Thiva, Greece: Accessible Antiquity

After Athens, Thiva was the most important city in ancient Greece and it’s easy to see why. A rarity in the mountainous and coastal terrain, the broad, sweeping flatlands hold dsc06167numerous archaeological sites. We began our tour in modern-day Thiva, a small city of pleasant, walkable streets and home to about 36,000 residents.

Spiros Kaskaveliotis started a bakery in 1991 and now his son Vasilis is part of the family business. They make a simple bread that is used in church. Anise from Syria and Turkey gives the bread a mild flavor. Since its formation, the business has expanded to include pastas to the tune of twenty-five tons every year. The owners export small amounts to England. We walked through the facility and saw the process including the heated drying cupboards. New grandson baby Spiros was clearly the biggest source of pride in the culinary family, however.

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We left the city and traveled through a wide valley of plowed fields that grow cotton, melons, olives, wheat, onions, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. One of the last city-state battles occurred in this area in which the Thivans defeated powerful Sparta. A victory monument commemorating the battle of Lefktra stands on the site, but the statue that would have crowned the pedestal is missing.

Next, we traveled to the small port village of dsc06209Aliki which boasts that it is the birthplace of Hercules. We also passed by the ruins of a castle where Jason and the Argonauts allegedly set sail in their quest to find the golden fleece.

A Mountaintop Monastery

A day touring around the Corinthian gulf area, however, wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a Christian monastery high on a mountain. Founded in the twelfth century by three brothers on the ruins of an ancient temple to Zeus, Panagia Makariotisa has a fascinating history of survival. Father Theodosious led us into the dimly lit and charred interior of the main sanctuary. After the Ottoman Turkish invasion, he explaineddsc06224, the buildings entered a period of decay. By the sixteenth century, little remained. Nevertheless, about 160 forward-thinking monks from a nearby monastery commenced renovations. We saw icons from the 1700s and religious paintings dating to the 1800s.

In 1943, however, Nazis burned three neighboring villages and bombed the entire monastery. The central church survived. Today, twenty-three monks live here and continue to make the ongoing renovations. I walked among the cobblestone passages dsc06220and climbed a set of stairs overlooking a narrow alley with friendly cats sitting on window ledges.dsc06234

Inside a large room, a delicious surprise awaited us. The monks had prepared a table with coffee and an array of dairy products that represented their current entrepreneurial efforts. Starting with ten Holstein cows from the Netherlands, they now farm a herd of 70 animals. Although employment of eight people from outside the monastery helps run the stables and factory, the organic products bring in enough income that they are able to donate excess profits to orphanages and nursing homes. When asked if there was a web site that we could refer our readers to, Father Theodosious simply said that thedsc06232y don’t like technology. As I sampled the heavenly rice pudding, yogurt with a layer of strawberry jelly and a single-serving bottle of chocolate milk, I tasted the love that goes into the products and understood why the monastery has survived through the ages.

During a late night banquet with the Organization for the Promotion of the Corinthian Gulf Region, the mayor presented each of us in attendance with a bronze medallion embossed with the ancient symbol of Thiva. The actual antiquities from the city-state awaited our inspection early the next morning. Opened just two months prior to our visit, the Archaeological Museum of Thiva is the crowning jewel of the area.

“Excavation is a book that you can read only once,” our young guide, Popi said as she took us through the incredible layers of history that had been unearthed in the regiondsc06276. Dating back to the 16th – 14th centuries B.C., the Myceneum period made use of clay to form tablets, pottery and coffins. The decorative elements took the form of geometric symbols and earthly creatures such as snakes and other animals. The twelve major gods of Greek mythology had not yet begun to appear in the culture.

During the Archaic period (defined as the 7th – 5th centuries B.C.), the gods emerged and carved statues appeared, often as grave markers. Popi explained that at this point in history, artisans didn’t have the technical means to sculpt human figures with extended arms or one leg placed in front of the other. For that reason, they had a stiff, formal appearance. Even the face took on the close-lipped “archaic smile.”

popi_archaic_smileWe asked Popi to demonstrate the archaic smile and the result was striking. Her classic Greek features could have been used as a model 2500 years ago for the statues next to her.

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The rest of the morning we learned about the aspects of Thivan civilization that made it the hub of culture apart from Athens. People traveled here to attend workshops in such trades as pottery making and bread baking. Theater was an integral part of the education system.

Soon we camdsc06294e upon a display case filled with a variety of small vases and clay figures. Popi pushed a button and the glass case rose. In an astonishing example of the accessibility of cultural antiquity, she invited us to pick up and examine the artifacts that were thousands of years old, driving home the point that history is very much alive today and is all around us.

–David Lee Drotar


If you go

For a simple, but modern and clean hotel dsc06164
in the heart of Thiva, book a room at Hotel Niovi. Although there is no elevator, your walk up to a front-facing room is amply rewarded with balcony doors that open onto a tree-lined pedestrian street.


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