Ramnous, Rhamnus, Rhamnouda … this often overlooked site is a gem worth exploring.

As you plan your trip to Athens you’ll quickly learn about the popular Athens day trips: a half day to Cape Sounion and the Temple of Posiedon, a full day trip to explore the Argoloid peninsula with a stop in Nafplion and of course, a visit to the Oracle at Delphi.  What most people don’t realize is that Attica is full of off the beaten path gems where you can explore as if none have been before. Peaceful, meaningful historical and archeological sites, many of which you won’t find in your run of the mill guidebook.  Ramnous is one of those sites. And while the city flourished both before (and after) that famous Battle of Marathon (which occurred a bit to the south of this site), the Ramnous flourished along the northeastern Attica coast. Today the site is an little known, little visited haven where one can easily imagine life amongst the ancients. We’ve tried to get inside the site a number of times, but as is our nature, we always got sidetracked along the way – either not making it to the site at all or arriving after it had closed. Basil tells the story of the day we finally made it inside the gates of Ancient Rhamnous (yep, in true Greek fashion, the name has many spellings).
A visit to Ramnous is not for everyone.   For those considering a visit, the down and dirty details:

Getting there:
It takes wheels.  Rent them, with or without a driver, and you are set.
Walking difficulty:
Moderate, the distance between the entrance and the site is about 1 km on a rising and falling rocky path.
What to bring:
Water, Lunch, Camera, Hat, Swim suit from May to October. A sense of adventure. More time than you think you will need, you will need it!

Basil’s story

It’s on any good map, follow the road north from Marathon.

Lake Marathon is a picturesque spot for a coffee, but be careful, the road over the dam alternates directions and is one lane.

The rather boring entrance to the site gives no hint as to what lies ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This day started as a day like most other days of my life with Carole. How about a drive to …?
You have to know Carole. There isn’t a moment that she is awake – and probably not even while she sleeps – that she rests. Her mind is always curious, she wants to know. She wants to see and experience for herself and to let others know what’s out there. Perhaps its her Sagittarius nature that fuels her insatiable appetite for travel and knowledge. Perhaps its her passion for and curiosity about my country. Through her eyes I’ve seen it as I probably never would have for though I love to travel as much as she does, I’m still Greek to my core and thus, I’d probably still be at the cafe nursing a coffee.
Instead, I’ve taken what she says is a rather important role in explorations.  I bring lunch, make sure we have water for Scruffy the dog and drive.
So started this day… Sometime ago we had seen a brown road sign. They are all over Greece, often seemingly random signs pointing the way to something that someone thought was significant. Usually they lead the way to an archaeological site). The sign we’d seen had the name Ramnous … I had never heard of it and could not find any mention of it in most of the dozens of guidebooks that filled the shelves of our apartments. In any case, it was on the map so we started driving.
There are various ways to get there. It is about 15 or so kilometers from Marathon. Since the sites by Marathon close later than Ramnous, if you decide to visit both, you should start with Ramnous first.
Heading out of Athens on the National Road north and exiting toward Lake Marathon offers travelers a chance for a break at the only café by the dam, Fragma,  for a decent cup of coffee with a view of the life giving water source for the City of Athens, built in the late 1920s with the help of an American company – the dam claims to be the only dam in the world built of Pendelis marble. I don’t know if it’s the only dam in the world make of marble or if it’s the only one made of Pendeli marble, but regardless, it’s unique and the road crossing, a narrow strip across the dam controlled by traffic lights at either end, permitted traffic to flow only in one direction at a time, is, for Greece, in and of itself a marvel.
We are just an hour from Athens and we might as well be at a different time in history or thousands of miles away. If you were to suddenly wake up there from a nap, you may think you are in Switzerland.
Through the city of Marathon – don’t confuse this with the battle site, past Grammatiko, a Y in the road and sign points to the left and you reach the quiet road leading to Ramnous. There is a long fence and a guard house at the entrance. This was our second attempt to actually visit the site, and on this autumn day there were, surprisingly, 2 cars parked by the entrance.
Alas, as soon as we had gathered our picnic lunch from the car, a woman came out of the gate and got into one of the two cars and left. At first we though we’d once more missed our chance to explore this site (although it did seem odd the site would close at such a random time, it was only around 11:30 AM). It turned out she was one of the archaeologists. So we were alone. Well, not entirely since the guardhouse was staffed by Kostas, the guard/gatekeeper/defactor “guide”, a pleasant guy around 25 with a big, friendly smile, who explained to me that the name Ramnous came from a thorny bush that was and still is prevalent in this area.
My approach to ancient sites we visit in general is not to do much research before I get there other than knowing where it is so I can find my way there. I like to let history unfold as I explore, to let the site tell its stories to me first hand. It is like reading a book or watching a film without any preconceived ideas. A good archeological site has a way of spinnings its stories and drawing you in.
And Ramnous does not disappoint. It certainly has a way of capturing those willing to venture beyond the beaten path.
When you reach the entrance, nothing gives away what you are in store for. In previous visits, when we arrived too late to gain entrance, we’d walked along the fence and spied upon a domed tomb and some signage pointing down a gravel path called the Sacred Way. The terrain is relatively flat with a slight incline. It has probably not changed since the ancient times. Vineyards, olive groves, livestock, low vegetation, brush, and dark cypress trees studding the landscape like exclamation marks. The quintessential Attica landscape. Here and there some farmhouses. Some sheep grazing in the distance (causing constant distraction to poor Scruffy, who seemed to want nothing more than to herd them all into place).
Heading into the site we follow the gravel path, this time inside the fence, to the domed Mycinean tomb we had spotted from outside the gate. From our previous visits we’d had no clue that the path turned right, and would lead us down the Sacred road, about one kilometer long,past the burial tombs of prominent citizens and their families. We assume they were prominent (or labor was very cheap in that part of the world) since they reminded us of those we’ve visited at Keramikos in Athens. Our guidebook for Ramnous, which we bought at the guardhouse, tells us these tombs at one time were adorned with naiskoi – depictions of houses in relief with their occupants – and stelae – memorial stones sometimes with inscriptions. Many of these adornations are now in the Archaeological museum in Athens.

Tombs along the Sacred Way bear inscriptions in memory of those buried inside.

Tombs along the Sacred Way at Ancient Rhamnus

Carole and Scruffy explored the top part of the path, walking on top of the wall and monuments while I walked along the lower side (leave it to my wife, always taking the high road!). Eventually, as is often the case, our paths crossed and we came to an unlocked gate. Not long after we came upon the two temples.
The first one, the older of the two temples, is perported to be the temple of Themis, Goddess of divine law and bride of Zeus. It was constructed from irregularly shaped large stones fitted with certain mastery as only the ancients could build and reminded me of the large temples we had seen on a trip to Peru. The temple itself was built in nearly perfect east-west allignment.
The second, to the left, is a medium sized 5th Century BCE temple to Nemesis, the Goddess of divine retribution. Legend has it that the invading Persians brought a large block of marble from the island of Paros in order to build a monument to celebrate the victory of which they were assured. The Greeks believed Nemesis had aided them in victory and promptly set up a temple on the site. At this time only the foundation survives, while the head of the statue is preserved … where else – in the British Museum in London. Alas, the purported statue of Themis and the statue of Aristonoe, Nemesis’ priestess are at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The base of one of two temples

Like many archeological sites, envisioning the temple does require a bit of imagination: all that remains from the temples today are the floors and a partial wall of the Temple to Themis. The roof – or entablature – of the Temple of Nemesis has been restored and is kept under a more modern (and secure) roof – (un)fortunately locked and out of sight – in one of the buildings on the site. Perhaps had we not arrived just as the archeologist was leaving we could have begged to visit it.
The sacred road continues between the temples and the city, further lined with burial monuments of the wealthy citizens of Ramnous which were adorned with amphorae, stelae or naiskoi.

The guidebook they sell at the site offers a hint at what once stood atop the base.

The temple is believed to have housed this statue.

As we leave the two temples behind the winding sacred road takes us up to a clearing to reveal the real secret of Ramnouda, the ancient city of Ramnous… in the best undisturbed condition I have seen in any of the ancient sites that I have visited.
The protective walls, 800 meters surrounding the city, are a unique find because they are in such a good shape, according to Mary Oikonomakou of the 2nd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. It is thought that the residents of Ramnous worked in the fields surrounding the city and at night they would come into the city and the gates would be closed.

Walls surrounded the city, rare to find them so intact.

Tall walls remain intact at the southern gate to the city.

One can easily imagine the city filled with people, as the buildings and houses are clearly defined.

We approached the city from the South gate, the main gate, which is protected by two square watch towers. The feeling of discovery is aweinspiring. The fact that the site is visited so little makes one feel that they are first to have stumbled upon this rare find.
Scruffy and I climbed the wall for a better look around, (Carole let ME take the high road this time).

The building foundations and the streets are there. All one needs to do is finish the walls, put on some roofs and move some people in! This is a city ready to be lived in. (A dangerous thought for Carole and I, and no, we won’t be looking to do any renovations on this property anytime soon!)
Although the site was never truly buried, it was, of course, overgrown, ransacked and suffered destruction during the rise of Christianity, like most sites in the Greek ancient world. Most of what we see today was originially the work of Valerios Stais who began work in the 1890s. Excavations started again in 1975 and since then much work has been done and continues, so you might be lucky enough to run across an archeologist.
Life in the city of Ramnous was controlled mainly by whether Athens was in peace or at war with its neighbors and its enemies.
Today’s abandoned and deserted place were full of life during the antiquity. Farmers, laborers, tradesmen, soldiers, soldiers of fortune, military officers, sailors, ship captains, messengers made this place buzz with the fervor of a vibrant city.
Living within a walled city meant that its residents had to live by and abide by rules and regulations. The city was kept dark at night as to minimize the ability of pirates and enemies to attack. The streets were narrow. There were no large temples or official buildings.
According to Oikonomakou. it appears that Ramnous was the only other demos, or city, other than Athens that had its civic and government buildings within its walls.
As we walked north, in the center of the city there is a large open field where the gymnasium stood. Games, always games. This is where the Nemesian games were held in September by the efivoi – the young Athenian soldiers who were doing their military service in the military outposts of the city – state of Athens.
Just to the north of the gymnasium, we find the agora – where the speeches were made, from the word αγορεύω – which is rather small. It also served as the altar to Dionysos and the very unlikely rectangular theater. In fact, were it not for the three surviving theater seats and the dedications scribed on the seats, archeologists would not have called it a theater. It’s thought that its unusual construction made it useful for civic gatherings and other events, not just theatrical performances. It’s also believed to be one of the only theaters in Greece with this unusual shape.

Surviving seats from the uniquely shaped theater.

This is an incredible opportunity to see what life was like in the ancient times. As we walked on the street we could see covered cisterns for collecting water and the collection spouts (see photo). There was probably a clay or lead pipe from the roof of the building that collected the water into the cistern. In a city that could be under siege at any time due to its strategic position water collection was of paramount importance.

Wells, sisterns and water pipes are found throughout the city.

The whole city appears to have been built as a water collection system. The cobblestone streets are not very wide, and they direct the water toward the middle. The middle of the street has a channel that is covered with flat stones, thus creating a covered channel.
Just to the north of the agora – theater there is a secondary wall where the military was stationed. The lower part of the city is where people lived and traded. The upper part of the city is separated and was the last bastion in the event the city was captured and it has a commanding view of the gulf. It is made up of small buildings and has not been excavated as extensively as the rest of the site.
It has been estimated that as many as 700 soldiers lived on the acropolis at the edge of the city. From there they controlled the shores, countryside and the surrounding islands where pirates held out.
Ramnous had two ports, the East and the West, which are still visible today (with some imagination). These were used as commercial ports and also as naval ports for the navy ships that patrolled the Evoian Gulf and the Euripus strait.

The Athenians protected their city – state by military outposts at the most strategically significant locations. Those points were fortified by walls and protected by temples to the gods. Sounio had Poseidon and Ramnous had Nemesis.
Although Ramnous was always an important military outpost, its importance became even greater during the Peloponesian wars when the Spartans had captured Dekeleia and cut off the road between Oropos and Athens. No food supplies could get to besieged Athens other than by ship. Ramnous and Sounio were the two military outposts that controlled the Evoian gulf and could provide safe passage for ships bringing in supplies from Evvoia to Athens.
Archeologists suggest that the fort of Ramnous may have been much older than the fort at Sounio.
Between the two of seafront forts the Athenians enjoyed trade as far as the Black Sea.
But unlike Sounion, which was predominantly just a military outpost, Ramnous was considered a “proper” demos (city) since the government buildings and the temples were within the 800 meter protective walls of the city.
Sounio and Ramnous lost their military importance and due to the distance from Athens were slowly abandoned. Ramnous especially was the recipient of the wrath of the early Christians that demolished the sanctuaries to the pagan gods. In fact, in 399 emperor Arcadius issued a decree “if there are any temples still standing in the countryside, let them be demolished quietly and without disturbance”. The deliberate destruction can be seen by the evidence of hammer blows to the surviving parts of the statues. Buildings were dismantled, the materials carried away to build houses in nearby Scala Oropou.
Ramnous is a remarkable site that gets very few visitors, offering adventurous travelers a chance to experience what early visitors find when they happen upon an “undiscovered” site. New roads continue to be built throughout the greater Attica region, and new housing “developments” rise like spring wildflowers as the highway system in the area continues to be improved. Perhaps one day the road into the site will be paved, but until that time it remains a quiet country lane, used by locals heading down to one of the lovely gulf coves below the site or farmers tending their fields, or perhaps to one of the growing number of cyclists who have discovered the areas new network of bicycle lanes (yes!!!) making this a perfect Athens day trip for those with a car or willing to hire a driver.

The layout of this ancient city is intact, making it easy to imagine the site in its glory days.

Don’t forget to bring a snack and something to drink. The site does not offer any facilities for eating and drinking. Since there is little supervision or guards to chase you away enjoy a picnic at the upper citadel overlooking the site to the north and Evvoia to the east with the expanse of the blue Aegean sea at your feet.
Speaking of that beautiful blue sea at your feet: There is a cherry atop of this adventure. After all that exploring and climbing you may find yourself ready for a refreshing dip. A visit to the ancient Western Port offers a chance to swim at the beach right below the city. Leave the site by driving along the gravel wall that passes the fence marked with the Sacred Road sign (look for the bike path sign mounted on the same fence). Continue on this gravel and dirt road, always staying to the right until you reach the fresh,new blacktop, turn right and then, rather quickly, turn right again onto the first dirt road you find. The road reaches the beach after a few minutes on a rather rough, steep and narrow road. The gatekeeper at Ramnous told me it was 13 minutes by car. He must have been driving his father’s car because there is no way if he was paying for the repairs to his own car he could make that time. It took me at least twice that long, but it was worth it. The views are spectacular. You end up at the site of the western port of Ramnous by the church of Agia Marina and the pebble covered beach is pristine and a welcome break from the walk around the site. You can explore further by climbing past the rocky point separating the east port from the west port. More than likely you will be the only people on the beach.

Perched above the sea, Ancient Rhamnouda was also a significant port for reaching Athens.

Cool 360 view of Ramnous

Interested in hiring a car and driver for this off the beaten path day trip? We can help.