Corinth: Tyrant's city still a treasure

By Jim Eagles

Corinth's ruthless ancient ruler would be satisfied with his domain's progress, muses Jim Eagles.

The Temple of Apollo's seven huge columns give a feel for just how magnificent it must have been in its heyday. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Temple of Apollo's seven huge columns give a feel for just how magnificent it must have been in its heyday. Photo / Jim Eagles

The majestic Temple of Apollo still rules over the ancient Greek city of Corinth as it has done since it arose upon the rocky terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea more than 2500 years ago.

Built to replace an even earlier temple erected on the same site 200-300 years before, the seven huge columns that remain loom above the landscape in suitably god-like fashion, giving a feel for just how magnificent it must have been in its heyday.

Below lie some equally impressive remains of the city which surrounded it, including a row of stone shops - a reminder that Corinth was one of the great commercial hubs of the Mediterranean - humble homes and grand villas; the remains of the old agora, where political and commercial deals were done; and the superb Pierene Fountain, with its complex of wells, reservoirs, baths and water channels.

Standing in the shadow of the temple and looking down on the old town, I felt that the tyrant Periander, a harsh but interesting ruler of this city in the 7th century BC, would be quite pleased if he could revisit the place today.

For a start, even though ancient Corinth was torched by the Romans in 146BC and the Visigoths in 395AD, as well as being wrecked by a succession of earthquakes down the centuries, thanks to a century of archaeological excavations there's still quite a lot of the ancient city to admire.

And, in the associated museum, there's plenty more evidence of its wealth and power, including a superb mosaic of Dionysus, samples of the pottery for which Corinth was famous and rows of (headless) statues of its famous sons.

But perhaps more importantly, Periander would surely be delighted to find that the canal he first proposed 2700 years ago, to link the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Sea and save the 700km voyage around the Peloponnesian Peninsula, was eventually built.

There were a lot of false starts, including efforts by Julius Caesar and the Emperor Nero, but it was finally opened in 1893, its 6.3km-long channel hailed as a marvel of modern engineering.

True, with the passing of time, its 24m width has become too narrow for modern freighters, so today it is mainly used by tourist boats. During the 30 minutes I stood on a bridge above the canal, only one large yacht came through. But with its towering 52m-high rock walls framing the brilliant turquoise waters of the surrounding sea, it remains a spectacular sight.

Afterwards our driver pointed out, not faraway, the remains of the portage road that Periander ordered built instead of a canal. I'm sure the old tyrant would be especially pleased that something remains of his large public works programme.

But I'd imagine he'd have mixed feelings at the sight, a bit further down the coast, of the Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge, opened in 2004, which provides an alternative route across the Gulf of Corinth to mainland Greece, allowing vehicles to avoid the narrow isthmus on which Corinth sits.

On one hand, no proud Greek could fail to be impressed by the engineering triumph represented by the bridge - at 2880m, it is the world's longest multi-span cable-stayed bridge - or its sheer beauty. On the other, a former ruler of Corinth would doubtless be quick to see that this bypassing of his city threatens its prosperity.

Not having to worry about such matters, I just climbed to the viewing point on top of the toll gates and admired the glorious sight of this legendary sea, the symmetrical splendour of the bridge and the rugged grandeur of the rocky hills of Greece beyond.

But, stunning though the bridge was and intriguing as I found the canal, my favourite moment in Corinth came as I was exploring the remains of the ancient city and happened across a clump of poppies growing in the shelter of a fallen pillar. I sat down on a chunk of marble to admire their brilliant red colour and mused that the very same poppies would have been growing here when the city was in its heyday and the Temple of Apollo, looming in the background, was thronging with worshippers. Indeed, Homer mentions the flower in the Iliad, comparing the head of a dying warrior to that of a hanging poppy.

As I sat there daydreaming, it was easy to imagine the ruined shops, houses and temples around this site were complete again, the shapes moving around were not tourists but ancient Corinthians in their tunics, and Periander was still sending his fleet of triremes out across the ancient world.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates provides daily services from Dubai to Athens with connections from its three daily flights from Auckland. Fares are currently from $2765 return (inclusive of all taxes).

Further information: Visit Tempo Holidays.

Jim Eagles visited Corinth with help from Emirates and Tempo Holidays.

- NZ Herald

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