Pylos in History & Today

In antiquity at least two other sites (further north on the west coast of the Peloponnese) were associated with Nestor’s palace. One, close to the River Alpheus and Elis, accords well with geographical references in the Iliad and the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, mentioned above. However, since Blegen’s discovery of the palace at Chora, with Linear B tablets identifying it as Pylos, this is now accepted as the site. Today it is signposted: ‘Nestor’s Palace’.

Occupied from around 1700 bc, the palace formed the nucleus of a walled city, itself the centre of a much wider community (with over 50,000 inhabitants). Linear B tablets reveal a highly regulated state administered by civil servants, who kept close watch on details such as the size of sheep flocks, the quantity of vines and fig trees on royal estates (there were a thousand of each) and the number of broken wheels awaiting repair. Industry, including perfume manufacture, was conducted close to the palace. Meanwhile, frescoes from the palace show scenes from nature, both real and imagined (including deer, dogs, lions and griffins), as well as two whose subject matter reflects myths associated with Pylos: on one a young man plays a lyre; on another a battle rages across a river.

The tablets also provide tantalizing glimpses of Pylos’ religious life. Although no religious texts survive (probably none existed), there are apparent references to offerings made to Potnia (the mother goddess), Zeus, Hera, Poseidon – and Hermes. In addition, royal tholos tombs were found both near the palace (containing a staggering amount of gold and gold leaf) and at Voidhokilia. Pottery sherds from the cave at Voidhokilia suggest it was a Bronze Age cult centre.

Pylos was overrun around 1200 bc. In Classical times the region of Messene, to which it belonged, was annexed by Sparta and its inhabitants enslaved. In 425 bc, during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian general Demosthenes occupied and fortified Coryphasion, reasoning that it would provide an excellent base from which to attack Spartan territory and rally disaffected slaves. The Spartans responded, besieging Coryphasion by land and stationing troops on the adjacent (waterless) island of Sphacteria. When the Athenian navy cut them off, the Spartans surrendered for the first time in their history, and 120 elite Spartiates became prisoners-of-war.

In ad 1827 the joint fleet of Great Britain, France and Russia, charged with ensuring the withdrawal of the Ottoman Turks from the Peloponnese, sailed into Navarino Bay. When the Ottoman general Ibrahim Pasha resisted, allied gunboats opened fire. Fifty-three Turkish ships were sunk, many of whose wrecks can still be seen today. Five years later, Greece won her independence.

‘Nestor’s Palace’ is 18 km (11 miles) northeast of modern Pylos near the village of Chora. The site is covered by an unattractive roof, and at the time of writing it was closed for renovation. From the site entrance the route passes through a propylon (antechamber). Left is the Archive Room, where most of the Linear B tablets were discovered. Through the propylon is a courtyard. This leads through a series of antechambers to the megaron, with a central circular hearth, 4 m (13 ft) in diameter, and the bases of four columns, which originally supported an upper gallery. Corridors lead from antechambers to storage rooms and (right) the bathroom, complete with terracotta bath and the jugs with which to fill it. Southwest are the remains of an earlier palace (mostly covered over), while northeast are workshops, wine cellars and a (reconstructed) tholos tomb.

Voidhokilia lies across the Bay of Navarino from Pylos, adjacent to the lagoon of the Voidhokilia Wetland Reserve. A rough track leads from the Pylos-Kyparissia road. The cave is at the far side of the bay on the slopes of Coryphasion. Above (the climb is strenuous) is the Venetian castle of Palaikastro on the site of Demosthenes’ fifth-century BC fortifications. On the nearer headland (hard to find) is a tholos tomb. The white-sanded beach affords good bathing.

There is a small museum in Pylos, but most of the finds from ‘Nestor’s Palace’ and the surrounding area that are not in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum are in Chora museum 4 km (2^ miles) north of the palace. These include frescoes, gold jewelry and Linear B tablets. At the time of writing this museum was closed for renovation.