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Tracking Ilissos river in Athens

References of the river

Ilissos river has been a main point of reference in the life of the ancient city and various activities were organised by its banks, ranging from official civic and religious practices to customary walks, as recorded by Plato, who delivers an idyllic landscape with plane trees, crystal waters, grassy slopes under the constant sound of cicadas and the rustling of the air among the leaves (Plato, Pheadrus 229-230, link).

The river, son of Poseidon and Dimitra, was worshipped in antiquity as god and hero, depicted in the typical form of rivers, i.e. as bull with human face or head or as a youth with horns on its head. Its banks were the site of many mythological events, a camp of the Amazons after their first victory against the Athenians, the site of Oreithyia’s kidnapping by Voreas or the site that Kodros, king of Athens, was murdered.

Even though the poet Seneca (Phaedra, v. 13-16, link) writes about the gracious flow of the river that waters the dry land, later travellers (18th and 19th c.) have been a bit sceptic on the amplitude of the river, commenting on its limited flow (F. Pouqueville, R. Pococke, F.-R. de Chauteaubriand, H. Johnson) and its use to water fields of Turkish farmers. However a French Capuchin monk mentions metal chains at the banks of the river, implying that part of the river had to be navigable. What is more, occasional floods have been recorded causing damage to the surrounding houses and the bridges.

 

Architectural heritage at the banks of the river

The temple of Olympian Zeus was a landmark in Ilissos’ route, the place that according to the myth Deucalion dedicated a temple to Zeus, in gratitude for his saving from the cataclysm. The temple measuring 110 x 44m began being built in the 6th c. BC and was concluded 700 years later in the Roman era! It sheltered the statues of Zeus and emperor Hadrian from gold and ivory (Pausanias I.18.8, http://goo.gl/uPnCY). In the 17th c. the place formed a pilgrimage for the Arabs in the wider area of Athens.

Around the temple of Zeus and especially in its south-eastern part, between its temenos (perimetric wall) and the walls of the city (renovated by Valerianus in the 3rd c. AD – possibly on the same route with the wall of Themistocles in the 5th c. BC), a number of sanctuaries are located, collectively known as the ‘parilissian’ sanctuaries. The area was excavated by E. Penrose (1883-1886) and G. Welter (1922). The temple was excavated by the Archaeological Society at Athens (1886-1907) and in the 1960’s by J. Travlos.

This area, on the northern (right) bank of the river was a place of antique cult for multiple deities and mythical heroes of Athens (Zeus, Cronus, Rea, Gea, Apollo, Artemis, Pan, Nymphs). Among the most important sites was the temple of Apollo Delphinius (5th c. BC), protector of seafaring and the adjacent court ‘epi Delphinio’ that hosted trials considering justified murder or murder in defence; part of it was demolished in the 2nd c. AD, when the sanctuary of Zeus Panhellenios was built. Also in the area, a temenos of Olympian Gea existed, marking the crack that drained the water from the cataclysm saving Deucalion and his wife, along with a sanctuary of Cronus and Rea, the parents of Zeus (2nd c. AD) and a monumental altar to Apollo Pythios (522/1 BC), dedicated by Peisistratos the younger.

North of Olympieion, again by the right bank of the river, another cluster of sites is indicated by the ancient writers and excavations, including a sanctuary of Hercules (6th c. BC), a sanctuary of Pancrates (4th c. BC, link) and a sanctuary of Aphrodite ‘en kipois’ (in the gardens), referencing to the lush vegetation by the river. In the same area, a monumental arch, surviving intact today, was constructed in 131 AD honouring the benefactor of the city Hadrian that had offered important public infrastructure buildings to the city in the 2nd c. AD, as roads, sewers, bridges, a library and an aqueduct, marking also the extension of the city to the east (Pausanias I.20.7, link). The water of Ilissos was used in a -contemporary to the arch- bath (2nd c. AD) located in the vicinity.

Important sites were located as well on the southern (left) side of Ilissos, extra muros. Among them the Kynosarges’ gymnasion in a scenic grove, a few kilometres southern from the Lyceum gymnasium of Aristotles (Isocrates, Panathenaicus, 12,18; http://goo.gl/gQYkU), οne of the three gymnasiums in the city of Athens, destined for offsprings of mixed Athenian and non-Athenian parentage, mentioned by Socrates coming out of Diomeiai Pylai (gates); part of it was located near the church of St Panteleimon (link).

Nearby lies the temple of Artemis Agrotera (448 BC), also acknowledged as temple of Dimitra & Kore or the ‘Metroon en Agrais’, site of the preparatory activities for the Great Eleusinian Mysteries, using water from the river in a ceremonial cleansing. The temple of ionian rhythm was converted into a Christian church in the 5th c. and a cemetery was arranged around it. In the 17th c. a dome was added to the church known as ‘Panaghia stin Petra’, that was dismembered –along with the roman bridge of the river, the Ηadrian aqueduct’s façade and St Francis monastery (by the Panathenaic stadium, bearing the crest of the Florentines merchants Acciaiuoli)- in order to form Haseki’s wall (1778). Today, with only sparse architectural remains surviving in situ, the temple is known through the copperplates and sketches of the 18th c. by J. Stuart & N. Revett, while several fragments from its frieze are exposed in the museums of Athens, Vienna and Berlin. The area of the temple was part of the early Christian settlement of Athens, hosting several basilicas along with Leonides’ basilica (2nd half of the 5th c.), the martyrdom of the bishop of Athens, parts of which still remain visible today.

Finally, as mentioned before, on the left bank of the river, further north, lies the Panathenaic stadium, rebuilt by Lycurgus (4th c. BC) and renovated by Herodes Atticus to have a capacity of 50.000 spectators (2nd c. AD). The stadium was re-marbled in 1895 on the event of the first contemporary Olympic Games in Athens.

The presence of the river in the public life of the Athenians that organised their lives around it, was kept active until the end of 19th century. Afterwards, the gradual burying of the river under modern streets with heavy traffic has altered the landscape and life in Athens.