Shafts of bright sunrise, more beautiful than any which bathed seven-gated Thebes before! Gold daybreak, dawning, blazing over Dirce’s streams – you watched the Argive army turn and flee, their white shields, armour, bridles glittering! Victory has smiled on Thebes and her war-chariots, rejoicing with us in our victory, now we have put an end to fighting, put it all behind us! Let’s visit all the temples, singing, dancing, all night long! And, as he pounds the Theban soil in his ecstatic dance, may Dionysus be our leader!
Sophocles, Antigone, 100-09, 147-54
Visit Thebes with low expectations and you may yet be disappointed. Little remains of the once-powerful ancient city. Instead, a provincial agricultural town leaches unappealingly across steep ridges where palaces once stood, as peeling whitewashed houses with dusty orange roof-tiles spill down the gulleys in a grid of urban sprawl, a merciless confusion of narrow one-way streets.
Occasionally, though, you stumble blissfully across a pocket of history hidden in an unexpected corner – the overgrown foundations of an ancient gate; the traces of a Bronze Age palace; or here, on a wooded rise above the huddled houses, the remains of the temple of Apollo Ismenus. Climb the hill and stand among the pine trees as the warm sun filters through their branches, breathe in their resinous scent, and you are still struck by the spirit of the place, an ancient quiet amid the bustle of the present.