Archaeological Museum of Kos: Roman mosaic showing the arrival of Asclepius on Kos: to the left Hippocrates, to the right a citizen of the town; you may wish to see some statues of the god in Rome which better show his serpent-entwined rod
Asclepius was the Greek God of Medicine: Apollo, his father, was thought to have healing powers too. Coronis, Asclepius' mother, was unfaithful to Apollo by admitting young Ischis to her couch, though already with child by Apollo; the god divined Coronis' infidelity and turned the snow-white feathers of the crow he had asked to guard Coronis black.
Artemis, Apollo's sister, killed Coronis with her arrows, but Apollo sent Hermes to cut the still living child from her womb. Asclepius learned the art of healing from both Apollo and the Centaur Chiron.
Medicine was practised in an Asclepeion, a location dedicated to Asclepius (Aesculapius in Latin).
A plane tree (sycamore) in Kos under which Hippocrates is said to have taught medicine: it now shelters a fountain built making use of ancient columns: it is located very near the fortress of the Knights
December 1815. The only thing worth seeiing in the town is a
surprisingly-large plane tree in the bazaar; I had the
curiosity to measure it, and found its trunk, which is of
oval form, to be thirty-three feet four inches in circumference, and its branches to extend, from the extremity
of one side to that of the other, thirty-seven paces.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
Of the renowned Asclepieum, mentioned by Strabo, we could find no traces; although it be reasonable to expect that the remains of such a building may be here discovered. (..) Possibly the Mosque may now occupy the original site of the Asclepieum: near to it there was a grove, consecrated to Aesculapius. (..) The Plane-tree, which is known to exist for centuries, if it be not a venerable remnant of that grove, may, as a spontaneous produce resulting from it, denote its actual situation. The conjecture seems to be warranted by the number of antient altars still remaining about the body of this tree.
Edward Daniel Clarke - Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa - 1817-1824
All doctors know that the Greek island of Kos was the birthplace of Hippocrates, the physician regarded as the "Father of Medicine" and whose oath first dealt with the ethics of medical practice.
There are five villages, Gennettes, Pyle, Animakia, Asphentiou, and Kephalos. Of these, the
first is all Turkish, and the other four all Greek. (..) At one o'clock I set off on a mule, accompanied by a Greek, to see the only antiquity remaining
in the island. We went southerly, leaving the sea behind us: for the first half of our road we crossed over
the plain surrounding the town, which is all laid out in
gardens, and abounds in fruit trees, mostly vines. At
the outskirts of the town is a large Kiosk, belonging
to the Captain Pasha, to which is attached a great
quantity of land, all planted with vines. (..) The other
half of our road was the slight ascent of the beginning
of a high mountain, in some parts rocky, but, for the
most part, consisting of a fine rich red mould, utterly
uncultivated and covered with thistles and brushwood:
there were on it three or four small caverns, whence
the Greeks and Turks break stone for building, and a
few stone huts to give occasional shelter to small flocks
of sheep and goats. In an hour and a half we reached
the site of the waters, called here the Waters of Hippocrates.Turner
The description of the road followed by Turner fits with the modern one. The Asclepeion is located three miles south-west of the ancient town.
Roman baths of the Asclepeion
As they are in a cave, hollowed, apparently by art, in the ascent of a mountain, the entrance into it is on level ground. We went in by a
passage, about 200 feet long, three wide, and six high,
of which, part was cut in the rock and part built. A
channel is cut in the pavement of the passage, by
which the water flows to the outside; at the end of
this passage we entered a circular chamber of
about twelve feet diameter, and of the exact shape of
a sugar-loaf, being about thirty feet high, and ending
above in a point at which was an opening of about
three feet square, to admit light and air; the chamber
is built with large stones, rounded to form the circle
of the interior, and in two places cut to leave two
doors (one to the cave of water, and one to the entrance), of an oval form above, and about six feet
high. At one end was a cave, which, from its ruggedness, is evidently natural, about five feet deep and
as many wide, and in which is about a foot depth of
water, clear as the purest crystal, constantly rising
from a spring at the further extremity of the cave, and
conducted to the outside by the channel I have mentioned; this water, say the Greeks of the island, was
originally bad and unhealthy, till it was cured by
herbs, which Hippocrates threw in. The building
that inclose it is most undoubtedly an Hellenick antiquity, but I know not what authority there is for
mixing the name of Hippocrates with its history.
The water is delicious but has no other taste than
that of "aqua pura". Turner
It is likely that Turner entered into the halls of Roman baths, the only ancient building of the Asclepeion which had not entirely collapsed.
Views of the terraces
The mountains, on whose first rise
these waters are inclosed, are a high sharp ridge (of
rock at the top) which runs from east to west. Turner
In the very first days of the Greek civilization the gods were thought to live inside the trees. According to Pliny the Elder (Historia naturalis: Book XII):
The trees formed the first temples of the gods, and even at the present day, the country people, preserving in all their simplicity their ancient rites, consecrate the finest among their trees to some divinity; indeed, we feel ourselves inspired to adoration, not less by the sacred groves and their very stillness, than by the statues of the gods, resplendent as they are with gold and ivory. (..) It is our belief that the Sylvans, the Fauns, and various kinds of goddess Nymphs, have the tutelage of the woods, and we look upon those deities as especially appointed to preside over them by the will of heaven. (translation by John Bostock anf H.T. Riley).
The lower terrace
At the very beginning the Asclepeion was just a clearance in a sacred wood, similar to the Oracle of Dodoni, and even after the construction of terraces and temples the surrounding wood remained an essential part of the holy site (the early days of Rome were associated with a sacred wood too).
Lower terrace: (left) a fountain; (right) pedestal of a statue to Emperor Nero making reference to Gaius Stertinius Xenophon
Hippocrates was not the only Kos doctor to be highly regarded. In AD 54 Emperor Claudius granted immunity from taxation to Kos: according to Tacitus (Book XII): the emperor proposed to grant immunity from taxation to the people of Cos, and he dwelt much on their antiquity. "The Argives or Coeus, the father of Latona, were the earliest inhabitants of the island; soon afterwards, by the arrival of Aesculapius, the art of the physician was introduced and was practised with much fame by his descendants." Claudius named them one by one, with the periods in which they had respectively flourished. He said too that Xenophon, of whose medical skill he availed himself, was one of the same family, and that they ought to grant his request and let the people of Cos dwell free from all tribute in their sacred island, as a place devoted to the sole service of their god.(translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb).
The Koans dedicated more statues to Claudius than to any other emperor.
According to Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis - Book XXIX): As for Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, he thought that he conferred an obligation upon the emperors in being content with five hundred thousand sesterces per annum; and indeed he proved, by an enumeration of the several houses, that a city practice would bring him in a yearly income of not less than six hundred thousand sesterces. Fully equal to this was the sum lavished upon his brother by Claudius Caesar; and the two brothers, although they had drawn largely upon their fortunes in beautifying the public buildings at Neapolis, left to their heirs no less than thirty millions of sesterces! (translation by John Bostock anf H.T. Riley).
Middle terrace: (left) old temple to Asclepius; (right) temple built during the Roman rule (its cornice was decorated with lion's heads which served as spouts: one of them is shown in the image used as background for this page)
Notwithstanding the gratitude Xenophon owed Emperor Claudius, he betrayed his patient. According to Tacitus, Agrippina, Claudius' wife, gave the emperor a dish of poisonous mushrooms, and when they merely made him ill she summoned Xenophon,
who, by pretending to help the emperor's efforts to vomit, actually put a poison-tipped feather down his throat. Some find a confirmation of the physician's behaviour in the fact that he erected in the Asclepeion of Kos a statue to Emperor Nero, Agrippina's son.
While the fame of Xenophon is marred by his betrayal of his patron, that of Claudius Galenus, a doctor who was active in the second half of the IInd century, chiefly at Pergamum, survives to the present day.
View of Asclepius' temple on the upper terrace: in the distance the Asian coast
The Asclepeion of Kos was developed in phases: initially it was just made up of a series of steps leading to an altar; then a temple to Asclepius was built on the right side of the altar (during the Roman rule a temple was added on the left side of the altar). Later on a larger temple to Asclepius was erected on a higher terrace, from which one enjoys great views over the town of Kos and the nearby shores of Asia.
Upper terrace Temple to Asclepius: use of black stones
The lowest of the three steps leading to the larger temple was black and the entrance to the god's cell was also black; most likely this choice had some spiritual meaning.
Since the baths in the lower terrace belong to the IVth century, we know that the Asclepeion was still flourishing during that time period. The site is thought to have been abandoned in the VIth century as a result of earthquakes and of the general decline of the economy. In addition the Asclepeion was regarded as a symbol of the old religion which Emperor Justinian was determined to eradicate. Eventually a small chapel was built on the ruins of the temple: its site is marked by a slab placed on a capital.
View towards Kalymnos
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina