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The Forgotten Town of Halieis

2,500 years ago, the bay of modern Porto Heli would have looked pretty familiar to us now – a great protected bay, with hills no doubt covered with olive trees. But there was no Porto Heli that we could recognise, though there may have been buildings and farms which have completely disappeared. What we would have seen was a compact walled town called Halieis that lay on the southern side of the bay (opposite the hotel), with ships pulled up on the foreshore or riding at anchor. Above the town was the acropolis, the high town, with defences to give refuge to the lower townspeople from enemies and pirates. The bay provided protection from storms from the east or south.

Halieis today. (Photo © Heinz Schmitz)
The bay of Porto Heli today. (Photo © Heinz Schmitz)

The town of Halieis lay on the sea routes up the bay to the city of Argos and the Argolid plain, close to the Saronic Gulf routes to Athens and Corinth. On the other side of the mountains which can be seen beyond the mouth of the bay lay the city of Sparta, now a small town, but in classical time the great rival of Athens. It was the king of Sparta and his crack troops who stood in the pass of Thermopylae against the Persians in 480 BCE, so beloved of the CGI artists of the films like “300.” Halieis and the other small towns of the area followed in the footsteps and the varying fortunes of these great cities, but occasionally there are fleeting mentions in histories and inscriptions. However, by 300 BCE, the defences were destroyed and Halieis disappeared from historical record.

The site of Halieis today. (Photo © John Hayer)
The site today. (Photo © John Hayer)

Halieis’s disappearance was not followed in following centuries by further building, which took place on the other side of the bay in modern Porto Heli. The town was almost forgotten until its unearthing by American archaeologists from 1962 to the 1980s, and as a result, we have the rare opportunity of being able to take our kayaks and paddleboards and drift over the ruined walls and streets of a largely untouched classical town. The shoreline is now some 20-40 metres further inland than in classical times, and the town walls and the Temple of Apollo lie eerily just below the surface. For those with tablets, smartphones or laptops with access to Google maps, you can clearly see the outline of the walls and the regular streets.

Finding Halieis

Paddle across the bay past the wrecked refugee boat and you will see a pier jutting out – with a Swiss flag flying when I crossed in September 2014.

Just to the left of the pier is a small bit of sandy beach where you can beach. Just by this, you can see the sadly overgrown excavated field with part of the excavations of Halieis. Walk about 200-300 metres along the road away from the sea and you will arrive at a larger excavation with the sign Acropolis of Halieis. This is unfortunately not the Acropolis; it is barely higher than the shoreline. The hill further up the road is the correct site of the Acropolis, which had been explored by the US diggers 50 years ago; Google maps at full magnification do still show revealed remains.

The Acropolis of Halieis today. (Photo © John Hayer)
The Acropolis today. (Photo © John Hayer)

If you do not want to venture onto the land, you should paddle around the Swiss pier and you will almost immediately begin to see the shadowy outlines of walls and outcrops below the surface. There is a lump of decidedly modern breezeblock above the surface marking a large deposit, which I think is either the city wall or the Temple of Apollo. Further along the shore the remains of the city wall continue at an angle until it reaches the shoreline.

One point to note is that there has been considerable bush growth right by the shore as compared with the Google views of a few years ago. You may not be a devotee of Time Team or of bits of old and unidentifiable old stones, but when before have you been able to say that you floated over a town 2,500 years old and could still get back for lunch?

You can find further information in the website A Brief History of Halieis by Tom Boyd, who was in the original teams in the 70s and 80s. Thanks to Tom for allowing me to crib from this and related articles.

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