At the southwest corner of the town is the large roundabout from which the main east–west road of the island (for the airport and Képhalos) departs: a well-signed, smaller road to the left leads (2.5 km) to the Asklepieíon.
The road is bordered with cypresses and probably follows the line of the ancient Sacred Way that linked the Sanctuary of Asklepios with the town and port. Almost immediately on the left is the neglected Jewish Cemetery— sole relict of a community that had been present on the island since Antiquity, but which vanished with the deportations of 1940–44; further on (on the same side) is the Muslim Cemetery, behind a whitewashed wall, with turbaned tombstones crowded beneath olive and cypress trees. Most are engraved in Osmanli (Arabic) script, but those post-1926, in Romanised letters—witness to the continuity of a substantial Turkish community on the island.
At 1.8km the road splits. (To the left is the International Hippocratic Foundation of Cos, and (beyond) the newly designed and yet to be completed Museum of the International Society of Otorhinolaryngology.) The right branch leads to the archaeological site of the Ancient Asklepieíon* (open 8.30–3 (winter) –7 (summer) daily, except Mon).
On entering the site of the Asklepieíon, several general points should be borne in mind. First, although especially associated with the memory and teachings of Hippocrates, everything visible today of the ancient site dates from the two centuries after his death in c. 370 BC. The first cult on this hillside was of Apollo, who was venerated here in a sacred cypress grove from the end of the 6th century BC. Apollo was father of Asklepios, the part-human, part-divine god or ‘hero' of medicine and curing in antiquity; by virtue of the presence of important curative waters in this area, a parallel cult of Asklepios also took root here early on, alongside that of Apollo. Places of cult of Asklepios attracted both those who sought his healing powers, and those who practised them. These practitioners called themselves ‘descendants' of Asklepios, and were organised in a closed order or brotherhood, and are often referred to as ‘Asklepiads'. One such ‘descendant' was Hippocrates, who was born on the island around 460 BC, and would probably have practised beside the curative springs on this site in the late 5th century BC, observing the cases and patients who came here for cure. His wisdom, gathered from experience here and on journeys all over Greece, transformed the practice of medicine. The generations after his death, who felt the powerful influence of the pragmatic and analytical and ethical medicine he taught, built the sanctuary here as a competing and alternative focus to the other great healing-centre and sanctuary of Asklepios in the Greek world at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese. Here, on Cos, there was to be a new and modern centre of medical research and knowledge based upon the rational teachings and practise of Hippocrates, as opposed to the older, more traditional and intuitive methods practised at Epidaurus.
Second, the original lay-out of the sanctuary appears to have been conceived as a unified whole; but it took two centuries to complete and was built, and added to, piecemeal.
It now occupies a rise of three terraces. (As is often the case in Antiquity, these are all oriented slightly skew of any common axial line.) The first two terraces divided the functional and ‘hospital' areas of the sanctuary (lower area), from the cultic areas (middle terrace); the third, upper terrace, completed a hundred years later in the mid 2nd century BC, was added (in a form reflecting the shape of the lowest terrace) as the sanctuary expanded and began to accumulate greater wealth. Many additions and re-buildings after earthquakes were subsequently made, such as the large Roman thermal complex. A large proportion of the terrace walls and flights of steps has been restored by Italian archaeologists in the 1920s and 30s.
Third, the natural springs which gave rise to the sanctuary of Apollo in the first place and to the therapeutic fame of the site over time, are now mostly dry or have been diverted. The visitor must imagine the sound of constantly running and splashing water everywhere in the sanctuary: the original pipes and ducts can be seen at many points. In the mind's eye, it is also important to see the whole ensemble immersed in trees, which scented the atmosphere with the purifying odour of pine resin. The sanctuary also attracted dedications of many great and renowned sculptures and paintings, giving it an aspect fundamentally different from a hospital today.
Last, although the site was principally hospital, medical school and cultic sanctuary, once every five years it was turned over to hosting a week of games and competitions for the feast of the Panhellenic Asklepieía. Most of the festivities would have taken place in the sanctuary, probably on the First Terrace, but, a theatre and stadium—if they ever existed—on which the bigger events would have centred, have not yet been uncovered: in fact, only a portion of the overall area of the site has so far been excavated.
The site was identified by a local antiquary, Iakobos Zaraphtís, and excavations were first undertaken between 1902 and 1905 by the German scholar and archaeologist Rudolf Herzog under the Ottoman Administration, and later continued under the Italian Administration throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Laurenzi & Morricone), during which period considerable consolidation and reconstruction work on the terracing and some monuments (temple of Apollo) was undertaken.
Entrance Area The visitor in Antiquity arrived at the monumental entrance of the sanctuary by way of a long avenue, or Sacred Way, from the city, 3km away. Sanctuaries to Asklepios were customarily some distance from centres of population so as to protect the community at large from contagion from the sick. Outside the enceinte (immediately to the left before climbing the first set of stairs) is a small complex of baths, in which the floor supports made of terracotta discs for the hypocaust system are visible. Its poor quality of construction, incorporating pieces of earlier building, suggests a late date, and contrasts markedly with the neatly constructed, rectangular water pool, just beyond it. Abutting the retaining wall of the first terrace to the left, are two pairs of blind rooms with niches and evidence of painted plaster. The first archaeologists who worked here suggested that these buildings occupy the site of a small temple to Aphrodite. Aphrodite was an important divinity on Cos, just as she was also across the water at Cnidos on the mainland, where there was a significant and competing school of medicine.
First Terrace Originally entered through a tetrastyle pedimented gateway, or Propyleion, which stood at the initial flight of open steps, the First Terrace was an enclosed area, bounded on three sides by a continuous colonnaded stoa, with its fourth side formed by the retaining wall of the Middle Terrace straight ahead, whose niches would have been peopled with statuary and running fountains of water. The area thus enclosed provided lodging for patients, and constituted the principal work-place of the practitioners, who were neither solely priests nor doctors, but a hybrid of the two which has no real equivalent today. It was in this area that the fruit of continual observation of patients and the transmission of experience from elder to younger practitioner accumulated and took the form of the body of knowledge enshrined in the corpus of Hippocratic Writings. Beyond the fact that he existed, little is known for certain about Hippocrates. It is generally held that he was born in Cos around 460 BC and died in Thessaly at an advanced age, some time after 375 BC—his 86th year. He was a contemporary of Democritus, Thucydides and Socrates. Where he travelled in his lifetime, with whom he spoke and studied, and what exactly he may have written, remains largely conjecture. A huge body of literature, however, bears his name, the so-called Hippocratic Corpus, consisting of about 70 treatises, first collated in Alexandria in the 4th century BC. Much of this was written by his contemporaries and students, some of it added later, and maybe some part of it is by Hippocrates himself.
The column bases of the portico, or stoa, of the First Terrace are visible, with the outlines of spacious rooms behind. The sanctuary must have been able to accommodate a considerable number of people. To the right of the central staircase ahead is a niche with a pedestal in white marble, on which stood a statue of Nero as Asklepios: a legible inscription below refers to the person who dedicated it, [Gaius Stertinius] Xenophon, a 1st century AD physician from Cos who practised successfully in the Imperial court at Rome, and who appears also to have endowed a medical library at this sanctuary.
Further to the right, slightly projecting from the line of the wall, are three arched niches with thermal water pools at ground level for the therapeutic waters. As can be seen from above on the edge of the Second Terrace, these form a separate, self-contained block, which stands in an inset in the retaining-wall, creating a separate storage tank for the waters which spouted below. Still further to the right is a rectangular ablutions sink, and an area of lavatories added in the 3rd century AD beyond the corner of the stoa.
To the left of the central stairs, the third niche houses a fountain surmounted by an eroded relief of Pan playing the syrinx. The wall all along here has been extensively restored and rebuilt: the two despoiled and headless statues at the far left-hand end of it give little impression of the wall's original effect when peopled with the fine dedicatory sculptures mentioned by Strabo and Pliny.
The whole of the terrace's eastern end is dominated by the massive ruins of a later addition to the site—the Roman thermal baths of the 3rd century AD. Small areas of mosaic floor are still in evidence, as well as the revetment in Proconnesian marble and coloured plaster, which covered the ungainly rubble and cement walls. The largest chambers— the frigidarium and tepidarium—had plunge-pools of water, sunk into the apsidal spaces at their sides, in which the bases of fountains are still visible: these chambers were vaulted to a considerable height. Some of the best-preserved plasterwork, with its deep red colour and decoration, is visible in the lower chamber below and outside the north wall of the baths.
A path around the back from here leads to the Antiquarium building put up by the Italian archaeologists to the east of the whole complex, which is currently empty and being restored. From this path the three protruding apses of an Early Christian church, which was built inside the baths in the 5th or 6th century, can be seen in the eastern perimeter of the buildings: some commentators refer to this as the ‘Panaghia tou Alsous', which is the name normally given to the later mediaeval chapel built over the pronaos of the Temple of Asklepios on the Upper Terrace.
Middle Terrace A largely restored flight of steps leads to the Second Terrace which constituted the sacred focus of the sanctuary. In the centre, at the top of the stairs, are the ruins of the main altar, which was enlarged at least twice during its history.
The original altar of 350 BC was replaced by a 3rd century BC structure which would have had a form not dissimilar to the Altar of Dionysos in the town: a stepped platform, with a central offering table, open to the skies, surmounted by a colonnade, which was broken on the west side to allow access by a ramp of steps. The colonnade may have contained sculptures by the school of Praxiteles, as mentioned by the Alexandrian poet, Herondas, in his 4th Mime. The altar would have been sacred to both Apollo and Asklepios; but an inscription found on the site mentions other lesser divinities also— Helios, Hemera, Hecate and Machaon (son of Asklepios and suitor of Helen).
Looking onto the altar from the west, stood the (first) Temple of Asklepios—an Ionic temple, distyle in antis, erected around 300 BC. The building was simple and refined: different colours and qualities of stone were used—a grey-white limestone in the stylobate, a blue-grey, veined marble in the lower level of the naos, and a lighter ‘travertine' used above. There are grooves in the south side of the lower level of the platform for the channelling of rainwater from the roof: water which fell on a temple roof was considered sacred. The two columns of the portico remain in reassembled fragments: only the right hand (north) one still stands on its original base. Clearly visible in the interior, to the south side, is a large stone-built coffer in the floor, referred to as the thesauros, or treasury: its monolithic lid has a hole in the centre for the depositing of offerings to the god. Strabo implies (Geog. XIV.2.19) that a number of great paintings were to be seen in the temple, amongst which he mentions Apelles's painting of Aphrodite Anadyomene. It was later removed to Rome in the 1st century by Augustus.
Behind the temple is a building generally referred to as the ‘abaton', i.e. a place of restricted access, or ‘holy of holies', which appears to have been rebuilt more than once after earthquake damage. The presence inside it of enkoimeteria, or dormitories, has led to the suggestion that this was a residence for the priests. In some way, its function and existence must be linked to the spring in the far southwest corner, where steps lead down to a pool in a deep cavity beneath the retaining wall of the Upper Terrace.
Across, to the east of the altar, is the base of the small, Roman, peripteral Temple of Apollo which, for no apparent reason, is oriented obliquely to everything else. The re-erected columns have only two small fluted fragments which are original to the 2nd century AD building. The rest is all reconstruction: the pastiche capitals on top of the columns, carved in the 1930s, do the building no favours. Wholly original, however, are the elaborately decorated fragments of the ornate entablature and ceiling of the temple's peristyle which lie on the ground to the east. The displaying of important votive gifts to a sanctuary such as this was a visible manifestation of its prestige and importance, and the building whose foundations are visible further east of the Temple of Apollo (also referred to as a Lesche, or meeting room) probably served this purpose. The hemicycle of niches just to the east of the next flight of stairs may have had the same function of display, and the small, semicircular rostrum in front of it, a related ceremonial function. Upper Terrace It is from the third or Upper Terrace that the beautiful view across the city, the islands and the mainland opposite finally opens out; and it is this area of the sanctuary which would have been visible from out at sea, and which contributed to the impression that Cos made on the arriving visitor—so approvingly commented on by both Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. The form of this terrace mirrored the First Terrace: the sides and back, lined by a continuous colonnaded stoa, with the fourth side open to the panoramic view. Once this area was completed, shortly after 200 BC, the sanctuary had a complete, closed form—two colonnaded terraces reflecting one another across a transverse axis of sacred buildings.
The major difference was that a new and Greater Temple to Asklepios, was erected in the centre of this terrace in 170–160 BC—this time peripteral in design (with a Doric colonnade all around), oriented north/south, and with no apparent altar in front. Only the marble floor and finely cut steps of the platform remain—sufficient, however, to show the play of different colours of stone once again. Anything that remained of the original 32 columns of the Doric temple was taken to Kos by the Knights of Rhodes for their Castle and other buildings. Over the temple's pronaos, a small, mediaeval Christian chapel was erected, generally referred to as the Panaghia tou Alsous or ‘Tarsou' (‘of the sacred grove'). The T-shaped assemblage of spolia—ancient and Byzantine—to the east side was its altar. The stone sarcophagi visible to the west are evidence of a Christian cemetery on this site, too.
The design and function of the long portico, or stoa, which bordered the terrace on three sides, are virtually identical to that on the First Terrace. Here, however, the terracotta pipes and tanks of the running water system, which fed every part of the sanctuary, are clearly visible at several points. Steps in the centre of the south side lead up the hill behind into the area occupied by the original grove of cypress trees, sacred to Apollo Kyparissios. A little way up the hill and to the left, is the platform of another temple, probably also Hellenistic in date, perfectly oriented on an east–west axis: the base of the walls of the naos can be traced, and the south side of the crepidoma remains well-preserved. Above it, a curious, natural, limestone ridge traverses the hillside, which shows signs of having been cut by hand at several points: this may have been the natural peribolos or perimeter line of the sacred grove. The hill levels out further up: the land drops away towards the sea in one direction, and rises to the crenellated peak of Díkaios in the other.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)