A major crowd puller among the archaeological destinations of Greece, Epidaurus is famed for its unmatched theatre, as well as for its Asklepieion, thus named the sanctuaries sacred to Asclepius, the healing god and son of Apollo. Combining religious faith with empirical knowledge and occult rituals with actual treatment, the Asklepieia functioned pretty much as hospitals and, needless to say, they were of great significance to Greeks and Romans alike. The Asklepieion of Epidaurus in particular was the most important therapeutic center of the ancient Greek world, followed by that of Kos, the birthplace of Hippocrates and medicine.
Tucked away amid rocky heights, the Epidaurian sanctuary lies in an inland valley of the Argolid peninsula in the Peloponnese. The tranquil, scenic landscape and the abundant nearby mineral springs should have something to do with the cure and recovery of the patients. Developed out of an earlier cult of Apollo, the sanctuary of Asclepius reached its peak in the 4th century BC when it was adorned with its principal monuments seen today, especially the temple of the god, the tholos and the renowned theatre, all three considered masterpieces of the late classical Greek architecture. Even by today's standards, the theatre of Epidaurus stands out as a unique artistic achievement through its admirable integration into the landscape and above all the perfection of its proportions and incomparable acoustics.
Unlike today's visitors who enter the site from the south, the ancients got into the place by a monumental gate -the propylaia- at its northernmost edge and then followed the processional pathway that ended up in the temple of Asclepius. Built in 380-70 BC, this was once a magnificent temple with an outer Doric and an inner Corinthian colonnade along with marble sculptures, depicting the Fall of Troy and battles Greeks fought with the mythical Amazons. The interior was adorned with a gold-and-ivory statue of Asclepius, seated in a throne and holding his serpent staff, the symbol of medicine in our day.
Behind the temple lies the enigmatic tholos, an uncommon type of circular building, outstanding examples of which are also to be found in Olympia and Delphi. In the case of Epidaurus the superstructure is now lost, the remaining foundations, however, show clearly enough the most conspicuous feature of this monument: concentric walls alternating with colonnades spiral towards a labyrinthine crypt, the alleged abode of Asclepius and his healing serpents. The tholos was built in the years 365-335 BC and it is considered the work of the same architect that designed the theatre.
The temple and tholos are bordered to the north by the oblong Αbaton (i.e. not to be trodden) or Enkoimeterion (i.e. dormitory), the centre stage in the healing process. It was here that the patients, after going through the necessary purification rites, were induced to a hypnotic state in order to receive the dream vision of the god whose miraculous touch would drive any illness away. All in all, this course of therapy had a considerable record of success - the inscriptions in the local museum are quite informative on the matter - though whether those were the wonders of faith or medicine remains an open question· in Asklepieia the healing priests, like good physicians, also recommended diets, prescribed medicinal herbs and even performed surgical operations.
By the 4th century BC, the Asklepieion of Epidaurus enjoyed great renown and, as it was the case with all major sanctuaries in ancient Greece, it had its own guest facilities, as well as a stadium and a theatre to host athletic and drama events respectively. As to the crowds that gathered here -pilgrims, patients and their escorts, travellers- it's worth noting that the largest complexes on the site are the Katagogion, once a two-storey hostel with 160 rooms, and the ceremonial banqueting hall (with a later added Roman odeum), while the theatre could seat - and still does - up to 14,000 spectators.