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The Ancient City Of Helike

On a winter night in 373 B.C., the one-two punch of an earthquake followed by a surging tidal wave destroyed the grand old Greek city of Helike, near the Gulf of Corinth. The city was, coincidentally, a venerated center for worship of Poseidon, the god of earthquakes and the sea.

The land and the city ruins sank beneath the sea, and all the people were said to have perished. Ancient Greece had not known a natural disaster as devastating in more than 1,000 years, when an exploding volcano destroyed much of the island of Thera, modern Santorini. The Helike catastrophe, some scholars speculate, may have inspired Plato’s story of Atlantis, a land that supposedly sank to the bottom of the sea.

For several centuries after the disaster, writers like Pliny, Strabo and Ovid reported that the ruins could still be seen on the sea floor, just offshore. Then all traces of Helike disappeared. Here was another ”lost” city to challenge the sleuthing instincts of archaeologists.

In excavations this summer, Greek and American researchers uncovered what they think is the first evidence pointing to the location of Helike (pronounced ha-LEE-key). After 12 years of searching, mostly offshore and invariably in vain, they began digging on a coastal plain near the town of Aigion, 45 miles northwest of Corinth. Some of their first trenches yielded stones of a paved road and building walls, classical ceramics and a bronze coin, which was minted in the late 5th century B.C.

”It’s just a glimpse,” one of the researchers, Dr. Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History, said in an interview. ”But it’s the first strong evidence for Helike that is consistent with descriptions in ancient accounts.”

Dr. Soter and Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou, an archaeologist and president of the Ancient Helike Society in Aigion, reported the discovery at a recent conference of archaeologists in Greece. Though Dr. Soter is a planetary scientist, his research on earthquakes drew him into the search for Helike in collaboration with Dr. Katsonopoulou.

Dr. Soter directed the use of remote-sensing technology like magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar in surveying buried terrain where the city was thought to be. These surveys, followed by the sinking of scores of bore holes, located ancient ceramic fragments and other evidence of human occupation over an area of about one square mile. Digging among the orchards and vineyards of modern villages, archaeologists reached layers of sediment 10 feet deep bearing classical pottery along with seashells and other marine remains.

In their reports, the researchers said these findings suggested that the pavement and wall stones were from the time of Helike’s destruction and supported stories that the city ruins were for a long time submerged in the sea or a lagoon. The ruins were buried by silt, which, combined with a general uplifting of the land, had left the once-submerged site about half a mile inland from the present shore. A house built on the shore between the Selinous and Kerynites Rivers in the 1890’s is now about 1,000 feet from the sea.

”It’s a very important find in classical studies,” said Dr. Robert Stieglitz, an archaeologist and classics professor at Rutgers University at Newark. ”These are definitely signs of a settlement. Now they need to expand the excavations to look for the temple and theater and other public buildings that should be at the core of a city like Helike.”

As a measure of his confidence that the site of Helike has been found, Dr. Stieglitz said he would join the expanded excavations next summer.

Dr. Soter and Dr. Katsonopoulou said the discovery of paving stones from a buried road might be especially rewarding. So far, only a short segment of the road’s cobbles and boundary boulders have been uncovered, but enough to tantalize archaeologists.

”We think the road may be the best thing we could find,” Dr. Soter said. ”This could lead us to the rest of the city. And it could provide a relatively undisturbed ‘time capsule’ from the classical period of Greece.”

On the other hand, Dr. Soter acknowledged, the earthquake and tsunami, a towering sea wave, might have left few recognizable ruins. Scientists suspect that a strong earthquake set off a submarine landslide, which in turn produced the tsunami. Aftershocks of the quake could have caused the landscape to collapse, perhaps sinking below sea level. And a tsunami, perhaps more than 35 feet high, could have swept away most of the remains.

But digging deeper and wider at the likely site of Helike will probably be irresistible to archaeologists seeking to learn more about public and private life during the golden age of Greece. At the time of Helike’s destruction, Plato was teaching and Aristotle was a boy of 12. Socrates and Aristophanes had died at the beginning of the century.

Helike was an ancient Greek city-state (polis) that was submerged and destroyed by a tsunami in 373 BC. The city was located in the Northern Peloponnesus, within the regional unit of Achaea, approximately 1.2 mi from the Gulf of Corinth, near the city of Boura. Both Helike and Boura were members of the Achaean League, which was a confederation of Greek city-states during the Hellenistic-era. According to modern research, the catastrophe that destroyed Helike was the result of an earthquake, which triggered a tsunami. In an attempt to preserve the city’s ruins, the site was included in the World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

History Of Helike

Helike was established during the Bronze Age and became the primary city in Achaea. According to the Greek poet Homer, Helike fought with Agamemnon’s forces during the Trojan War. The city was later captured by the Achaeans and eventually became the leader of the Achaean League, an association of twelve cities in the region, including Aigo, which still exists today. Helike was also known as Dodekapolis, which combined the Greek words dodeka, which means “twelve,” and polis, meaning “city.” Helike became a religious and cultural center and had its coins. Some of the ancient coins recovered from Helike include two 5th century coins made of copper, which are now held in the Bode Museum in Berlin, Germany. The obverse side of the coin features the head of Poseidon, who was the city’s patron, while the reverse side features his trident. A temple in the city was also dedicated to Poseidon. The city-state established colonies, which included Sybaris, located in southern Italy, and Priene in Asia Minor. The panhellenic temple and sanctuary of Helekonian Poseidon were widely known across the classical world. In terms of religious significance, the temple was second only to Delphi.

The Disaster That Razed Down Helike

In the year 373 BC, Helike was destroyed on a winter night, two years after the Battle of Leuctra. It is said that several events warned of the disaster, including the fleeing of animals to Keryneia. The city and an area of about 1.2 sq mi were submerged by water from the sea, killing all residents and covering most buildings, with only a few structures projecting out of the sea. The disaster was blamed on the vengeance of Poseidon after the residents of Helike refused to give their state of Poseidon to the Ionian colonizers from Asia. Other historians suggest the residents of Helike and Bura had murdered deputies from Ionia. On August 23, 1817, a similar earthquake and tsunami occurred in the same place.

Rediscovery Of Helike

In 1994, researchers from the University of Patras conducted a magnetometer survey that revealed outlines of buildings buried near a delta. The region, which is now known as the Klonis site, has been excavated and large buildings with walls have been discovered. A preserved settlement from the early Bronze Age was also uncovered on the site. In 2001, the city of Helike was discovered buried under an ancient lagoon close to the village of Rizomylos. Each summer further excavations are conducted on the Helike delta, and several archaeological findings have been made that date back to the prehistoric times when Helike was established.


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