 BC to 1100 BC). Now it is the site of a wind farm. If you stand by the ruins, with just the ravens and swifts for company, huge turbines stretch both ways along the ridge. While they have been kept away from the summit itself, it feels precarious to have permitted them so close to the site.
Turbines on Arachnaion. (Dan Diffendale/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
This lack of interest can occasionally pose a much greater threat. Mountain archaeological sites are usually too inconspicuous to be targets for the deliberate destruction we have seen at Palmyra in Syria, but accidental damage is another matter. The summit of the great mountain of Jebel Aqra on the Turkish border with Syria is the site of the biggest surviving ash altar from the ancient world, 55 metres wide and eight metres deep, containing the remains of countless sacrifices. It now stands within a Turkish militarised zone, inaccessible to archaeologists. And last November, Turkish forces were accused of firing mortars from the mountain over the border into Syria.