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At the southwest corner of the town is the large roundabout from which the main east–west road of the island (for the airport and Kephalos) departs: a well-signed, smaller road to the left leads (2.5 km) to the Asklepieion. The road is bordered with cypresses and probably follows the line of the ancient Sacred Way that linked the Sanctuary of Asklepios with the town and port. Almost immediately on the left is the neglected Jewish Cemetery— sole relict of a community that had been present on the island since Antiquity, but which vanished with the deportations of 1940–44; further on (on the same side) is the Muslim Cemetery, behind a whitewashed wall, with turbaned tombstones crowded beneath olive and cypress trees. Most are engraved in Osmanli (Arabic) script, but those post-1926, in Romanised letters—witness to the continuity of a substantial Turkish community on the is land. In fact, in the village of Platani (1km) just beyond, Turkish is still to be heard in the cafes and tavernas, several of which serve good food of Turkish inspiration (see under Eating).
At 1.8km the road splits. (To the left is the International Hippocratic Foundation of Cos, and (beyond) the newly designed and yet to be completed Museum of the International Society of Otorhinolaryngology.) The right branch leads to the archaeological site of the Ancient Asklepieion- (open 8.30–3 (winter) –7 (summer) daily, except Mon).
On entering the site of the Asklepieion, several general points should be borne in mind. First, although especially associated with the memory and teachings of Hippocrates, everything visible today of the ancient site dates from the two centuries after his death in c. 370 bc. The first cult on this hillside was of Apollo, who was venerated here in a sacred cypress grove from the end of the 6th century bc. Apollo was father of Asklepios, the part-human, part-divine god or ‘hero’ of medicine and curing in antiquity; by virtue of the presence of important curative waters in this area, a parallel cult of Asklepios also took root here early on, alongside that of Apollo. Places of cult of Asklepios attracted both those who sought his healing powers, and those who practised them. These practitioners called themselves ‘descendants’ of Asklepios, and were organised in a closed order or brotherhood, and are of ten referred to as ‘Asklepiads’. One such ‘descendant’ was Hippocrates, who was born on the island around 460 bc, and would probably have practised beside the curative springs on this site in the late 5th century bc, observing the cases and patients who came here for cure. His wisdom, gathered from experience here and on journeys all over Greece, transformed the practice of medicine. The generations after his death, who felt the powerful influence of the pragmatic and analytical and ethical medicine he taught, built the sanctuary here as a competing and alternative focus to the other great healing-centre and sanctuary of Asklepios in the Greek world at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese. Here, on Cos, there was to be a new and modern centre of medical research and knowledge based upon the rational teachings and practise of Hippocrates, as opposed to the older, more traditional and intuitive methods practised at Epidaurus.
Second, the original lay-out of the sanctuary appears to have been conceived as a unified whole; but it took two centuries to complete and was built, and added to, piece meal. It now occupies a rise of three terraces. (As is often the case in Antiquity, these are all oriented slightly skew of any common axial line.) The first two terraces divided the functional and ‘hospital’ areas of the sanctuary (lower area), from the cultic areas (middle terrace); the third, upper terrace, completed a hundred years later in the mid 2nd century bc, was added (in a form reflecting the shape of the lowest terrace) as the sanctuary expanded and began to accumulate greater wealth. Many additions and re-buildings after earthquakes were subsequently made, such as the large Roman thermal complex. A large pro portion of the terrace walls and flights of steps has been restored by Italian archaeologists in the 1920s and 30s. Third, the natural springs which gave rise to the sanctuary of Apollo in the first place and to the therapeutic fame of the site over time, are now mostly dry or have been diverted. The visitor must imagine the sound of constantly running and splashing water everywhere in the sanctuary: the original pipes and ducts can be seen at many points. In the mind’s eye, it is also important to see the whole ensemble immersed in trees, which scented the atmosphere with the purifying odour of pine resin. The sanctuary also attracted dedications of many great and renowned sculptures and paintings, giving it an aspect fundamentally different from a hospital today.
Last, although the site was principally hospital, medical school and cultic sanctuary, once every five years it was turned over to hosting a week of games and competitions for the feast of the Panhellenic Asklepieia. Most of the festivities would have taken place in the sanctuary, probably on the First Terrace, but, a theatre and stadium—if they ever existed—on which the bigger events would have centred, have not yet been uncovered: in fact, only a portion of the overall area of the site has so far been excavated.
The site was identified by a local antiquary, Iakobos Zaraphtis, and excavations were first undertaken between 1902 and 1905 by the German scholar and archaeologist Rudolf Herzog under the Ottoman Administration, and later continued under the Italian Administration throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Laurenzi & Morricone), during which period considerable consolidation and re construction work on the terracing and some monuments (temple of Apollo) was undertaken.
The visitor in Antiquity arrived at the monumental en trance of the sanctuary by way of a long avenue, or Sacred Way, from the city, 3km away. Sanctuaries to Asklepios were customarily some distance from centres of population so as to protect the community at large from contagion from the sick. Outside the enceinte (immediately to the left before climbing the first set of stairs) is a small complex of baths, in which the floor supports made of terracotta discs for the hypocaust system are visible. Its poor quality of construction, incorporating pieces of earlier building, suggests a late date, and contrasts markedly with the neatly constructed, rectangular water pool, just beyond it. Abutting the retaining wall of the first terrace to the left, are two pairs of blind rooms with niches and evidence of painted plaster. The first archae ologists who worked here suggested that these buildings occupy the site of a small temple to Aphrodite. Aphrodite was an important divinity on Cos, just as she was also across the water at Cnidos on the mainland, where there was a significant and competing school of medicine.
Kos Island is part of the Dodecanese Island group