LIFE

Mt Hymettus

By John Leonard

Only a few kilometers from central Athens, the quiet slopes of Mount Hymettus (Ymittos) offer a natural refuge where Athenians can seek welcome escape and experience an ancient landscape still endowed with tangible, aromatic evidence of rural Attic life some 2,000 years ago.

Once-vital industries have left their marks on Mt Hymettus, including hollowed-out marble quarries, dilapidated farmsteads, rock-carved warnings of property lines and stone-built dwellings, known today as dragon houses ? whose uncertain date and function are still subjects of discussion. Covering much of the hillsides are also herbs, especially thyme, which gave ancient Attica a far-reaching reputation for excellent honey.

One of the most prominent western foothills of Mt Hymettus is a pine-clad mound that rises just at the outskirts of Kaisariani, called Alepovouni. It is a place of historical significance frequently scoured through the years by archaeologists who have discovered the hill contains numerous ancient Greek inscriptions carved onto its exposed bedrock. These carvings read ?OPO?? or ?OPOC? (?horos,? meaning boundary). The final letter in the secondary version of these ?horoi,? which looks like an English C, is actually a Greek sigma cut in lunate form and popular with inscription-carvers particularly in the 1st century BC and afterward. Such boundary inscriptions, marking property lines, have been found in many places in the ancient Greek countryside, often indicating divisions between demes (administrative districts) but those on Alepovouni are unusual because of their number and density. They were not deme markers but privately posted signs, according to archaeologists Josiah Ober and Merle Langdon. This is where their agreement ends, however, as Ober suggests Alepovouni was home to beekeepers who wished to preserve a necessary distance between their own hives and those of their neighbors, while Langdon sees the horoi markers as warnings to unauthorized woodcutters, herb gatherers or goatherds.

Both scenarios are attractive. The lack of other archaeological remains on Alepovouni implies the properties were exploited for low-impact industries requiring little or no infrastructure. Hymettus was especially famous in antiquity for its thyme and delicious honey. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder sings the praises of Attic honey and, like Virgil before him, suggests the sweetest, most aromatic honey is made with thyme. Only a few fragments of the distinctive ceramic beehives used in ancient Attica have been found on Alepovouni, however, leading Langdon to conclude the hill was instead being exploited for its natural vegetation and may have been demarcated to show boundaries between public and private land.

Stone was also harvested from Alepovouni, as a partly cut limestone column drum still visible on the hill?s western side indicates, but Hymettus?s main quarrying areas lay further up on the main slopes of the mountain. Although not as white as Pentelic marble, Hymettian marble still enjoyed a certain popularity, especially during Augustan times. The Roman poet Horace and the naturalist Pliny both attest to a Roman perception that Hymettian marble was a luxury item, imported to Italy only by notoriously wealthy, ostentatious citizens. After the 1st century BC, the Romans acquired white marble closer to home, at Carrera, and use of Hymettian marble declined both in Greece and abroad.

High above the Monastery of Aghios Georgios Koutalas, evidence of ancient quarrying is plentiful. Large, flat-sided pits scar the ground. Near one quarry, a half-completed column shaft protrudes from the rocky slope, while further down are several stone remains of shelters imaginatively termed today dragon houses. The best preserved dragon house has a doorway with a threshold, an internal bench and traces of a flat roof consisting of enormous stone slabs. Specialists offer various interpretations of these distinctive structures but seem to agree that they date to the Hellenistic period with reuse evident in Roman and later times. Dragon houses appear to have been shelters constructed by workers using the initial ?test? blocks removed from newly opened quarry pits. The dragon houses on Hymettus are the only known examples in Attica.

Urbanization an age-old threat

Archaeologist Merle Langdon observes that ancient horoi (rock-carved boundary inscriptions) have been recorded on Mount Hymettus only in areas closest to ancient Athens: ?It may be significant that the known horoi are all confined to the central part of the western slope of the mountain, the area most susceptible to visitations from the populous Athenian plane. No horoi have ever been reported from the northern and southern extremities of the mountain nor on the entire eastern side. In these regions, where the population density was much lower in antiquity, the pressures on landowners [to mark their property lines]... would have been less severe.? Still, one wonders if more ancient boundary markers may not still be out there, waiting to be discovered.

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