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  • Writer's pictureLucy Felmingham, MA

A Brief History of the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Athens

What is the Sanctuary of Asclepius?

The Sanctuary of Asclepius is the remains of a healing sanctuary founded in the 5th century BC in response to the plagues of Athens.

Row of columns at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

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Sanctuary of Asclepius History

The Sanctuary of Asclepius honours the eponymous hero and god of healing, and Hygieia, goddess and personification of health and cleanliness, who is often portrayed as the daughter of Asclepius. There were a number of such sanctuaries in the ancient world, which were essentially healing temples or basic hospitals. Patients would come to sleep in the temple and experience enkoimesis, when the god would reveal cures to them through dreams. It's likely that over time both religious ritual and pharmaceutical medicine, even surgery, were practised alongside each other. This particular Asclepeion was founded and developed towards the end of the 5th century BC during the Peloponnesian War, probably as a result of the deadly plagues that struck Athens in the 430s and 420s, which killed a quarter of the city’s population (including the great statesman Pericles!)

The sanctuary was surrounded by a wall and access was through a propylon or gateway. Inside this there was a relatively small Ionic temple to Asclepius, with two stoas (or porticos) behind. The Ionic stoa (dated to around the time the sanctuary was founded) was probably used as a dining hall and lodgings for the priests of Asclepius and their visitors. The Doric stoa, a two-storey building with 17 Doric columns on its façade dated to the 4th century BC, had access to a sacred spring in a cave in the rock and a pit that’s thought to have housed Asclepius’s sacred serpents, which would crawl among the suppliants sleeping in the sanctuary. This was the abaton, where patients slept in their bid to be inspired by the god. The sanctuary was also famous for its paintings and statues.

The sanctuary was probably significantly damaged by the invasion of the Heruli (an early Germanic tribe) in the 3rd century AD. With the Byzantine outlawing of pagan worship by the 6th century, all the monuments of the Asclepeion were demolished and the materials repurposed for other building projects, such as the Beulé Gate (the Late Roman defensive wall in front of the Propylaea). However, the association with medicine and healing continued: a large three-aisled Early Christian Basilica was built and dedicated to early Christian healers. The spring became a Christian holy site. Later, the basilica was destroyed and two smaller, single-aisled temples were built on the site of the basilica in the 11th and 13th centuries respectively. The remains of the site were covered with soil and fortifications built by the Franks and the Ottomans. More recently, partial restorations have been conducted on the site.

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