Uncovering The Lost City of Helike
The story of the destruction of Atlantis is one of the most famous stories from ancient Greece. Yet, there is a similar story of destruction told about the city of Helike. Unlike Atlantis, however, there are more written accounts about this site. Moreover, these writings contain clues that helped archaeologists search for the true location of the city. Using these clues, archaeologists have finally been able to track down the lost city.
Helike was situated in Achaea, on the northwestern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. During its heyday, Helike was the leader of the first Achaean League, a confederation that consisted of 12 cities in the surrounding area. Due to this position, Helike was an important economic, cultural and religious centre. The might of Helike can also be seen in the colonies it founded, such as Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene in Asia Minor.
A coin from Helike. Obverse: Head of Poseidon; Reverse: A trident. Photo source: ww2.smb.museum.
The patron god of Helike was Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. This is unsurprising, given Helike’s position in one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe. The cult of Poseidon can be seen in the temple and sanctuary of the Helikonian Poseidon, a bronze statue of Poseidon, and coins that bear the head of the god of the obverse and a trident on the reverse.
The patron god of Helike was Poseidon (right). ‘The Marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite’ by Felice Giani (Wikimedia Commons)
One night during the winter of 373 B.C., the city of Helike was obliterated. Some signs of the city’s impending doom were recorded, including the appearance of ‘immense columns of flames’ and the mass migration of small animals from the coast to the mountains several days prior to the disaster. A major earthquake, followed by a large tsunami from the Gulf of Corinth, wiped the city of Helike from the face of the earth. The rescue party that came in the following morning found no survivors.
The destruction of Helike was attributed to Poseidon. According to the stories, the god of the sea was enraged with the inhabitants of Helike due to their refusal to give their statue of Poseidon, or even a model of it, to the Ionian colonists from Asia. Some accounts even stated that the Ionian representatives were murdered. As a result, Poseidon punished the inhabitants of Helike by causing the sea to swallow to city, very much like that which happened to Atlantis.
According to legend, Poseidon created a huge wave to swallow the city of Helike (Wikimedia Commons)
Unlike Atlantis, however, Helike was not completely lost, as it was visited by travellers in the following centuries. The philosopher Eratosthenes, who visited the site 150 years after its destruction, wrote that there was a standing bronze statue of Poseidon submerged in a ‘poros’, and was a hazard to fishermen’s nets. The Greek traveller Pausanias also visited the site, and wrote that the walls of the ancient city were still visible under water, though they were by then much corroded by the salt water. The ancient Romans were also fond of sailing over the site, as they could admire the city’s statuary. The location of Helike, however, was lost over time.
Bronze statue of Poseidon, which may be similar to the one reportedly seen at Helike. (Wikimedia Commons)
Although speculations about the actual site of Helike already began in the early 19 th century, it was only in the late 20 th century that Helike was re-discovered. As Helike was a submerged city, its location was one of the big mysteries of underwater archaeology. Yet, it was this conviction that the city was hidden somewhere in the Gulf of Corinth that made its discovery impossible. In 1988, a Greek archaeologist, Dora Katsonopoulou, raised the possibility that the ‘poros’ mentioned in the ancient texts might not refer to the sea, but an inland lagoon. If so, it would be plausible that Helike is not located in the Gulf of Corinth, but inland, as the lagoon would have been silted up over the millennia by river sediment. Although the team found a Roman city, as well as an Early Bronze Age settlement, it was in 2001 that the team found Helike in Achaea, Greece. In 2012, the destruction layer was uncovered, which confirmed that the site is indeed Helike.
Whilst the city of Helike has been re-discovered, excavations are still being carried out in the area. This is significant, as the area has been settled by different groups of people, and it is through the uncovering of settlements from various periods of history that a more complete picture of the region, from the prehistoric era to the modern period, can be produced. After all, although the story of Helike may be fantastic, it is but one point in a long series of events that span over the millennia.
Featured image: Excavations at the site of Helike. In this case, a Hellenistic-era building; possibly used as a dye-works (Wikimedia Commons)
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