The ancient theatre at the Sanctuary of Epidaurus.
The ancient theatre at the Sanctuary of Epidaurus. Jim Eagles

Pure notes of healing sanctuary


JUST as I reached the top seats in the 2000-year-old theatre at the Sanctuary of Epidaurus some members of a tour group on the stage below began to sing Amazing Grace.

They proved instantly the claim on the information board below was no idle boast: that this is not only one of the best preserved ancient Greek theatres but also has near-perfect acoustics.

Despite being about 50m up, I could hear every word they sang - and luckily I could also hear the singers knew what they were doing.

Later, as I sat and admired the rising terraces of seats (while recovering my breath), said to be capable of holding 12,000 people, another tour guide walked around talking and clapping her hands to demonstrate the audience anywhere in the theatre could hear an actor anywhere on the stage. Once again, I could hear every clap as though she was right next to me.

I was even able to follow the next guide who gave a rather bad performance of the speech William Shakespeare wrote for Brutus: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears ..."

Our well-informed driver - under Greece's occupational licensing laws he could be prosecuted if he called himself a guide - said on a quiet day a match struck at the centre of the stage could be heard anywhere in the theatre.

No wonder, then, that this theatre is still used for a hugely successful festival of Greek drama each summer.Remarkable.

Yet, even though the theatre is the best surviving part of the sanctuary and the focus of attention today, back in 4BC it was only an afterthought.

In ancient Greece, this place was famous as the birthplace of Apollo's son, Asclepius, god of healing, and, as a result, for 1000 years the greatest centre of healing in the ancient world.

Only a few pillars remain today of the great Temple of Asclepius, the original focal point of the sanctuary, or of the great hall where patients came to sleep in the hope the god would come to them in their dreams with advice, or of the banqueting hall, gymnasium, library, bathhouse and other places of treatment ... not to mention the cemetery. But, in its heyday, these buildings were thronged with patients in search of a cure and they brought huge wealth to the sanctuary.

Some grateful patients gave the god copies in pottery or marble of the body parts he had cured. So, in the site museum, you can see carved ears, noses and legs. Others made more practical gifts of gold and silver, which could be used to improve the facilities.

Over the centuries, a huge complex developed, including the theatre, originally built with 34 tiers of seats, but expanded by the Romans by 21 to its current size.

Before invading armies, pillaging pirates and angry earth gods took their toll, it must have been an overwhelming place. Even today the theatre is so impressive that after we'd explored the museum and the site, I went back for one last look.

For once it was empty of tour parties, so I took my chance to test the acoustics from a New Zealand perspective.

"Tihe mauri ora. Te whare e tu nei, karanga. Te papa ..."

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