Bulla Regia, Tunisia.

Subterranean Roman City.

Bulla Regia is a notable archaeological site in a highly fertile region of northwestern Tunisia. It is officially recognized as Colonia Aelia Hadriana Augusta Bulla Regia.

The ancient city was under the influence of the North African powerhouse Carthage around the 3rd century BC. With the collapse of Carthage, the Romans eventually obtained absolute authority of the city in the 1st century BC.

Prosperity for the city was the greatest between the 1st and 3rd centuries as it became a major producer and supplier of wheat, grains, grapes and olives to the Roman Empire. 

Bulla Regia and other Roman towns in the region have been referred to as the breadbasket or granary of Rome.

Roman ruins. Bulla Regia. Tunisia.
Bulla Regia. Tunisia. View of remains of buildings, including the House of the Fishing at northern end of the archaeological site.

Abandoned after a catastrophic earthquake, the city was buried by drifting sands and lost to the world for many centuries.

A French company constructing a railway through the region accidentally rediscovered the city it in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, some of the well-preserved buildings, including the monumental gateway to the city, were recklessly destroyed.

Thankfully, the site is home to various fine remnants of its history, including a well preserved Roman theatre. However, the site is famed for its unique and distinctive underground villas that distinguish it from all other Roman towns.

The subterranean villas are adorned with magnificent exquisite mosaics in situ built by the town’s wealthy Romans residents in the second and third centuries AD. The Villas provided an escape from the baking Tunisian summer heat and provided warmth in the Winter.

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All images, text and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.

Villa d’Este, Tivoli Italy.

Garden of the High Renaissance.

The Villa d’Este is situated 30 kilometres east north of Rome in the lush, picturesque and historical hilltop town of Tivoli, in the Lazio region of Italy. 

Renowned for its spectacular use of water, the Villa d’Este represents the quintessence of the Italian garden of the late High Renaissance and has elements of the mannerist and baroque architectural styles.

Converted from a Benedictine monastery into a sumptuous palace around 1550, the much-copied Villa d’Este is a masterpiece of Italian Garden. 

Hundred Fountains. Villa d Este. Tivoli. Italy.
Villa d Este. Tivoli. Italy. View along the avenue of the hundred fountains or Le Cento Fontane at the Villa d’Este at the hill town of Tivoli. The wooded walkway is flanked on one side by over one hundred hand carved waterspouts jetting out cooling water into three overlaying canals.

The Villa d’Este is one of the most significant and complex examples of Renaissance water gardens in Europe.

Visually stimulating, spectacular and theatrical, the Villa d’Este has been a tremendous influence on European garden design.

Its grounds, which have varying elevations, are replete with greenery, sculpture and statuary and a myriad of imaginative fountains, grottoes and water features. 

Tivoli and the Villa d’Este is a very rewarding and relatively easy and relaxed day trip from Rome. Whenever I travel there, I usually take the train, which takes about 1 hour from Rome. 

The Villa d’Este is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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All text, images and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.

Palmyra, Syria.

Bride of the desert

An oasis in the Syrian desert, Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. 

From the 1st to the 2nd century AD, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilisations, married Greek-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. 

Palmyra prospered in ancient times as a caravan staging post, primarily because of its location on one of the main ancient routes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates and to markets further east, including those on the Silk Route. 

Palmyra reached its zenith of prosperity (earning it the nickname ‘bride of the desert’) around the 2nd century AD, when it was under the mighty rule of Queen Zenobia, who challenged the powerful Roman Empire and nearly bringing the Romans to their knees. 

Tetrapylon. Palmyra. Syria.
Palmyra. Syria. The towering Tetrapylon, with its Corinthian columns, dominates the central section of the Great Colonnade Street. In the background is the hilltop 17th century Arab castle or citadel of Qala’at lbn Maan. The Tetrapylon, which marks and masks the change of direction of the great colonnade, has four independent pylons, each comprising four columns and stands on a moulded square plinth at the four corners of a stepped platform.

Palmyra has many outstanding remnants of its past, including the following;

 The 2nd century theatre which laid buried under sand until the 1950s has largely been excavated and restored back to its former glory. The magnificently adorned stage has a large central door known as the Royal Gate, which is flanked by two smaller ones. Facing the stage is the semi-circle orchestra; 20 metre is diameter and beyond it rises the cavea with its nine rows of seats.

The Monumental Arch which was erected in the early 3rd century AD under Septimius Severus in order to disguise the thirty degrees change of direction of the first and second sections of the Great Colonnade.

 The Temple of Bel which is the most impressive remnant of Palmyra. Dedicated to Bel who is thought to be the supreme God of the Palmyrene pantheon, the Temple is an enormous complex and its major construction was performed over several stages from the Hellenistic through to the Roman periods. 

Unfortunately, several of the ancient monuments that I photographed at Palmyra have been severely damaged or destroyed, one consequence of the devastating civil war.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra, is, without question, one of the world’s great archaeological sites. 

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All images, text and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.

Cyrene Libya

The Athens of Africa

Founded by the Greeks, Cyrene is a one of the great cities of antiquity. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the vast evocative ruins of Cyrene in North Eastern Libya are one of the most impressive of the ancient world and provide a majestic insight to its wondrous and celebrated past.

In the 7th century BC, the Greek island of Thera (modern Santorini) was experiencing a severe drought which overwhelmed its limited resources, causing its monumental struggles in sustaining its increasingly distressed population. Because of this, the island’s leaders sent a committee to mainland Greece to seek advice from Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi, the largest and most famous mystical spiritual centre in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Oracle at Delphi advised the committee that to change their fortunes and to survive as a people that they had to establish a new settlement in the lush north-eastern coast of Libya, a place that rained regularly, a place that the “sky leaked through a hole in the heavens”.

So in 631 BC, led by Heroic Battus (the first Greek King in Libya) the Therans founded their new city-state, Cyrene, on the fertile highland ground overlooking the Green Mountain plateau or Jebel Akhdar uplands, 13 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean. Note: The famous Ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, describes the foundation of Cyrene in his ‘Histories’, which is the founding work of history in Western literature. 

Cyrene produced and traded olives, dates, apples, grapes, and cereals and was renowned for its horses and medicinal plant silphium.

The city and people thrived in the lush environment, and Cyrene quickly established a profitable maritime trade with other Greek cities. Cyrene soon became the principal and most prosperous city of Libya and because of its success; four more cities were founded in the region. Known as the Pentapolis, these flourishing cities were Cyrene, Apollonia, Teuchira, Ptolemais and Eusperides. 

Cyrene was famous around the whole Ancient Greek world for its intellectual pursuits and philosophy school and became known as the ‘Athens of Africa’.

The city was established as a Roman province in 74 BC and continued to prosper and be a major influence and important player in the Mediterranean world. Cyrene was severely damaged in AD 115 because of the Jewish revolt and then completely rebuilt during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138).

In 365 AD, a catastrophic earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) struck off the Western coast of Crete that lifted that island 9 metres. Because of this event, Cyrene and many other cities in the region were severely damaged or destroyed and many thousands of people died. Cyrene never recovered from this and eventually declined as an influence and fell under the Arab conquest in 643; however, by then it was only dusty footprint of its glorious and opulent past.

Sancturay of Apollo. Cyrene. Libya.
Cyrene. Libya. Overview of the Sanctuary of Apollo which is dominated by the Temple of Apollo. The sanctuary is beautifully situated 600 meters high, overlooking the Green Mountain plateau and 13 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea.

Famous Ancient Greeks from Cyrene:

Eratosthenes–Born 276 BC – Died 194 BC (82 years).
Mathematician, Geographer, Poet, Astronomer and Librarian.
First, to prove the earth was a sphere. The first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth. First, to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis. Calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. He created the first map of the world and inventing the idea of latitude and longitude. Became the Chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria: the most important library of the ancient world.

Arete–Born c 400 BC – Died c. 340 BC (60 years).
Teacher and Philosopher. Daughter of Aristippus of Cyrene, who was a close follower of Socrates. Arete was a career teacher of natural and moral philosophy at the academies and various schools of Ancient Greece. She also wrote over forty books.

Arete was so highly esteemed that they had inscribed on her tomb a truly beautiful epitaph which declared: 

she was the splendour of Greece,
and possessed the beauty of Helen,
the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus,
the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer.

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All images, text and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.

Arykanda Turkey

Built on a series of terraces on a rocky steep hillside overlooking stunning mountainous and valley landscape, Arykanda’s location resonates like mystical Delphi in Greece and is perhaps the most beautiful of ancient cities in the whole of Lycia, an ancient geopolitical region in Anatolia. It is in the province of Antalya on the southern (Turquoise) coast of Turkey.

The city was well known for its grand and lavish buildings, however according to ancient sources, the citizens of Arykanda were apathetic and in the habit of living extravagantly beyond their means. It is said that they fell into debt; and it is believed they repaid their extravagance through new special taxes.

Arykanda was a small obscure settlement when it was invaded by the Persians in the 5th century BC. Like other Lycian cities, Arykanda heroically resisted the invasive powers, however, they eventually succumbed to the might of the Persian Empire.

During 333 BC, Alexander the Great arrived in Lycia (on his way to defeat the Persians) and was welcomed as a liberator by the citizens of Arykanda.

With Alexander came the overwhelming force of Hellenism. Arykanda fully embraced the Greek culture and way of life, which included the Greek language, and it was transformed with all the buildings necessary for a Greek metropolis.

In antiquity, Arykanda was a representative (with voting rights) of the Lycian League and even minted its own coins.

Arykanda continued to grow and prosper after the premature death of Alexander and remained under the control of the Ptolemaic dynasties. It briefly changed hands to Antiochus III and again to Rhodes around 190 BC (ally with Rome at the time). It was formally annexed to Rome in 43 Ad.

Grand Baths panoramic view. Arykanda. Turkey.
Part view of the Grand Baths complex and stunning landscape surrounding Arykanda, Antalya province, Southern Turkey.

The city continued to prosper as a Greek city under Roman authority; however, its prosperity was stalled when it was struck by two significant earthquakes in 141 and 240 AD.

After a bitter struggle with the city’s pagans, Christianity prevailed in Arykanda and the city became a bishop’s seat in the Byzantine age. However, the city was on the decline and sometime between the ninth and eleventh centuries AD; the site was abandoned because of the Arab invasions of the region.

British researcher and explorer Sir Charles Fellows rediscovered Arykanda in 1838. The isolated archaeological site is extensive and thoroughly sign-posted.

It has a very impressive array of excavated architectural remnants from its illustrious past including: Stadium, Theatre, Odeon, Agoras, Baths, many Temples or Sanctuaries, Nymphaeums, Houses and Villas and at least 15 monumental tombs. 

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All Images, Text and Content are Copyright Steven Sklifas.

Ancient Messene, Peloponnese Greece

Ancient Messene, also known as Ithomi, lies in the fertile foothills of Mount Ithomi, just below the stone houses of the charming traditional village of Mavromati. It is in the southwest Peloponnese prefecture of Messenia, 32 kilometres northwest of Kalamata.

The classical city-state was founded in 369 BC on the foundation of ruins that go back as far as the Bronze Age. It became the capital of the greater region of Messene after being librated by Theban general Epaminondas, who defeated the Spartans two years earlier (371 BC) at the battle at Leuktra. 

It is said the city was built in 80 days and it follows the famous Hippodamian system in town planning.

The Archaeological Society of Athens has largely excavated and restored the vast archaeological site. It is one and is one of most impressive sites in Greece; however it’s not very well known to most travellers in the region.

One of the many highlights is the 3rd century BC ancient theatre which has the cavea (seating) carved into the hillside. During the Roman period, the theatre was enlarged, and the façade of the scene building had three storeys. The theatre held the meeting between King Philip V of Macedon and Aratos the Sikyonian in 214 BC; the day following the revolt of the Messenian people.

Further highlights include the Stadium and Gymnasium architectural complex, the 2nd century BC Hellenistic Sanctuary of Asclepius, the political and religious heart of the city and the 9 kilometres long circuit wall, made of enormous limestone blocks and with battlement towers built during the 4th century BC to protect the city.

The archaeological site of ancient Messene is on the UNSECO Tentative List, which comprises properties considered of being cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Click here to view the full Ancient Messene Gallery

All text, images and content are copyright Steven Sklifas.   

Ancient Olympia Greece

The birthplace and spiritual home of the Olympic Games, Ancient Olympia continues to captivate as it did for a thousand years from 776 BC, when Greeks assembled in war and peace to celebrate the games and life.

Ancient Olympia is magically set in a lush valley between two rivers in the western Peloponnese prefecture of Elia, southern Greece. Dedicated to the Ancient Greek God Zeus, the games which according to one legend were established by Ancient Greek Hero Herakles to honor the achievement of his 12 labours.

The games were held here every fours year’s from 776 BC onwards for over a thousand years and remarkably the champion’s name of each event is recorded.

Amidst its shady groves of pine, olive and blooming Judas trees, Olympia’s evocative ruins of its celebrated past are on show, including the remains of the Palaestra where the athletes trained, the stadium where the foot races were held and the hippodrome where the horse events took place. 

The renowned 2nd century AD Greek traveller, geographer and historian Pausanias declared that although there are many wonderful things in Greece, there is a ’unique divinity’ about the mysteries of Ancient Olympia.

At its centre, in the sacred sanctuary, the glorious 5th century Temple of Zeus lays in ruins. Its colossal Doric columns lay toppled in the ground unmoved since being destroyed by tremendous earthquakes in the 6th century. Comparable in size to the Athenian Parthenon, The Temple of Zeus housed the long-lost 12-metre high golden statue of Zeus, created by the Greek sculptor Pheidias (Phidias) and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Finally, its marvellous museum is full of world-class exhibits and masterpieces of antiquity, including 5th century BC statue of the winged Nike by the sculptor Paeonius (or Paionios) of Mende and the Praxiteles’ marble statue of Hermes, possibly the finest figurative sculpture ever made.

Ancient Olympia is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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All images, text and content are Copyright Steven Sklifas.