Most Greek and foreign travelers would associate the island of Aegina, just one hour from Athens by boat, with its sandy beaches; with its pistachio orchards; and equally with the majestic ancient temple of the local deity Aphaia, or with the monastery of St Nektarios, whose story will soon feature on the silver screen starring Mickey Rourke.
Very few visitors, though, to this island of 13000 inhabitants, would know about the fascinating story of Aegina’s ancient military harbor. Α unique construction anywhere in the Mediterranean, it has always remained open to bathers to enjoy and to explore despite it being the focal area of significant ongoing research by an international team of archaeologists.
Besides the unmissable landmark of Kolona, at the foot of the Acropolis of Aegina, lie the semi-submerged ruins of one of the most important military harbors of ancient Greece, referred to by 2nd century AD historian Pausanias as the secret harbor -“kryptos limin”, in classical Greek.
This very distinct name recorded by Pausanias derived from the fact that only locals knew its location and, most crucially, how to navigate to its shore. And that was due to the man-made system of artificial reefs -a kind of marine minefield, some people like to call it- which made it difficult and dangerous for enemies of the Aeginites to enter the harbor.
“Pausanias wrote that Aiakos, the legendary first ruler of Aegina, had thrown rocks into the sea to obstruct enemy ships from approaching Aegina. He does call them rocks, but these are actually man-made, constructed formulations”, explains Despina Koutsoumba, marine archaeologist at the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Greek Ministry of Culture.
“With the passing of time, those medium-sized stones merged and they do indeed look like solid rocks. This artificial reef system is even present in today’s bathymetric maps that ships use for navigation. Anyone who enters the modern-day harbor of Aegina, would notice something which seems like a barrier outside the harbor. Even today, vessels must experience difficulty in navigating around this outcrop”, the researcher continues.
Upon arriving at the one-time famed military harbor, broad view to the open sea, the cheerful buzz from bathers makes it easier to imagine the archaic times when, over 2500 years ago, Aegina was one of the busiest, most powerful and abundant mistresses of the sea in the then known world -several centuries before neighboring Athens rose to glory.
One of the eleven largest naval city-states at the time, Aegina had contributed, according to Herodotus, 30 manned triremes to the naval Battle of Salamis -a strategic milestone of the Persian wars in 480 BC, whose 2500th anniversary is celebrated in 2020. Following the epic win of the Greek city-states against the Persians, the Aeginites were commended by the oracle of Delphi with a bravery award. But that didn’t stop the Athenians, a few years later, from destroying what was their most prominent rival city.
“Aegina was destroyed by the Athenians in 458 BC due to their great rivalry for the same markets of the Mediterranean. During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians exiled the locals, and installed Athenian cleruchs -elite military officials- on the island. The Aeginites were only repatriated when the Peloponnesian War ended”, Koutsoumba explains.
During the past three years, research has focused primarily on the war harbor on Avra beach, which is the most visible, because it is walled. Although local tourist information websites often claim that Aegina had owned 400 triremes in its heyday, the archaeologist believes that this is an exaggeration. To date, her team has confirmed the existence of 15 ship sheds in a quarter of the total length of the secret harbor.
“We found proof of those on the north side of the war harbor. Apparently, there must have been more on the south side, which were probably destroyed partly due to the construction of the modern (commercial) harbor, and on the east side, which has been silted up beneath the beach”, she clarifies.
The ruins can be seen from the surface of the sea down to two meters deep, or three meters when outside of the submerged wall.
“They are in very shallow waters, and bathers can see them either by swimming or snorkeling with a mask and flippers. The two turrets that blocked the entrance to the harbor with a strong chain are visible in several parts because they are on the surface of the sea and protruding slightly above it. The submerged ship sheds, which is where the war ships and their equipment were kept, are also visible”, Koutsoumba points out.
The breakwaters and artificial reefs extend further into the sea, at 500 metres from the beach and up to nine meters deep, all of them directly in the route of today’s incoming ships.
In the context of the international Aegina Harbour Project 2019-2023, conducted by the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of Greece in collaboration with the French School of Athens and the University of Aix-Marseille, the municipality of Aegina has been hosting guided tours for bathers once every autumn since 2018.
The tradition was broken in 2020, due to the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but Koutsoumba has promised that these annual open days are certain to return: “Alongside the research, we want to showcase the findings and proffer the harbor to the public. We are planning to facilitate people’s understanding of the concept of the harbor through digital means, followed immediately by the opportunity to dive in and see it for themselves”.