UP TO 14 GUESTS
4 Days Christmas in Greece Private Tour
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Christmas in Greece private tour
- Acropolis Hill – Parthenon – Erechtheion – Dionysus Theatre – Herodion Odeon
- Temple of Zeus – Arch of Hadrian
- Old Olympic Stadium
- Parliament – Changing of the Guard
- Academy of science – Athens University – National Library
- Ancient Agora
- New Acropolis Museum
- Lycabettus Hill
- Plaka – The Old City
- Trikala Town
- Mill of the Elves
- Kalambaka Village
- The Park of the Wishes
- Thermopylae Battlefield – Leonidas statue
Sightseeing in Athens starts with the hill of Acropolis which will make your day. On the historical hill, you will have the opportunity to see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Temple of the Athena Nike, the monumental gateway (Propylaea), the Erechtheum and of course the famous Parthenon, the main temple dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena.
After the Acropolis, we will head towards the Temple of Zeus by way of Hadrians Arch and from there we will visit Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896. Next driving alongside the National Garden, we will see the changing of the guard (Evzones) in front of the old palace, which is today Parliament House, above the central square of Athens.
After that, we will drive to Panepistimiou Street one of the most historical streets of Athens to see numerous neoclassical buildings still standing and dating back to the late 19th century but more importantly we’ll see the architectural trilogy of Athens (The Academy – The University – The National Library). Then moving into the historical center of the city we will drive up the highest hill of Athens, Lycabettus Hill, where you’ll have the best panoramic view of the city, from the hill of Acropolis to the Aegean Sea. You will be feeling hungry by now so next stop is going to be a traditional Greek tavern with authentic Greek dishes or fresh fish – seafood by the sea.
After lunch, we will visit the two historically old neighborhoods of Athens, Plaka, and Monastiraki, where the famous Andrianou Street is located, and be ending at the flea market (shopping area). Where you will also visit the Roman Agora and the Tower of The Winds and let’s not forget the Ancient Greek Agora which is considered the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and free speech. In the ancient Greek Agora, you will visit the Temple of Hephaestus (the best-preserved temple in Greece standing largely as built) and a small museum house under the Portico of Attalos. Eventually bringing us to the New Acropolis Museum. A brand new museum opened in 2009 to host all the findings that have been excavated on the hill of Acropolis and its slopes also known as the museum of the senses. It is counted as one of the best museums in the world.
On the second day we will drive away from Athens, crossing mountains and valleys we will arrive at Trikala Town. Trikala combines innovation and culture with respect to the local history. The Byzantine castle dominates the city, while Lythaios River crosses it giving a romantic aspect. Moreover, Trikala is friendly and offers special local flavors and spirits of high quality while the visitors explore the city with bicycles and boats in Litheos River or walk in its open spaces and museums.
But at Christmas this city is transformed into the biggest Christmas Thematic Park in Greece! Santa Claus, the Princess of the Moon, the Fairy Halloween, the tree-yard, Play Mobil’s Knights’ Castle, the Elf Knowledge Workshop, Face Painting, Climbing and Mushroom Workshops will be there to transfer you to the magic Christmas world!
After spending our day at Trikala we will drive to Kalambaka to overnight at the small town that is surrounded by the rocks of Meteora.
After spending the night we’ll start in the morning with a visit to the monasteries and a closer look at the sacred rocks. On the rocks that are like suspended in air (that’s what Meteora means) exists one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox Monasteries still in use. They combine natural beauty and cultural heritage a fact that makes them a rare destination between the world’s monuments.
Then we will drive to Larissa to spend rest of our day. In the region of Thessaly, the capital city lies surrounded by lush valleys, and some of the most imposing mountains in Greece. A lively agricultural and university town whose sights and energetic cafe and bar scene make it worth a stop.
At Christmas the city’s biggest park changes into a magical Thematic Park, the Park of Wishes! A frozen lake, a colorful Fun Park, the North Pole-Train, the House of Santa Claus, the Workshop of the elves, the Sugar House, the Fairy tale Land, the Mushrooms Land, the Palace of the Queen of the Ice, Carousel, the Academy of the small wizards and the Christmas Market will be set up in Alcazar which is going to be filled with colorful ornaments, glamorous lamps, Christmas trees, snow, stars, angels, gifts and sweets…
After this magic land we will drive to Volos to overnight. Volos is one of the largest and most attractive cities in Greece as well as one of the country’s most prominent ports. The modern-day city, built near the site of ancient Iolcos, dominates the region of Magnesia from its position at the foot of Mount Pelion overlooking the Pagasetic Gulf. The area’s mythical background captivates the visitor’s imagination. Its famous tsipouradika is a must if you want to taste greek tsipouro (spirit) and meze (snack).
The last day you will have some free time at Volos to walk around the Christmas markets and enjoy the sea breeze. Then we will drive south, on our way to Athens we will stop at the battlefield of Thermopylae where Leonidas and his 300 bravely died back in 480 BC.
Inclusions - Exclusions
Private Tours are personal and flexible just for you and your party.
- Professional Drivers with Deep knowledge of history. [Not licensed to accompany you in any site.]
- Accommodation and breakfast (according to your booking)
- Hotel pickup and drop-off
- Guaranteed to skip the long lines / Tickets are NOT included
- The entrance at the Christmas Thematic Parks is free
- Bottled water
- Licensed Tour guide on request (Additional cost)
- Accommodation and breakfast (according to your booking)
- Entrance Fees for archaeological sites and museums
- Personal expenses (drinks, meals, etc.)
- Airport Pick Up and drop-off (Additional cost)
Admission Fees for Sites:
SUMMER PERIOD: 1 April – 31 October
WINTER PERIOD: 1 Nov – 31 March
Combined Ticket valid for 5 days:
- Acropolis of Athens
- Ancient Agora of Athens
- Kerameikos Museum
- Roman Agora of Athens
- Temple of Zeus
- Archaeological Site of Lykeion
- Hadrian’s Library
(Valid for all sites) Full : €30,00
Winter : 08:30 – 17:00
Summer: 08:00 – 20:00
Full : €20,00 – Reduced: € 10,00
Winter : 08:30 – 17:00
Summer: 08:00 – 20:00
Temple of Zeus:
Full : € 8,00 – Reduced: € 4,00
Winter : 08:30 – 17:00
Summer: 08:00 – 20:00
Full : € 10,00 – Reduced: € 5,00
Winter : 08:30 – 17:00
Summer: 08:00 – 20:00
Full: €10,00 – Reduced: € 5,00
Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday: 09:00 – 17:00
Friday: 09:00 – 22:00
Saturday and Sunday: 09:00 – 20:00
Monday: 08:00 – 16:00
Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday: 08:00 – 20:00
Friday: 08:00 – 22:00
Saturday and Sunday: 08:00 – 20:00
Athens National Archaeological Museum:
Full: € 10,00 -, Reduced: € 5,00
Winter – Summer: 08:00 – 20:00
Thermopylae’s Historical Center:
Full: € 3,00 – Reduced: € 1,00
Winter & Summer: (Mon-Sun): 09:00-17:00
- 1 January: closed
- 6 January: 08:00 – 15:00
- Shrove Monday: 08:00 – 15:00
- 25 March: closed
- Good Friday: until 12:00 – 17:00
- Holy Saturday: 08:00 – 15:00
- Easter Sunday: closed
- Easter Monday: 08:00 – 20:00
- 1 May: closed
- Holy Spirit Day: 08:00 – 20:00
- 15 August: 08:00 – 20:00
- 28 October: 08:00 – 15:00
- 25 December: closed
- 26 December: closed
- Escorting teachers during the visits of schools and institutions of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary education and of military schools.
- Members of Societies and Associations of Friends of Museums and Archaeological Sites throughout Greece with the demonstration of certified membership card
- Members of the ICOM-ICOMOS
- Persons possessing a free admission card
- The employees of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Archaeological Receipts Fund, upon presentation of their service ID card.
- The official guests of the Greek government, with the approval of the General Director of Antiquities.
- Young people, under the age of 18, after demonstrating the Identity Card or passport to confirm the age.
Free admission days:
- 6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
- 18 April (International Monuments Day)
- 18 May (International Museums Day)
- The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
- Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
- 28 October
Reduced admission for:
- Greek citizens and citizens of other Member – States of the European Union who are over 65 years old, upon presentation of their ID card or passport for verification of their age and country of origin.
- Holders of a solidarity card
- Holders of a valid unemployment card.
- Large families’ parents of children up to 23 yrs old, or up to 25 yrs old (on military service/studying), or child with disabilities regardless the age, having a certified pass of large families, certification from the Large Family Association or a family status certificate issued by the Municipality
- Persons with disabilities (67 % or over) and one escort, upon presentation of the certification of disability issued by the Ministry of Health or a medical certification from a public hospital, where the disability and the percentage of disability are clearly stated.
- Single-parent families with minors, upon presentation of a family status certificate issued by the Municipality. In the case of divorced parents, only the parent holding custody of the children
- The police officers of the Department of Antiquity Smuggling of the Directorate of Security
- Tourist guides upon presentation of their professional ID cards.
- University students and students at Technological Educational Institutes or equivalent schools from countries outside the EU by showing their student ID.
The Acropolis hill (acro – edge, polis – city), so-called the “Sacred Rock” of Athens, is the most important site of the city and constitutes one of the most recognizable monuments of the world. It is the most significant reference point of ancient Greek culture, as well as the symbol of the city of Athens itself as it represents the apogee of artistic development in the 5th century BCE. During Perikles’ Golden Age, ancient Greek civilization was represented in an ideal way on the hill and some of the architectural masterpieces of the period were erected on its ground.
The Propylaea is the monumental entrances to the sacred area dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. Built by the architect Mnesicles with Pentelic marble, their design was avant-garde. To the south-west of the Propylaea, on a rampart protecting the main entrance to the Acropolis, is the Ionian temple of Apteros Nike or Wingless Victory.
The Parthenon. It is the most important and characteristic monument of the ancient Greek civilization and still remains its international symbol. It was dedicated to Athena Parthenos (the Virgin), the patron goddess of Athens. It was built between 447 and 438 B.C.E. and its sculptural decoration was completed in 432 B.C.E. The construction of the monument was initiated by Perikles, the supervisor of the whole work was Pheidias, the famous Athenian sculptor, while Iktinos (or Ictinus) and Kallikrates (Callicrates) were the architects of the building. The temple is built in the Doric order and almost exclusively of Pentelic marble. It is peripheral, with eight columns on each of the narrow sides and seventeen columns on each of the long ones. The central part of the temple, called the cella, sheltered the famous chryselephantine cult statue of Athena, made by Pheidias. The rest of sculptural decoration, also by Phidias, was completed by 432 BCE. The sculptural decoration of the Parthenon is a unique combination of the Doric metopes and triglyphs on the entablature, and the Ionic frieze on the walls of the cella. The metopes depict the Gigantomachy on the east side, the Amazonomachy on the west, the Centauromachy on the south, and scenes from the Trojan War on the north. The Parthenon, the Doric temple, the pinnacle of Pericles’ building program, is beyond question the building most closely associated with the city of Athens, a true symbol of ancient Greek culture and its universal values.
The New Acropolis Museum:
As you enter the museum grounds, look through the plexiglass floor to see the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighborhood, which were artfully incorporated into the museum design after being uncovered during excavations. This dazzling modernist museum at the foot of the Acropolis’ southern slope showcases its surviving treasures still in Greek possession. While the collection covers the Archaic and Roman periods, the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BCE, considered the apotheosis of Greece’s artistic achievement. The museum cleverly reveals layers of history, floating over ruins with the Acropolis visible above, showing the masterpieces in context. The surprisingly good-value restaurant has superb views (and reviews); there’s also a fine gift shop.
The Temple of Zeus:
This marvel is right in the center of Athens. It is the largest temple in Greece. Building began in the 6th century BCE by Peisistratos, (but it was abandoned for lack of funds). Various other leaders attempted to finish it, but it was left to Hadrian to complete the work in AD 131 – taking more than 700 years in total to build. The temple is impressive for the sheer size of it. Originally it had 104 Corinthian columns (17 m high and with a base diameter of 1.7 m). Unfortunately, only 15 remains (the fallen one was blown down in a gale in 1852). Hadrian also put up a colossal statue of Zeus (in the cella) and because he was such a modest fellow he placed an equally large one of himself next to it.
The Roman emperor Hadrian had a great affection for Athens. Although he did his fair share of spiriting its classical artwork to Rome, he also embellished the city with many monuments influenced by classical architecture. His arch is a lofty monument of Pentelic marble that stands where busy Leoforos Vasilissis Olgas and Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias meet. Hadrian erected it in AD 132, probably to commemorate the consecration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The inscriptions show that it was also intended as a dividing point between the ancient and Roman city. The northwest frieze reads, ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’, while the southeast frieze states, ‘This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus’.
The Old Olympic Stadium/ Panathenaic Stadium:
The grand Panathenaic Stadium lies between two pine-covered hills(between the neighborhoods of Mets and Pangrati). It was originally built in the 4th century BCE as a venue for the Panathenaic athletic contests. It’s said that at Hadrian’s inauguration in AD 120, 1000 wild animals were sacrificed in the arena. Later, the seats were rebuilt in Pentelic marble by Herodes Atticus. There are seats for 70,000 spectators, a running track and a central area for field events. After hundreds of years of disuse, the stadium was completely restored in 1895 (by a wealthy Greek benefactor Georgios Averof) to host the first modern Olympic Games the following year. It’s a faithful replica of the original Panathenaic Stadium. There are seats for 70,000 people, a running track and a central area for field events. It made a stunning backdrop to the archery competition and the marathon finish during the 2004 Olympics. It’s occasionally used for concerts and public events, and the annual Athens marathon finishes here.
The Changing of the Guard:
Although the guards change hourly, there is a big ceremony once a week. These guards, the Evzones, stand motionless at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Getting into this unit is an honor, and they have to be over 6 ft. tall. They wear white tights, a white skirt, a white blouse with full sleeves, an embroidered vest, red cap, and shoes with big pom-poms. but don’t let the outfit fool you, these guys are the best of the best. The uniform is based on the clothing of the Klephts, mountain fighters who fought the Turks from the 15th Century until Greek independence in the 19th Century.
The Academy of Science:
The Academy Building constitutes one of three parts in an “architectural trilogy”. It was founded with the Constitutional Decree of March 18th, 1926, as an Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Fine Arts. The same Decree appointed its first members, who were all eminent representatives of the scientific, intellectual and artistic circles of that era. Designed in 1859, by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen (1813-1891, the younger brother of the University’s architect, Christian Hansen). It is considered the most important work of Hansen and is regarded by some experts as the most beautiful neoclassic building worldwide. The architect’s source of inspiration was the classical architecture of fifth century B.C.E. Athens, as portrayed in the monuments of the Acropolis. In particular, Hansen imitated the Ionian rhythm that dominates the building of the Academy, from the Erechtheion monument. The essence of all ancient Greek tradition can be found in the building’s sculptural and pictorial decoration; simultaneously the character of that era’s Hellenism and its visions for the future are also expressed.
The University of Athens:
The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens is the largest state institution of higher learning in Greece, and among the largest universities in Europe. The splendid Athens University was designed by the Danish architect Christian Hansen and completed in 1864. It was the first of the Architectural Trilogy to be built. It still serves as the university’s administrative headquarters. To its left is the Athens Academy, designed by Hansen’s brother Theophile. Unfortunately, neither is open to the public.
The National Library:
The National Library of Greece was built at the end of the 19th century, as the last of the Architectural Trilogy of Athens, a group of three neoclassical buildings which also includes the Academy and the University. The building was designed by Theophil Hansen, a Danish architect who had studied classical architecture in Vienna and Athens. (He had also previously worked on the University – together with his older brother Christian, as well as on the Zappeion and the Academy of Athens). Construction of the National Library started in 1887 and was completed fifteen years later. Theophil Hansen died in 1891 and would never see his building completed. The National Library was designed as a Doric temple flanked by two wings and built almost entirely with Pentelic marble. The design of the Doric building was based on that of the Propylaea on the Acropolis. (It is devoid of any sculptural ornamentation; even the tympanum is left undecorated). Two wide winding staircases lead to the entrance of the “temple”. The statue standing between the staircases shows one of the benefactors of the library, the merchant Panaghis Athanassiou Vallianos. The building houses a large collection of books, maps, newspapers, and manuscripts in Greek and other languages. Most interesting is the collection of Greek manuscripts, some of which are more than 1400 years old.
In the heart of ancient Athens was the Agora, the lively, crowded focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates talked about his philosophy here, and in AD 49 St Paul came here to speak on Christianity. The site was occupied without interruption throughout the city’s history. It was used as a residential and burial area as early as the Late Neolithic Period (3000BCE) but it was first developed as a public site in the 6th century BC (the time of Solon). The Agora was devastated by the Persians in 480 B.C.E., but a new one was built in its place almost immediately. It was flourishing by Pericles’ time and continued to do so until AD 267 when it was destroyed by the Herulians (a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia). The Turks built a residential quarter on the site, but this was demolished by archaeologists after Independence and later excavated to classical and, in parts, Neolithic levels. The site today is a grand, refreshing break, with beautiful monuments and temples and a fascinating museum. The museum is housed in the Stoa of Attalos, and its exhibits are connected with the Athenian democracy. The collection of the museum includes clay, bronze and glass objects, sculptures, coins and inscriptions from the 7th to the 5th century B.C.E., as well as pottery of the Byzantine period and the Turkish occupation.
The Roman Agora:
The entrance to the Roman Agora is through the well-preserved Gate of Athena Archegetis, flanked by four Doric columns. It was financed by Julius Caesar and erected sometime during the 1st century AD. In it is the Tower of Winds. The well-preserved, extraordinary Tower of the Winds was built in the 1st century B.C.E. by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus. The octagonal monument of Pentelic marble is an ingenious construction that functioned as a sundial, weather vane, water clock, and compass. Each side of the tower represents a point of the compass, with a relief of a floating figure representing the wind associated with that particular point. Beneath each of the reliefs are faint sundial markings. The weather vane, which disappeared long ago, was a bronze Triton that revolved on top of the tower. The Turks allowed dervishes to use the tower. The rest of the ruins are quite bare. To the right of the entrance are foundations of a 1st-century public latrine. In the southeast area are foundations of a propylon (fortified tower) and a row of shops.
The Hill of Lycabettus:
The name Lykavittus appears in various legends. Popular stories suggest it was once the refuge of wolves, (Lycos in Greek), which is possibly the origin of its name (means “the one [the hill] that is walked by wolves”). Mythologically, Lycabettus is credited to Athena, who created it when she dropped a mountain she had been carrying from Pallene for the construction of the Acropolis.
There is a path that leads to the summit Alternatively, take the funicular railway, or Telerik or a drive up to the top. Don’t try to walk up (pilgrims used to, but it’s an Everest for the faithless). The panorama from the top is priceless – all the way to Mount Parnes in the north, west to Piraeus and the Saronic Gulf, with the Acropolis sitting like a ruminative lion halfway to the sea. There’s also a cafe/restaurant up there. Perched on the summit is the little Chapel of Agios Georgios, floodlit like a beacon over the city at night. The open-air Lykavittos Theatre, northeast of the summit, hosts concerts in summer. And many famous artists have performed there.
Plaka – The Old Town:
Stroll through the streets of Plaka – the city’s Old Town. Sprawled over the side of Athens’ Acropolis, this historical neighborhood comprises a maze of cobbled streets lined with Neoclassical architecture, Byzantine churches, and busy independent shops. On the northernmost streets of Plaka is the area is known as Anafiotika — an idyllic cluster of whitewashed houses that are reminiscent of buildings in the Greek islands. Admire Anafiotika’s pretty Cycladic architecture, built by 19th-century workers who emigrated here from Anafi Island. It’s thought the workers were homesick for their native island life, so painted the buildings bright white to remind them of Anafi. Feel like an islander on the mainland.
The town of Trikala is built upon the ancient town “Trika” or “Triki” founded around the 3rd millennium BC. The name Trikala came from the nymph Triki, daughter of “Pinios” river. The town was of great importance during the ancient times due to the fact that Asklipios lived and activated himself in Trikala. In the region there used to be one of the most important and ancient monuments of Aesculapius. The town also according to Iliad of Great Homer seems to take place in the war of Troy on the side of Greeks. Trikala was also the capital of the kingdom during the Mycenean time and later it became the centre of the state of “Estiotida” possessing the land that the Prefecture of Trikala has today described by the geographer Stravona.
During historical times Trikala as well as the area around the river were both developed. In the beginning, it was under the Persian domination in 480 BC while ten years later it became part of the Monetary Committee of citizens of Thessaly. In 352 BC it became one with the Macedonia of Philip the 2nd. In 168 BC the Romans took the town under their control.
The castle lies on a hill at the northeastern side of the city, and was first built by Emperor Justinian I ( 527–565) on the ruins of the acropolis of the ancient city of Trikke. The citadel suffered much damage during its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1393, but the city’s importance meant that it was quickly repaired and strengthened.
Meteora is an exquisite complex that consists of huge dark stone pillars rising outside Trikala, near the mountains of Pindos. The monasteries that sit on top of these rocks make up the second most important monastic community in Greece, after Mount Athos in Halkidiki. Out of the thirty monasteries that were founded throughout the centuries, only six of them are active today.
The history of Meteora goes back to many millenniums. Theories on the creation of this natural phenomenon are associated with the geological movements that occurred over several geological periods. Scientists believe that these pillars were formed about 60 million years ago, during the Tertiary Period. At the time, the area was covered by sea but a series of earth movements caused the seabed to withdraw. The mountains left were continuously hit by strong winds and waves, which, in combination with extreme weather conditions, affected their shape, leaving us with pillars composed of sandstone and conglomerate. In the Byzantine times, monks had the inspiration to construct monasteries on top of these rocks so that they would be closer to god.
The foundation of Meteora monasteries began around the 11th century. In the 12th century, the first ascetic state was officially formed and established a church to the Mother our Lord as their worshiping center. Activities of this church were not only related to worshiping God, but hermits used these occasions to discuss their problems and exchange ideas relating their ascetic life there. In the 14th century, Saint Athanasios established the Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration of Jesus and named this huge rock Meteoro, which means hanged from nowhere. This monastery is also known as the Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron, the largest of all monasteries.
For many centuries, the monks used scaffolds for climbing the rocks and getting supplies. As years passed, this method was followed by the use of nets with hooks and rope ladders. Sometimes a basket was used, which was pulled up by the monks. Wooden ladders of 40 meters long were also one of the essential tools for accessing the monasteries. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Meteora was at its prime with the arrival of many monks from other monasteries or people who wanted to lead an ascetic life in this divine environment. However, the prosperity of Meteora during that time started to fade away after the 17th century mainly due to the raids of thieves and conquerors. These caused many monasteries to be abandoned or destructed. Today, only 6 monasteries operate with a handful of monks each. The only nunnery (female monastery) is the Monastery of Agios Stefanos.
The name Larissa means fortress. Larissa was a polis (city-state) during the Classical Era. Larissa is thought to be where the famous Greek physician Hippocrates.
The constitution of the town was democratic, which explains why it sided with Athens in the Peloponnesian War. In the neighbourhood of Larissa was celebrated a festival which recalled the Roman Saturnalia, and at which the slaves were waited on by their masters. As the chief city of ancient Thessaly, Larissa was taken by the Thebans and later directly annexed by Philip II of Macedon in 344. It remained under Macedonian control afterwards.
It was in Larissa that Philip V of Macedon signed in 197 BC a treaty with the Romans after his defeat at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, and it was there also that Antiochus III the Great, won a great victory in 192 BC. In 196 BC Larissa became an ally of Rome and was the headquarters of the Thessalian League. Larissa was sacked by the Ostrogoths in the late 5th century, and rebuilt under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1386/87.
Magnesia features in some of the most remarkable tales in Greek mythology. It is believed to be the birthplace of a strange race, the Centaurs, beings which were part equine, part human. Asclepius and Achilles were, among others, pupils of the Centaur Chiron. The famous Argonaut expedition, one of the greatest epics in the Greek mythological cycle, set sail from the Pagasetic Gulf.
Far from mythology the first populations that settled down in the area date back to the early prehistoric period (7.000 B.C.). Some of the most important Neolithic sites, not only for Greece but for the major area of the Balkans, are located in this area. Up until now, the archaeological research has brought to light more than 40 Neolithic settlements (7.000 – 4.000 B.C.), some of which continued to exist until the Bronze Age (3.000 – 1.000 B.C.). The most important settlements of this period in the area are Sesklo and Dimini.
In the east of the hill of Dimini’s prehistoric settlement, the mycenean city of lolkos (1.400 – 1.200 B.C.) was located. lolkos had been an important economic and cultural centre of the major area, during that period and its name is directly connected with the myth of the Argonautical Enterprise.
The most important establishment of the ancient and the early Byzantine period in the area was Dimitriada. It was founded in about 293 B.C. There is little information and an absence of archaeological findings for the period that follows, from the 6th century A.D. until the envasion by the Turks in 1423.
During the period of the turkish occupation, Pilio became the area’s economic and cultural centre for the greek population. During the 18th century and particularly the end of it, Pelio flourished financially due to commercial and shipping activities. Pelion won its independence in 1881, when the whole of Thessaly was integrated to the Greek State
Thermopylae is a mountain pass near the sea in northern Greece which was the site of several battles in antiquity, the most famous being that between Persians and Greeks in August 480 BCE. Despite being greatly inferior in numbers, the Greeks held the narrow pass for three days with Spartan King Leonidas fighting a last-ditch defense with a small force of Spartans and other Greek hoplites. Ultimately the Persians took control of the pass, but the heroic defeat of Leonidas would assume legendary proportions for later generations of Greeks, and within a year the Persian invasion would be repulsed at the battles of Salamis and Plataea.
CONTEXT: THE PERSIAN WARS
By the first years of the 5th century BCE, Persia, under the rule of Darius (r. 522-486 BCE), was already expanding into mainland Europe and had subjugated Thrace and Macedonia. Next, in king Darius’ sights were Athens and the rest of Greece. Just why Greece was craved by Persia is unclear. Wealth and resources seem an unlikely motive; other more plausible suggestions include the need to increase the prestige of the king at home or to quell once and for all a collection of potentially troublesome rebel states on the western border of the empire.
Whatever the exact motives, in 491 BCE Darius sent envoys to call for the Greeks’ submission to Persian rule. The Greeks sent a no-nonsense reply by executing the envoys, and Athens and Sparta promised to form an alliance for the defense of Greece. Darius’ response to this diplomatic outrage was to launch a naval force of 600 ships and 25,000 men to attack the Cyclades and Euboea, leaving the Persians just one step away from the rest of Greece. In 490 BCE Greek forces led by Athens met the Persians in battle at Marathon and defeated the invaders. The battle would take on mythical status amongst the Greeks, but in reality, it was merely the opening overture of a long war with several other battles making up the principal acts. Persia, with the largest empire in the world, was vastly superior in men and resources and now these would be fully utilized for a full-scale attack.
In 486 BCE Xerxes became king upon the death of Darius and massive preparations for an invasion was made. Depots of equipment and supplies were laid, a canal dug at Chalkidike, and boat bridges built across the Hellespont to facilitate the movement of troops. Greece was about to face its greatest ever threat, and even the oracle at Delphi ominously advised the Athenians to ‘fly to the world’s end’.
THE PASS OF THERMOPYLAE
When news of the invading force reached Greece, the initial Greek reaction was to send a force of 10,000 hoplites to hold position at the valley of Tempē near Mt. Olympos, but these withdrew when the massive size of the invading army was revealed. Then after much discussion and compromise between Greek city-states, suspicious of each other’s motives, a joint army of between 6,000 and 7,000 men was sent to defend the pass at Thermopylae through which the Persians must enter to access mainland Greece. The Greek forces included 300 Spartans and their helots with 2,120 Arcadians, 1,000 Lokrians, 1,000 Phokians, 700 Thespians, 400 Corinthians, 400 Thebans, 200 men from Phleious, and 80 Mycenaeans.
The relatively small size of the defending force has been explained as reluctance by some Greek city-states to commit troops so far north, and/or due to religious motives, for it was the period of the sacred games at Olympia and the most important Spartan religious festival, the Karneia, and no fighting was permitted during these events. Indeed, for this very reason, the Spartans had arrived too late at the earlier battle of Marathon. Therefore, the Spartans, widely credited as being the best fighters in Greece and the only city-state with a professional army, contributed only a small advance force of 300 hoplites (from an estimated 8,000 available) to the Greek defensive force, these few being chosen from men with male heirs.
In addition to the land forces, the Greek city-states sent a fleet of trireme warships which held position off the coast of Artemision (or Artemesium) on the northern coast of Euboea, 40 nautical miles from Thermopylae. The Greeks would amass over 300 triremes and perhaps their main purpose was to prevent the Persian fleet sailing down the inland coast of Lokris and Boeotia.
The pass of Thermopylae, located 150 km north of Athens was an excellent choice for defense with steep mountains running down into the sea leaving only a narrow marshy area along the coast. The pass had also been fortified by the local Phokians who built a defensive wall running from the so-called Middle Gate down to the sea. The wall was in a state of ruin, but the Spartans made the best repairs they could in the circumstances. It was here, then, in a 15-meter wide gap with a sheer cliff protecting their left flank and the sea on their right that the Greeks chose to make a stand against the invading army. Having somewhere in the region of 80,000 troops at his disposal, the Persian king, who led the invasion in person, first waited four days in an expectation that the Greeks would flee in panic. When the Greeks held their position, Xerxes once again sent envoys to offer the defenders the last chance to surrender without bloodshed if the Greeks would only lay down their arms. Leonidas’ bullish response to Xerxes request was ‘molōn label’ or ‘come and get them’ and so battle commenced.
HOPLITES VS ARCHERS
The two opposing armies were essentially representative of the two approaches to Classical warfare – the Persians favoured long-range assault using archers followed up with a cavalry charge, whilst the Greeks favoured heavily-armoured hoplites, arranged in a densely packed formation called the phalanx, with each man carrying a heavy round bronze shield and fighting at close quarters using spears and swords. The Persian infantry carried a lightweight (often crescent-shaped) wicker shield and was armed with a long dagger or battleax, a short spear, and composite bow. The Persian forces also included the Immortals, an elite force of 10,000 who were probably better protected with armor and armed with spears. The Persian cavalry was armed as the foot soldiers, with a bow and an additional two javelins for throwing and thrusting. Cavalry, usually operating on the flanks of the main battle, were used to mop up opposing infantry put in disarray after they had been subjected to repeated showers from the archers. Although the Persians had enjoyed the upper hand in previous contests during the recent Ionian revolt, the terrain at Thermopylae would better suit the Greek approach to warfare.
Although the Persian tactic of rapidly firing vast numbers of arrows into the enemy must have been an awesome sight, the lightness of the arrows meant that they were largely ineffective against the bronze-armored hoplites. Indeed, Spartan indifference is epitomised by Dieneces, who, when told that the Persian arrows would be so dense as to darken the sun, replied that in that case, the Spartans would have the pleasure of fighting in the shade. At close quarters, the longer spears, heavier swords, better armor, and rigid discipline of the phalanx formation meant that the Greek hoplites would have all of the advantages, and in the narrow confines of the terrain, the Persians would struggle to make their vastly superior numbers count.
On the first day Xerxes sent his Median and Kissian troops, and after their failure to clear the pass, the elite Immortals entered the battle but in the brutal close-quarter fighting, the Greeks held firm. The Greek tactic of simulating a disorganized retreat and then turning on the enemy in the phalanx formation also worked well, lessening the threat from Persian arrows and perhaps the hoplites surprised the Persians with their disciplined mobility, a benefit of being a professionally trained army.
The second day followed the pattern of the first, and the Greek forces still held the pass. However, an unscrupulous traitor was about to tip the balance in favor of the invaders. Ephialtes, son of Eurydemos, a local shepherd from Trachis, seeking reward from Xerxes, informed the Persians of an alternative route –the Anopaia path– which would allow them to avoid the majority of the enemy forces and attack their southern flank. Leonidas had stationed the contingent of Phokian troops to guard this vital point but they, thinking themselves the primary target of this new development, withdrew to a higher defensive position when the Immortals attacked. This suited the Persians as they could now continue unobstructed along the mountain path and arrive behind the main Greek force. With their position now seemingly hopeless, and before their retreat was cut off completely, the bulk of the Greek forces were ordered to withdraw by Leonidas.
The Spartan king, on the third day of the battle, rallied his small force – the survivors from the original Spartan 300, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans – and made a rearguard stand to defend the pass to the last man in the hope of delaying the Persians progress, in order to allow the rest of the Greek force to retreat or also possibly to await relief from a larger Greek force. Early in the morning, the hoplites once more met the enemy, but this time Xerxes could attack from both front and rear and planned to do so but, in the event, the Immortals behind the Greeks were late on arrival. Leonidas moved his troops to the widest part of the pass to utilize all of his men at once, and in the ensuing clash, the Spartan king was killed. His comrades then fought fiercely to recover the body of the fallen king. Meanwhile, the Immortals now entered the fray behind the Greeks who retreated to a high mound behind the Phokian wall. Perhaps at this point, the Theban contingent may have surrendered (although this is disputed amongst scholars). The remaining hoplites now trapped and without their inspirational king, were subjected to a barrage of Persian arrows until no man was left standing. After the battle, Xerxes ordered that Leonidas’ head is put on a stake and displayed on the battlefield. As Herodotus claims in his account of the battle in book VII of The Histories, the Oracle at Delphi had been proved right when she proclaimed that either Sparta or one of her kings must fall.
Meanwhile, at Artemision, the Persians were battling the elements rather than the Greeks, as they lost 400 triremes in a storm off the coast of Magnesia and more in the second storm off Euboea. When the two fleets finally met, the Greeks fought late in the day and therefore limited the duration of each skirmish which diminished the numerical advantage held by the Persians. The result of the battle was, however, indecisive and on news of Leonidas’ defeat, the fleet withdrew to Salamis.
The battle of Thermopylae, and particularly the Spartans’ role in it, soon acquired mythical status amongst the Greeks. Free men, in respect of their own laws, had sacrificed themselves in order to defend their way of life against foreign aggression. As Simonedes’ epitaph at the site of the fallen stated: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders and here lie dead’.
A glorious defeat maybe, but the fact remained that the way was now clear for Xerxes to push on into mainland Greece. The Greeks, though, were far from finished, and despite many states now turning over to the Persians and Athens itself being sacked, a Greek army led by Leonidas’ brother Kleombrotos began to build a defensive wall near Corinth. Winter halted the land campaign, though, and at Salamis, the Greek fleet maneuvered the Persians into shallow waters and won a resounding victory. Xerxes returned home to his palace at Sousa and left the gifted general Mardonius in charge of the invasion. After a series of political negotiations, it became clear that the Persians would not gain victory through diplomacy and the two armies met at Plataea on August 479 BCE. The Greeks, fielding the largest hoplite army ever seen, won the battle and finally ended Xerxes’ ambitions in Greece.
As an interesting footnote: the important strategic position of Thermopylae meant that it was once more the scene of battle in 279 BCE when the Greeks faced invading Gauls, in 191 BCE when a Roman army defeated Antiochus III, and even as recent as 1941 CE when Allied New Zealand forces clashed with those of Germany.
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