English Français
Help preserve sites now!

Archaeological site of Ancient Messene

Date of Submission: 16/01/2014
Criteria: (i)(iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Region of Peloponnese, Regional Unit of Messenia
Ref.: 5859
Export
Word File
Disclaimer

The Secretariat of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Heritage Centre do not represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other information or documentation provided by the States Parties to the World Heritage Convention to the Secretariat of UNESCO or to the World Heritage Centre.

The publication of any such advice, opinion, statement or other information documentation on the World Heritage Centre’s website and/or on working documents also does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Secretariat of UNESCO or of the World Heritage Centre concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

The archaeological site of ancient Messene lies in a fertile valley approximately in the centre of the Regional Unit of Messenia, south of Mt Ithome. Ithome was the strongest natural and manmade fortress of Messenia, controlling the valleys of Stenyclaros to the north and Makaria to the south. (Strabo compares it to Corinth as regards strategic importance). The first installation on the site dates to the Late Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age, while in the 9th-8th c. BC the cult of Zeus Ithomatas was established on the peak of Mt Ithome. A heroon shrine was founded in the lower city during the Geometric period (800-700 BC), along with the first sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Asklepios and Messene. All the sacred buildings belonged to a town named Ithome. The Spartan annexation of the area following the First Messenian War (743-724 BC) put a stop to the evolution of the town into a more complex urban organism and the development of an urban outlook. The Spartan occupation, however, did not result in a total loss of national consciousness among the inhabitants, who were now helots.

The city of Ancient Messene was founded in 369 BC by the Theban general Epaminondas (after the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, which resulted in Spartan defeat and the establishment of the Theban Hegemony). It became the capital of the free Messenian state following a long period (about four centuries) of occupation of the Messenian territory by the Spartans.

Strong fortification walls with towers and gates are preserved along a course of 9.5 km, surrounding the city and Mt Ithome, where the sanctuaries of Zeus Ithomatas (9th-8th c. BC), Artemis Limnatis and Eileithyia (3rd-2nd c. BC) stood. On the site of the city are preserved public and religious buildings, many of them reconstructed to a large degree. The extensive complex of the Asklepieion (3rd-2nd c. BC) stands out, with the Doric sanctuary of Asklepios, which is surrounded by stoai of buildings of a religious and secular-funerary nature. A series of reconstructed monumental structures, such as the Ecclesiasterion-Odeion, the Bouleuterion, the Theatre, the Arsinoe Fountain, the Agora and the Stadium, as well as an extensive group of funerary monuments and heroons, including the reconstructed monumental Saithid Mausoleum (1st c. BC-1st c. AD), bear witness to the size of the city and its political, religious, economic and social importance. Particularly luxurious Roman villas with mosaic floors complete the urban plan, while a multitude of inscriptions sheds light on hitherto unknown facets of the historical events that took place during the period of the Alexander’s Successors, the Macedonian Kingdom, the Achaean League, the Koinon of the Arcadians and the Aetolians, and Roman interference in Greek affairs. A plethora of statues, vessels and other moveable finds is on display at the nearby Archaeological Museum, testifying to the thriving society of Messene.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In size, form and preservation, Messene is one of the most important cities of antiquity, and one which still has a great deal to offer. It boasts not only religious and public buildings, but also imposing fortifications, houses and funerary monuments.

The city has the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment par excellence. This landscape combines the mountainous majesty of Delphi and the lowland riverine tranquillity of Olympia, with the looming bare limestone mass of Mt Ithome and its acropolis, and the low, fertile valley around the ancient city.

The archaeological site and monuments of Ancient Messene constitute an exceptional testimony to the urban environment and living conditions of an ancient Greek city, preserving all those elements that make up the ancient Greek way of life in an ancient Greek city (secular, religious, political/administrative, residential, funerary).

The conquest of fertile Messene by the Spartans formed the cornerstone of Spartan power, and its 400-year occupation (by no means easy to maintain, since the Messenians never lost their identity and made constant attempts to regain their freedom) allowed Sparta to evolve into the military superpower which, together with its rival Athens, was to shape the history of Classical Greece.

The foundation of the city of Messene marked the end of Spartan dominion. The city became the political, economic, social, religious and artistic centre of the free Messenians, who in the previous centuries had been reduced to the status of helots or perioikoi under the Spartan yoke.

Ancient Messene, set in a resource-rich natural environment which drove the development of an agricultural economy, was in antiquity the greatest and most dynamically growing centre of an anthropogenic whole that, based on its mythological, religious and heroic past, was able to evolve into an independent political entity and shape its own national identity.

Criterion (i): All the buildings of Messene share the same orientation and are set within the grid formed by horizontal (East-West) and vertical (North-South) streets. This urban plan is known as the Hippodamian grid, after its originator Hippodamus of Miletus, an architect, town planner, geometrician and astronomer of the 5th c. BC. Rhodes and Piraeus are characteristic early examples of cities designed and built according to this system. It is worth noting that this predetermined, strictly geometric pattern, which is based on the principles of isonomy (equality under the law), isopolity (equal civic rights) and isomoiria (equal sharing of land), i.e. the virtues of democracy, was adapted to the particular terrain and climate of each site, harmoniously integrated into the natural environment. The basic idea of the Hippodamian urban plan, arising from the democratic ideal, is that all citizens should have plots of land of equal size and suitability, and access to public and sacred buildings, the communal spaces in other words, which dominate the city due to their monumental size and wealth of decoration. Messene forms an exceptional and uniquely preserved example of this type of urban plan, precisely because it preserves all the elements that make up the social network of the city, whether religious (sanctuaries and heroons), secular (Agora, balaneion-baths, dining-halls, theatre, gymnasium, stadium), political/administrative (ecclesiasterion, bouleuterion, Archive), funerary or residential.

Criterion (iii): The archaeological site and monuments of Ancient Messene constitute an exceptional testimony of a typical ancient Greek city, as regards both the urban environment and the living conditions, preserving all those elements that make up the ancient Greek way of life (secular, religious, political/administrative, residential, funerary). It also has the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment par excellence. In the Stadium, for example, games dedicated to Asklepios, Zeus Ithomatas and the Sebastoi (the Roman Emperors) were held. In the Gymnasium, the youths of Messene trained and exercised with young men from the cities of the whole territory for three years, maintaining the traditional rites of passage in order to attain manhood. Hero-founders of the city and protectors of adolescence were honoured in the shrines and sanctuaries where their statues stood. Noblemen and benefactors, as well as those who had died for their country, were honoured after death as heroes with remarkable funerary structures whose presence is inextricably interwoven with the political and social life of the city (Saithid Heroon-Mausoleum, funerary monuments near the Gymnasium, etc.). The great Theatre hosted entertainments and political gatherings of the citizens. The various secular buildings include a large bath-house complex and notable urban Roman villas. The buildings themselves bear irrefutable witness to the social, political and religious life of the city, as do the numerous inscribed bases of a variety of dedicatory statues. Remarkable works of art adorn the Asklepieion and other structures. Among these stand out the colossal sculptures of the Messenian sculptor Damophon, a notable son and benefactor of Messene (210-180 BC), whose fame extended beyond the limits not only of Messene but of the Peloponnese itself.

It is worth noting that in the Asklepieion of Messene, the most important religious centre of the city, were gathered the places of worship of the major deities. At the same time, however, the presence of the Bouleuterion also lent the Asklepieion a political aspect. Thus the Asklepieion of Messene is not a typical Asklepieion of a primarily healing nature, like those of Epidaurus, Athens and Cos. It is a unique example of an Asklepieion that functions as a combination of a “free and sacred agora”.

Criterion (vi): The archaeological site and the surrounding landscape are directly linked to the development of ancient Greek history in the Classical period, as well as to major political and historical events during the turbulent course of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The conquest of fertile Messene by the Spartans formed the cornerstone of Spartan power, and its 400-year occupation (by no means easy to maintain, since the Messenians never lost their identity and made constant attempts to regain their freedom) allowed Sparta to evolve into the military superpower which, together with its rival Athens, was to shape the history of Classical Greece. The foundation of the city of Messene marked the end of Spartan dominion. The city became the political, economic, social, religious and artistic centre of the free Messenians, who in the previous centuries had been reduced to the status of helots or perioikoi under the Spartan yoke.

Ancient Messene, set in a resource-rich natural environment which drove the development of an agricultural economy, was in antiquity the greatest and most dynamically growing centre of an anthropogenic whole that, based on its mythological, religious and heroic past, was able to develop into an independent political entity and shape its own identity. In the modern era, the site is a reference-point for the Messenians’ historical past, since it is linked to the most important periods of their history and mythology, and inspires constant efforts and creative striving for development and progress on a cultural, political and economic level.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Messene has the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment par excellence.

The lengthy excavations continue to this day, alongside the major, internationally acclaimed reconstruction work and efforts for the promotion and protection of the archaeological site, providing an easy-to-understand reading of the morphological characteristics, dimensions and function of the monuments. 

Comparison with other similar properties

Of the monuments on the World Heritage List, Messene presents similarities to Delos, since both sites include all the elements necessary to showcase the religious, political, secular and everyday life of the inhabitants, while sharing the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment par excellence.

However, Messene differs significantly from Delos in the following:

Messene, set in a resource-rich natural environment which drove the development of an agricultural economy, was the greatest and most dynamically growing centre of an anthropogenic whole that, based on its mythological, religious and heroic past, was able to evolve into an independent political entity and shape its own national identity. In the modern era, the site is a reference-point for the Messenians’ historical past, since it is linked to the most important periods of their history and mythology, and inspires constant efforts and creative striving for development and progress on a cultural, political and economic level. Barren Delos, on the contrary, was always a religious centre, whose geographical location and cult significance permitted it to develop, over time, into one of the major seaport trading hubs of the Mediterranean and a multicultural urban centre. Moreover, Delos, being a sacred island, was unfortified and its inhabitants unarmed, while, as it was forbidden for people to be born or die on the island, there were no indigenous populations but a peaceful coexistence of people of different origins. That is why tombs and funerary monuments, important features of a Greek city, are absent from Delos. The city of Delos arose solely as an annexe to the port, flourished as long as that port was a transit hub between East and West, and ceased to exist once the port became insecure and commerce moved to Western harbours.

Messene was built according to a very specific urban plan, the Hippodamian grid, which is based on the principles of isonomy (equality under the law), isopolity (equal civic rights) and isomoiria (equal sharing of land), i.e. the virtues of democracy. Although strictly geometric, this predetermined pattern was adapted to the particular terrain and climate of each site, harmoniously integrated into the natural environment. The building layout on Delos, on the contrary, is anarchic, lacking an urban plan and a regular street system.