Helike was an ancient Greek Poseidon city that disappeared at night in the winter of 373 BC. It was located in Achaea, northern Peloponnesos, two kilometres (12 stadia) from the Corinthian Gulf and near the city of Boura, which, like Helike, was a member of the Achaean League. The city was thought to be legend until 2001, when it was rediscovered in the Helike delta. Modern research attributes the catastrophe to an earthquake and accompanying tsunami which destroyed and submerged the city.
In the winter of 373/372 BC, a violent earthquake struck the southwest shore of the Gulf of Corinth and destroyed and submerged the Classical city of Helike, which had similarities with the lost island Atlantis.
Both were centers for the worship of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea and of earthquakes.
Plato described him as the patron of Atlantis.
The submerged town was long one of the biggest targets for underwater archaeology. Scientists were divided in their opinions about the exact location of Helike. Numerous archaeologists, historians, professors and explorers wrote, studied and actively searched, trying to discover any trace of the ancient town, with little success.
But in summer of 2001, Dora Katsonopoulou, president of the Helike Society, and Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History rediscovered the city near the village of Rizomylos.
The World Monuments Fund included Helike in its 2004 and 2006 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in an effort to protect the site from destruction.
History of Helike
Helike was founded in the Bronze Age, becoming the principal city of Achaea. The poet Homer states that the city of Eliki participated in the Trojan War with one ship. Later, following its fall to the Achaeans, Eliki led the Achaean League, an association that joined twelve neighboring cities in an area including today’s town of Aigion. Eliki, also known as Dodekapolis (from the Greek words dodeka meaning twelve and polis meaning city), became a cultural and religious center with its own coinage. Finds from ancient Eliki are limited to two 5th century copper coins, now housed in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin. The obverse shows the head of Poseidon, the city’s patron, and the reverse his trident. There was a temple dedicated to the Helikonian Poseidon.
Helike founded colonies including Priene in Asia Minor and Sybaris in South Italy. Its panhellenic temple and sanctuary of Helikonian Poseidon were known throughout the Classical world, and second only in religious importance to Delphi.
The city was destroyed in 373 BC, two years before the Battle of Leuctra, during a winter night. Several events were construed in retrospect as having warned of the disaster: some “immense columns of flame” appeared, and five days previously, all animals and vermin fled the city, going toward Keryneia. The city and a space of 12 stadia (2km) below it sank into the earth and were covered over by the sea. All the inhabitants perished without a trace, and the city was obscured from view except for a few building fragments projecting from the sea. Ten Spartan ships anchored in the harbour were dragged down with it. An attempt involving 2000 men to recover bodies was unsuccessful. Aegium took possession of its territory.
The catastrophe was attributed to the vengeance of Poseidon, whose wrath was excited because the inhabitants of Helike had refused to give their statue of Poseidon to the Ionian colonists in Asia, or even to supply them with a model. According to some authorities, the inhabitants of Helike and Bura had even murdered the Ionian deputies.
About 150 years after the disaster, the philosopher Eratosthenes visited the site and reported that a standing bronze statue of Poseidon was submerged in a “poros“, “holding in one hand a hippocamp“, where it posed a hazard to those who fished with nets.
Around AD 174 the traveler Pausanias visited a coastal site still called Helike, located 7 km southeast of Aigion, and reported that the walls of the ancient city were still visible under water, “but not so plainly now as they were once, because they are corroded by the salt water“.
For centuries its submerged ruins could still be seen. Roman tourists frequently sailed over the site, admiring the city’s statuary. Later the site silted over and the location was lost to memory.
The discovery of the Geometric settlement of Helike
In the eastern part of the Helike plain near the Kerynites river, in Nikolaiika, in a horizon between 2-4 m below surface, excavation work revealed architectural remains of well built walls of large rectilinear buildings dated on the basis of associated pottery to the Geometric period (9th-7th c. BC). Recovered pottery is amazingly rich including a large variety of cooking, storage and transport vessels, and fine tableware both plain and decorated with dominant motifs the multiple zigzags, hatched and black meanders, horizontal lines, opposed diagonals, running spirals. There was also found a good number of the Thapsos class pottery represented by skyphoi, kraters, kantharoi, and globular oinochoai; favorite motifs are the meander, the running spiral, and the vertical wavy lines. Exceptional among the decorated pottery collected from the excavated buildings is one rim fragment of a cup decorated with birds in silhouette, from c. 730 BC. Given the scarcity of archaeological finds from Geometric settlements in Achaea, the discovery of the Geometric settlement of Helike at this location fills in a substantial gap in our knowledge of this period and provides important material evidence for the study of the Geometric Achaean pottery, its production and possible identification of individual workshops in the region, distribution and circulation not only in Achaea itself, and more generally Greece, but also in the West, where Helike founded the first and most famous of all the Achaean colonies, the city of Sybaris.