In an Eden-like environment at the foot of Mount Olympus, featuring lush green vegetation, towering trees, abundant springs and a navigable river, lies Dion, the sacred site of the ancient Macedonians.
This area of extraordinary historical importance is located within the modern borders of Pieria, in Central Macedonia.
Excavations in the area, carried out by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in the 1920s, uncovered a fortified city surrounded with sanctuaries and other places of worship. The city is thought to have been inhabited continually from the Classical period to early Christian times.
Among the Greek gods worshiped in Dion was Olympian Zeus, the king of all the gods of ancient Greece, to whom the city owes its name, since it is a derivation of his Greek name, Dias.
Ancient Dion throughout the centuries
At some point, far back into antiquity, a great altar was set up in Dion for the worship of Olympian Zeus and his daughters, the Muses.
In the 5th century BC, after the Macedonian state had gained great power, and athletic as well as theatrical contests were known to have been established there.
The kings of Macedonia themselves, who made the sanctuary of Zeus the central place of worship for all Macedonians, organized all these public events.
The city which grew up next to these sacred sites of the Macedonians began to flourish in the 5th century BC, acquiring a series of monumental buildings at the end of the 4th century BC.
After the historic battle of Pydna between Rome and Macedonia, which took place in 168 BC the area became a colony of Rome.
The sanctuary continued to operate during the Roman period, and the city of Zeus actually experienced a second zenith of development during the second and third centuries AD.
During the Early Christian period the city began to shrink in size, and by the end of the 4th century it was pillaged by forces under Alaric, the king of the Goths, who comprised the western branches of the nomadic tribes of Germanic people.
Earthquakes and floods which occurred in Dion in the 5th century completed the destruction of this once-great city. The site was completely abandoned at one point, its former residents moving to safer areas at the foot of Mount Olympus.
The archaeological park of Dion
A unique open-air archaeological park has been created in the excavated areas of the ancient city, which includes the city itself as well as its surrounding sanctuaries, theaters, stadiums and cemeteries, all of which have been carefully unearthed over the years.
Visitors to the Dion site can walk on beautiful cobblestone paths by the river, and relax near the natural springs and ponds, while viewing several rare species of local flora and fauna.
The ancient city of Zeus, like most other cities at the time, was protected by a wall and it had a typical urban layout, with two vertically intersecting central avenues, and a crowded network of paved roads, which served both pedestrians and vehicles.
The city had an array of shops and many public buildings (including lavatories). There was also a very well-designed water supply and sewage system for the town.
The buildings which belong to the Imperial Times are preserved to a great extent, and the extraordinary degree of preservation of many of these ancient buildings is impressive to all Park visitors.
The most important monuments of Dion
Following the paved stone path after going through the entrance pavilion of the archaeological park, visitors can walk past the great spring on the right and reach the shrine of Demeter, (who was the goddess of harvest and agriculture), with its many sacred buildings.
The oldest edifice here dates back to the late 6th century BC and the later ones date back to Roman times.
Continuing on this path, the visitor will then come to the sanctuary of Zeus, which dates back to Hellenistic and Roman times.
The bases of the temple’s walls, the nave, the altar, the throne, and a stunning headless marble statue of Zeus from the 2nd century BC, are just some of the treasures which were unearthed here.
In addition, a variety of marble offerings with engraved eagles of various sizes and inscriptions, as well as other devotional offerings, were discovered in this part of Dion.
Archaeological excavations have also revealed a headless marble statue of Hera, the Greek goddess of women, family, marriage, and childbirth.
The 2nd century BC statue was called the “Goddess of the Wall” because it was found mortared into the very walls of the city. The priceless ancient statue had apparently been used to make up part of a defensive wall in early Christian times.
Just a few meters to the east, a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of the Egyptian gods Isis (the goddess of magic and wisdom), and Anubis (the protector of the underworld) was unearthed.
Without a doubt, this sanctuary comprises one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in Macedonia.
An alternate route after the sanctuary of Demeter leads to the sanctuary of Zeus, where a large altar and many inscriptions with official texts from the Macedonian kings were found.
A new theater was built on the southern outskirts of this sanctuary during the Roman period, replacing the large Hellenistic theater located northwest of the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus.
Following the main walkway through the Dion site, visitors can view the famous, incredibly well-preserved mosaic of Dionysus as he is depicted on his chariot emerging out of the sea waves. Dionysus was for the ancient Greeks the god of the grape-harvest, wine-making and wine, fertility, and the theater.
Returning to the central junction of all the roads in Dion, visitors encounter a very interesting polygonal building, which was most likely a covered market in ancient times.
On the same road which leads to the gate of Olympus is the entrance to the early Christian basilica, which had two successive building phases, during the fourth and fifth centuries AD.
At the southern outskirts of the city, on the way out of the archaeological park, the visitor will find Dion’s ancient public baths. These luxurious facilities boasted marble and mosaic tile floors, with large fountains and recreation areas. The baths also had a chapel devoted to the worship of Asclepius, the god of medicine, as well as a theater for cultural events.
Treasures of the Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum of Dion displays some of the many discoveries made during the excavations of Dion and its surrounding area.
The museum exhibits sculptures from Hellenistic and Roman times, including statues and marble offerings from the sanctuary of the Egyptian gods as well as the altar of Aphrodite, who was the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion.
There is also an array of finds from the early Christian basilicas, as well as stone objects and coins, pottery, tombstones, bronze figurines and other small items which were found in Dion.