Archaeological site of Ancient Messene
Archaeological site of Ancient Messene is part of the Tentative list of Greece in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Ancient Messene is located in the southwest of the Peloponnese at the foot of Mount Ithome and was the capital of the Messenia region in ancient times. The area of Messene was not destroyed or overbuilt by later settlements. The surviving remains date mainly from the 4th century BC, the period after the end of Sparta's hegemony. The most significant remains are the ruins of the theatre, the stadium and the temple of Asclepeion.
Map of Archaeological site of Ancient MesseneLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
Back to Ancient Messene after many years. What a difference! Today (in 2022) it easily competes with Delphi and Olympia as a well kept, well presented and rich archaeological site that deserves to be included in the World Heritage List. It received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage in 2005 & 2011.
Ancient Messene was an important Hellenistic, Roman and Early Byzantine city. The site is stretched out in the valley below Mount Ithome, 28 km north of Kalamata in the Peloponnese. The first organised settlement on Mount Ithome dates back to the 9th century BC - with earlier human presence in the Late Neolithicum and Early Bronze Age. After a series of wars with Sparta between the 8th and 5th centuries BC the settlement on the mountain was given up by its inhabitants. In 369 BC General Epameinondas from Thebes founded the city below in the valley as the capital of independent Messenia and built according to the urban planing principles of Hippodamus of Miletus. It served as an important political, cultural and religious centre well into late antiquity when it was abandoned after being sacked by the Goths in 395 AD.
The 2nd century AD comprehensive description of the city by ‘the father of European travel writing’ Pausanias has been the guide for archaeologists who have found, identified and partly restored many of the public buildings with financial support from the European Union and private donors.
Ancient Messene is not far from the Corinth-Kalamata motorway and can be reached easily either from new Messini and Kalamata airport (about 30 min drive) or coming from Athens by getting off the motorway at exit 16 (Tsakona). You reach the site via the village of Mavromati which overlooks Ancient Messene. From a taverna near the village centre you enjoy a magnificent bird eye’s view of the entire archaeological site. Across the street is a tourist shop offering local products and books on Messene. There is no shop at the museum.
We visited in mid-August (open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., in winter until sunset) and had thought it would be too hot but if you avoid the middle of the day (at the entrance it actually says don’t visit between 1 and 5 p.m.) and bring a hat and water along, it is actually quite pleasant. It was surprisingly green with water coming from Mount Ithome running through the site. We started at the museum; the €10 ticket covers also the archaeological site about 500 m down the hill. The museum is small with two rooms and shows some highlights like life-size statues of Hermes and Artemis. Recent findings are in stores and await the construction of a larger museum.
Before entering the archaeological site we visited the Arcadian Gate about 700 m to the West of the museum. A massive construction which is part of the city’s fortification wall. The gate, still today, serves as a thoroughfare to neighbouring villages. Back to the museum and down to the entrance to the site (large parking area). Behind the ticket office is a small cafeteria and washrooms. Transport is available for people with walking difficulties. The walk through the site is mainly downhill and takes you on sandy paths to the main places starting with the reconstructed theatre, the Agora, the centrally located Asklepeion, temples of Zeus and Artemis, public buildings like the meat market, the Ekklesiasterion, the Bouleuterion, Treasury (an underground vault that also served as a prison cell), but also two Roman villas and the public sports facility, among them the well preserved stadium which we looked at with awe
from higher ground with its 18 rows of seats, colonnades and a beautifully re-erected mausoleum at the end of it. Close by are other sports facilities like the Palaestra and gymnasium which you reach through the re-erected Propylon, a three lane gate. Burial sites and a cone-form funerary monument line the road. From here the walk back up to the entrance is not too difficult.
Messene is a relatively ‘young’ excavation site with work still going on, led by the distinguished archaeologist Petros Themelis. At the time of our visits digging took place at the Sanctuary of Isis and Sarapis, exploring the underground vaults of the building.
We left the site through the Laconian Gate on the East side. From here a dirt road (you need a 4x4 car) winds up to the top of Mount Ithome with its temple of Zeus and the old (deserted) Voulkanou Monastery. You can also walk up (about two hours) on a narrow path starting in the village centre. From the Laconian Gate, past the Byzantine (new) Voulkanou Monastery you reach the motorway in about 30 min. From the Arcadian Gate you can drive about 7 km to the medieval Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, also known as Andromonastiro, near the village of Petralona. It can be visited Mon-Fri 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is located in a lush ravine and is the most impressive monastic complex of the Messenian hinterland and one the most beautiful monuments in the Peloponnese. The monastery had remained abandoned for years and unspoilt from modifications.
About one hour’s drive away past Kalamata in Kardamyli (Mani) the house of modern day travel writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor is worth a visit. It stands over a very picturesque bay in midst cypress, oak and pine trees, a tranquil refuge which three month per year also functions as a hotel, perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in Greece. If you want to visit the Fermor House you need to book on line with the Benaki Museum (access is very limited during summer only on Mondays from 11 to 12, in winter also on Thursdays).
We visited this site in Feb 2022 en route from the Mani peninsula to Olympia. I would definitely recommend a visit and a car to get there. Our GPS took us there via some rather obscure back roads and our first glimpse of the site was from above as we came down from the mountain to the east. Our visit on site was equally pleasant as the ruins are well kept and laid out. I think what I liked the most was that each element of the former city is spaced out and clearly identifiable and I could get a feel for the full layout without getting an impression of clutter or trying to cut through more modern development like most other ruins. As mentioned in the previous reviews the best is saved for last. At the far end is the fantastic stadium.
As well presented as the site is there is still evidence of much more left to be uncovered. The nearby museum is small with just a few local artifacts. As for the fortifications, it is possible to see some elements of the walls in the distance from the ruins. We left by driving to the west and after a km or so passed through the large Arcadian gate and got a good look at the walls.
This should be an easy addition to the WHS list if Greece ever decides to submit it.
Travelling without car can be a bit challenging in Greece. Each district has their own local KTEL (bus company). The only priority for each KTEL seems to be to offer frequent connections to Athens. E.g. there are two daily busses to Athens from a village like Andritsaina, but there are only two weekly connections from e.g. Sparti across the mountain range to neighboring Kalatama.
This was the conundrum I faced when planning my visit to Ancient Messene. Generally, I had time for a visit, but I could not work out a leisurely connection. Being in Mystras/Sparti I would have to backtrack to Tripoli. There I would hope (or wait) to catch the bus from Athens on its pee break at the Tripoli bus station. For a trip that would have taken 1h by car, I had to plan 3h by bus. Minimum.
My inclination was to simply skip the site and opt for the easier option of continuing straight via Tripoli to Pyrgos for Olympia. That is, had it not been for the glowing review by Thibault (thanks!). His review peaked my interest, so much so that I didn't want to forego the site. Eventually, I settled on the stressful option of going for the connecting bus to Kalamata and then catching a cab in Kalamata to the site.
It started off rather badly, as the bus from Sparti was really slow. The trip to Tripoli should have taken less than an hour, it took 80min. I was afraid of missing my connection, but luckily, the other bus was late, too, so I managed just fine. In Kalamata, the hotel quickly arranged a surprisingly reasonably priced cab and off I went.
When you enter, you first see a restored amphitheatre that is too modern to impress. I was worried what I got myself into. But wandering around on the premises, the site grew on me. Unlike most other Greek archeological sites the site felt well documented and accessible. It really opens up and gives you an idea of the city.
And then there was the wow moment... It was when I reached the stadium. For all the Roman/Greek sites I have visited as part of my travels, I have not seen anything like it. It's just great and it felt like being sent back in time.
Unfortunately, I did not manage the fortifications. Those seem further out and I had not planned for it.
In sum, I was really happy of having made the trip. Interestingly, Messine is not a well funded excavation. So it's quite likely that they will unearth even more treasures in the future.
One may question the point of inscribing yet another classical ruin, but... Messene is a fine one at that and distinct from the other archeological sites I have seen in Greece so far. The site is well presented and has a different flair to Olympia (sports!) and Delphi (oracle!). You get a good feeling for the town itself and the highlight is without doubt the stadium (wow).
Hate to repeat myself, but... If you see an "archaia/ancient" in front of any city name in Greece, it points to there also being a "nea/new" city that may be quite far apart. In the case of Messene, it's 30km or so between old and new town, so there really is no point in travelling to New Messene. You may as well go to Kalamata, the principal city of the area.
Kalamata has frequent connections to Athens via Corinth/Isthmus and Tripoli as well as 1-2 connections a day to Pyrgos (Olympia) and Patras. Meanwhile, getting to either Megalopolis (Amphitheatre (T), Bassae) or Sparti (Mystras), the neighboring cities in the neighboring districts seems nearly impossible. I connected from Sparti to Tripoli and got lucky to catch my connection to Kalamata. In addition, Kalamata has a tourist airport with (in pre Corona times) connections all over Europe.
In Kalamata I ordered a cab via my hotel. Cost was below 60€ which seemed fair for the travel distance and travel time (45min each way).
While You Are There
I didn't much enjoy Kalamata, so not much to say.
I have discovered Messene (not to be confused with the modern town Messini 20km from there) on my way from Mystras to Bassae, in Peloponnese. Messene was founded in 369 BC and became the capital city of the Messenian state for centuries before falling under Roman rule. The archeological site displays an impressive number or structures including fortifications, a 9,5 km wall with monumental gates and defensive towers, a theatre, several temples and an impressive stadium with facilities. The most impressive part of the fortifications (including so called Arcadia Gate) can be seen on top of the hill few kilometers from the archeological centre. To me, the site is one of the main missing WHS in Greece considering the extensive remains and uniqueness of certain attributes such as the monumental fortifications.
2014 Added to Tentative List
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