The Pull of the Peloponnese: an archaeological pilgrimage to the land of Legends and tales

The Peloponnese was named the number one European destination you must see in 2016 by the Lonely Planet’s team of travel experts. Of course archaeology travellers have always known this, for it is here that visitors can see some of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. It is in the Peloponnes you will find Olympia, the ancient home of the Olympic Games, as well as the truly remarkable ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Here Mina Megalla, an archaeologist from Luxor and a long-time Archaeology Travel reader, tells us about his travel in this region and why he keeps going back.

Trojans ransoming the body of Hector, Sparta Archaeological Museum. © Mina Megalla

In 2016 the Peloponnese was named as one of the top European destination by the Lonely Planet. This is a part of Greece that is familiar to me through my recent travels into this wondrous and mystic region. As an archaeologist and a traveller, I have always had a passion to follow in the footsteps of the ancients, trying to visit all those destinations that are featured in the ancient poetry and legends. Of course it doesn’t get greater than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Luckily, I have visited many of the sites that are featured in both the Iliad and the Odyssey: from Schliemann’s Troy in the east to Pylos in the West, and further South to the site of Heraclion near the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and to Thrace in the North.

But it is the Peloponnese that is regarded as a main destination in those ancient poems of Homer. In May 2015 I visited Mycenae, the mighty stronghold of the Mycenaean warriors. As an Egyptian from Thebes (modern-day Luxor) not many archaeological sites would impress me, but Mycenae did impress me. Standing below the well known Lions Gates felt just as grand as standing next to Queen Hatshepsut’s obelisk in Karnak.

Mycenae like many other sites in the Peloponnese was featured in some of my favourite books; as for example Robin Lane Fox’s Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer (available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk). Ever since watching Michael Wood and the BBC’s In Search of the Trojan War (DVD available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, as is the book of the same name on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk). I dreamt of visiting all those sites, and to eventually stand in Mycenae felt more like a pilgrimage than a tour, all the more so after walking the 5 kilometres up to the site from the modern town. To begin with I had the entire site to myself. After a while a few Italian tourists arrived; their admiration for the site was unmistakable. I loved hanging around Mycenae and as an archaeologist myself I couldn’t help but think of the early explorers and archaeologists who carried out the excavations of the site.

The Lions Gate at Mycenae. © Mina Megalla

Later I moved on to the museum, just next to the archaeological site of Mycenae. Besides a wonderful collection of Bronze Age swords and pottery, there are also interesting photos of the early archaeologists. One of these being the renowned Greek Archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, who not only discovered many of the archaeological sites in the region, but also Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. Seeing his photograph was special for me as I once had the great pleasure of dinning in Chicago with his daughter, Nanno Marinatos – aprofessor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Mycenae was definitely one of those archaeological sites on my bucket-list. And not far from the site is the Treasury of Atreus, which should also not be missed as it is another great example of the architecture of the Mycenaean age.

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth, with AcroCorinth on the background. © Mina Megalla

On a Saturday morning I arrived in Corinth from Athens, having being given a lift by two good Greek friends, Georgios and Ilias. They were on their way to another 30-kilometre marathon somewhere in the Peloponnese. They dropped me off near a hotel where I stayed for a night. In the evening I enjoyed walking by the harbour of Corinth. By night the city felt like one big club, full of young people everywhere enjoying themselves. On Sunday morning I went off to find out what my chances of getting a bus to ancient Corinth were. Zero, as it turns out! Sunday is very definitely not a good day to travel around the Peloponnese if you are using public transport. There was nothing to it but to walk from modern Corinth to ancient Corinth. It was quiet a walk, around 7 to 8 Kilometres. But definitely worth it. Ancient Corinth is such a wonderful site with the ruins of the famous Temple of Apollo to the Pirene fountain, and of course Acrocorinth overlooking the ancient town. The streets and the magazines of the ancient town are still preserved and it is obvious ancient Corinth was a prosperous place.

Of course ancient Corinth has a significant importance to Christians as it is one of the destinations that St. Paul the apostle visited and featured in one of his works. As a Copt I knew of ancient Corinth as a kid through those writings of St Paul. My mother who is a devout Copt prefers to hear about my travels to ancient Corinth, and other ancient sites associated with St Paul such as Ephesus and Pergamum, than about my work in Thebes or on the Giza Plateau.

Statue of Augustus at the Museum of Corinth.© Mina Megalla

In May 2016 I returned to the Peloponnese, this time with my wife Pepa Megalla, who is also an archaeologist. Pepa was charged to work on materials that were earlier excavated at the prehistoric site of Kouphovouno near Sparta. We stayed in Mystras which is about 5 Kilometres from the modern day town of Sparta (Sparti). I was overjoyed to stay in Mystras, for this was the last stronghold of the Byzantines. We couldn’t wait to visit the Frankish fortress over the hill and all the many Byzantine palaces and monasteries. With the Byzantine monuments all about you, you can not overlook the influence the Byzantine Empire had on this area.

A view of the Taygetus Mountains from the ancient acropolis of Sparta overlooking the theater. © Mina Megalla

The meagre remains of the Menelaion overlooking the Taygetus Mountains near Sparta. © Mina Megalla

This part of the Peloponnese felt more Venetian than Greek, with the old churches clearly showing a Venetian style of architecture and not the typical Greek Orthodox style. Each day I would walk from Mystras to the modern-town of Sparta. There is not much to see in Sparta, only the remains of an ancient Roman theatre and the acropolis of Sparta. The museum, however, has a very good collection of artefacts. As luck would have it, or not, my favourite sculpture – the preserved head and torso of a Spartan warrior (the so called Leonidas), the one I particularly wanted to see, was one of a number of objects touring museums in North America. The statue was found in the sanctuary of Athena Chalkioikos, which is sadly not well preserved and in a miserable condition. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the Menealion, the only sanctuary dedicated to Helen of Sparta and King Menealus. This is made up for with a beautiful view over the peak of Profits Ilias and the Taygetus mountains.

View of ancient Mystras, with Villehardouin’s castle at the top and the upper Medieval city on the slopes to the right. © Mina Megalla

Another place that we visited and loved was the museum of olives and olive oil in Sparta, definitely worth visiting. And then it was a trip west to Pylos. It was here that the decisive naval battle of Paylos took place during the Peloponnese war between the Spartans and the Athenians in 425 BCE. The Athenians defeated the Spartans near the island of Sphacteria. Pylos, also known by its Italian name Navarino, is a charming place with a formidable castle and breathtaking scenery. We attempted to visit another great archaeological site near-by, the Palace of Nestor. Unfortunately it was closed to public for renovations, and had been since 2012 (renovations are complete, and the site has re-opened to the public). King Nestor was featured in Homer’s Iliad. On the road back to Mystras we stopped by few beautiful towns, like Kalamata, which the famous Kalamata olives are named after. We stopped for dinner at the house of some friends in the picturesque region of Mani peninsula with its beautiful majestic hills and mountains towering over the Mediterranean Sea.

The island of Monemvasia, on the east coast of Peloponnese. © Mina Megalla

I made several short trips from Sparta by myself. I went on visiting the famous fortress town of Monemvasia. It was enjoyable to walk around the little streets and passageways of the old town. The fortress was legendary during the Byzantine era for being invincible. Just like many other destinations in the Peloponnese, the old town has a Venetian history, obvious in the well preserved Venetian architecture.

The 18th century hilltop fortress of Palamidi at Nafplio. © Mina Megalla

Another day, another stunning historic town – this time the beautiful town of Nafplio. It has a beautiful fortress, Palamadi, overseeing the town and another fortress, Bourtzi, situated in the middle of the harbour of Nafplio. Once agian the town has a strong Italian feel to it, with its quaint narrow streets with flowers everywhere, and of course the ubiquitous Vespa. So too are there reminders of the Ottoman era, a mosque and a fountain decorated with a stone with unmistakable Arabic script. And a more recent monument dedicated to French generals who played a significant role during the Greek war of Independence.

From Nafplio I walked around 4 kilometres to the archaeological site of Tiryns. As many before me, I was completely overwhelmed by the well preserved walls of Tiryns. In some places these still stand to a height of 7 metres, having once been as high as 10 meters at the site’s apogee. Tiryns is mentioned and featured in many legends and writings. Homer, for example, praised its massive walls and called it “Mighty walled Tiryns” in his Iliad. If that does not impress you then this should: according to ancient Greek mythology Tiryns is thought of as the birthplace of none other than Herakles himself. The place is a true marvel from the Mycenaean age with its tunnels and massive gates that were claimed to have been built by the mythical Cyclopes.

A water fountain with an Arabic inscription, Nafplio. © Mina Megalla

Tyrins was famous for its mighty walls and the cyclopean tunnels. © Mina Megalla

My 2016 odyssey in the Peloponnese was yet another great experience. And already I am planning and looking forward to returning in 2017, there are still many more sites to explore and learn about in this wonderful region. Of my many archaeological travels around the world, the Peloponnese remains a very special place that I am always happy to return to.

Flowering bougainvillea brightens up the streets of the seaside town of Nafplio. © Mina Megalla

Mina Megalla

Now a Visiting Research Associate at the American Research Center in Sofia (Bulgaria), Mina is an Egyptian archaeologist who has been working in various excavations as well as conducting outreach work and archaeological research in different countries and regions such as: Egypt, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Moldova, Georgia, and Qatar. He held many positions such as the Outreach Officer and Researcher of the QIAH Project carried out by the University in Copenhagen (2014-2015), Researcher and Archaeological events Coordinator at the Ministry of State for Antiquities in Egypt (2006-2010). He was awarded in 2014 MA in Archaeological Research, Classical Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology, New Bulgarian University, Sofia. He gave several public talks in Egypt, Bulgaria, The United States and Qatar. He was also a Volunteer Researcher at the Department of Science and Education of The Field Museum in Chicago 2013-2015.

List of Archaeological Sites & Museums in Peloponnese

The Peloponnese is that large peninsular that makes up the southernmost part of mainland Greece. Beautiful beaches contrast markedly with inland mountains and forests. Some of Greece’s most important ancient sites can be found in this region, including the ancient city of Corinth and the spectacular theatre of Epidaurus. Many amazing Medieval monuments, dramatic castles and fortresses simple Byzantine churches compliment a striking natural landscape … Read More.