the sanctuary of asclepius in epidaurus

From the Archaic period onwards the Greek developed physical and spiritual therapies, which were often practised together – notably in a few hundred temples dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing.  The most famous of these sanctuaries was located at Epidaurus on the western Peloponnese. Many legends and stories about miraculous healings of pilgrims have been reported by ancient Greek writers.

The site is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1988. Today we the remnants of the central shrine, baths, hostels, a gymnasium, and a stadium – partly rebuilt according to ancient descriptions. The huge theatre, which is famous for it’s acoustics is still in use today.

In the sanctuary (the Asklepeion) sophisticated healing rituals were practised. The sick were cleansed by purificatory rites, then admitted to the porch of the temple, where they spent one or two days in prayer and meditation. Thus prepared, they slept in a separate dormitory, the Abaton, sometimes under the influence of narcotics, so that the god might appear to them in dreams for inspiration, healing, and guidance. Such treatment was often supplemented by baths, massage, gymnastics, and diet.

From the on site presentation board:

During antiquity the city of Epidauros was an important local centre in the Argolid, on account of the tracts of fertile land in its environs and, primarily, of its harbour on the Baronic Gulf , which facilitated swift communication with Corinth, Athens, Aegina, and the Aegean in general. Indications of habitation on the site of the later city date back to the third millennium BCE. Chamber tombs on the hillocks overlooking the harbour bear witness to a significant heyday during the Mycenaean period (2nd millennium BCE). In historical times Epidauros was a Dorian city. However, its population originated mainly from pre-Dorian tribes and vacillated between guarded relations or conflicts with the powerful Dorian centre of nearby Argos and relations of affinity with Ionian Athens and commercial Corinth.

Epidauros transcended its local importance thanks to its sacred centre of healing, the Asklepieion, which was considered the cradle of the art of medicine and mother sanctuary of the 200 or so Asklepieia dispersed throughout the ancient world, from the East as far as Rome. The healing cult at Epidauros had very deep roots. Already in the third millennium BCE there was an installation near the springs on Mt Kynortion which developed into a sacred precinct (temenos) in Mycenaean times, where a female deity and her consort were worshipped.
Purification with water and the communal meal with the divine, from the animal offered in sacrifice, functioned here as a process underpinning man’s health. A similar pre-Dorian cult, of Apollo Maleatas, a god with therapeutic qualities, developed in the ruins of this sanctuary early in the-first millennium BCE and reached its zenith in the seventh century BCE. The city of Epidauros, emphasizing its tradition, adopted this old-established-religious centre as its official sanctuary, even though it was 8 km away from the city centre and close to the border with the territory of Argos. Each year a cult procession found its way from the city to the sanctuary, along a sacred path. Some traces are visible today.

In the same period or slightly later (6th c. BCE), in the plain below the old sanctuary, a twin cult developed that combined the tradition of Apollo Maleatas with related elements of possibly Thessalian provenance, which characterized Asklepios. The god was presented here as son of the healer Apollo, who had been abandoned by his mother on Mt Titthion. The new elements of healing, alongside the traditional ones (water and commensality with the divine), are the bath and the enkoimeses (incubation). First the bath purifies and then in the sleep – imitation of death and resurrection – the god approaches the patient in a dream and miraculously cures him/her.
The fourth and third centuries BC were the period of zenith for the sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas and Asklepios. Their space was organized with monumental buildings including the enkoimeterion (dormitory), ceremonial hestiatorion (banquet hall), stadium, theatre, hospice, temple and altar of Apollo Maleatas, etc.

The city of Epidauros increasingly drew its importance from this religious center, whose fame spread throughout the then-known world. The miraculous cure was based on magical energy and auto-suggestion; but the observation and the recording of it created a body of experience and empirical knowledge of scientific healing (exercise, baths, diets, pharmaceuticals, surgical operations). Whole families of physicians began to distinguish themselves in the city of Epidauros.

In the first century BCE the sanctuary was plundered during a war against Rome waged by the King of Pontus, Mithridates.

In imperial times, however, and particularly in the second century CE, it enjoyed a new bloom with extensive rebuilding. In the fourth century CE, probably during the reign of Julian the Apostate, the sanctuary was hurriedly reorganized; it was confined to its central part by a perimetric stoa which delimited two adjoining rectangles in inverted L-shaped arrangement. For an interval the ancient pagan and the new Christian religion must have coexisted, as indicated by the later antique tombs of idolaters in the south of the sanctuary and the ruins of the large basilica in the north.