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Hippocrates and the Asklepeion on Kos

Marble columns grace the ruins at Asklepion

The island's most famous son Hippocrates is closely connected with one of the most important historic sites on Kos at the Asklepeion complex, about five kilometres west of Kos Town.

Remains of the former spa baths of Asklepeion

Set on the slopes of Mount Dikeos south-east of Kos Town and hedged with pine forest with views to Turkey this has to be one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the Greek Islands.

The Asklepieion dates from the mid 4th century BC when the first temple was erected to the Greek god Aesculapius, son of Apollo, protector of health and medicine and it became the centre of a religious cult (Asklepian), a healing sanctuary and a holy place.

Niches once held statues to the gods
Impressive view from the upper terrace

It became a place where holy men were renowned for curing the sick, where a systematic, even scientific, approach was made to study and understand medicine and where others could be taught the arts of healing.

It is difficult to overstate the influence the Asklepion has had on the world of medicine. It was here that modern medicine based on analysis of symptoms was developed alongside an understanding of the value of fresh air, good nutrition and pure water.

Greek medicine was based on 'holos' – treating the whole person and recognised the importance of a sound mind as well as a sound body. A temple, a spa, a sanatorium and a healing centre Asklepion was the prototype of all modern hospitals.

Hippocrates was born around 460 BC on the island of Kos, and came to be regarded as the greatest physician of his time. He based his medical practice on observations and on the study of the human body, holding that illness had a physical basis and rejecting superstitious ideas of evil spirits and disfavour with the gods.

The cult of Asklepion may have originated on Kos but it and gradually spread throughout Greece and Asia Minor and hundred of shrines and healing centres sprang up in towns and cities around the eastern Mediterranean.

Set on a steep hillside the Asklepeio is built on several levels or 'andira' connected by staircases. The lowest and largest terrace was the location of the medical school, once bordered on three sides by a portico which was demolished by the Knights of St John to build Kos Castle.

The rear retaining wall is all that remains, with niches that were treatment rooms. There are also rooms where the gods could be handed visitors offerings, waiting rooms and precincts for patients.

A flight of 30 steps leads up to the second terrace with water spring to left and right. The second level has the remains of several temples and spa baths for hydrotherapy. The thermal baths were fed by mountain streams rich in salts and minerals through a complex piping system.

Another flight of steps rises to the upper terrace which is flanked by small niches that once held statues. On the upper terrace are the remains of the largest temple on the site, built in the 2nd century BC, with at least 104 columns, although little remains today. Here the visitor can enjoy extensive views of the town of Kos and the eastern part of the island.