The sunken city of Helike

The site of Helike, near Nea Kerynia on the Gulf of Corinth, has to be one of the most fascinating tales of antiquity.

In 373 B.C., an earthquake strikes the region. The town of Helike, one of the most pre-eminent settlements of the North-western Peloponnesus, is hard hit. When men from nearby settlements arrive, the town is gone. The houses, the shops, the temples, everything is underwater, flooded by a nearby lagoon.

An earthquake immediately followed by a flood. There are no survivors.

Sad paradox: Helike was the site of a great temple to Poseidon, god of the sea. He was also Poseidon Earth-Shaker, god of earthquake. How can the Greeks not see the fate of Helike as a direct intervention of this most destructive of divinities, difficult to appease?

Strabo refers of Helike several years later:

For the sea was raised by an earthquake, and it submerged Helike, and also the temple of Helikonian Poseidon. Eratostenes says the ferrymen say that there was a bronze Poseidon in the straight, standing erect, holding an hippocamp in his hand, which was perilous for those who fish with nets. (source)

Helike used to be the leader of the first Achaean League. The town even has a connection with Italy: Sybaris was founded from Greek colonists from Helike in the sixth century BC. Ionian Priene may have been another colony of Helike.

Helike’s ruins have proved elusive. Following Strabo’s interpretation of the tale, archaeologists were searching at sea while the site is on land, completely silted over. There has been some digging on the site, showing glimpses of a rich urban centre. There’s an article about the digs in Archaeology Magazine, with a map. There is even a Facebook group.

It’s fun to compare the map with today’s satellite photography of the region. A much older town from the Bronze Age lies beneath and antique ruins.

Helike’s dig team website.

BBC News article.

A discussion thread with links to pictures.

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