By Anastasia Kaliabakos

The Titanic. The RMS Lusitania. The USS Arizona. All of these are famous ships tragically destroyed, their debris and broken parts submerged at the bottom of the ocean. 

Shipwrecks, although devastating, serve as a sort of time capsule through which we, benefitted by modern technology and equipment, are able to gain insight into the past. What secrets lie in the depths of the ocean, so vast and expansive, just waiting to be discovered?

In the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, located in the Aegean Sea, lies an ancient shipwreck. The so-called “Peristera” wreck dates back to about 425 B.C. Back in 1985, a Greek fisherman named Dimitris Mavrakis discovered the shipwreck off the coast of Peristera. Nearly a decade afterwards, archaeologist Elipda Hatzidaki led an experienced team to excavate the detritus and uncover the mysteries of the shipwreck. As it turns out, the ship lying in the depths was one of the largest merchant vessels from the classical period of ancient Greece. Its cargo was also fittingly huge: it consisted of thousands of amphorae, which are big two-handled jars designed to carry and hold wine, from the cities Mende and Peparethus; various bowls, cups, and plates meant for banquets or symposia; and fish and sponges that have found a home in the wreckage ever since the 5th century B.C.

JUST OFF THE COAST of Alonissos, Greece, this underwater museum of an ancient wreckage will allow divers to be transported back in time, admiring beautiful amphoras and ruins from the 5th century B.C. Photo courtesy of Timo Dersch Photography.

It is postulated that the ship sank due to the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian War (431 – 405 B.C.) was a long, bloody battle between the two prominent superpowers of ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta. Athens was previously the dominant city-state in the region, but after the war, Sparta came to wield more power, leading to the end of the Golden Age of Greece. The Peristera ship is thought to be of Athenian origin, and its wreckage parallels the outcome of the war: just as Athenian values of democracy and philosophy have endured over the past several millennia despite defeat, the Peristera shipwreck has been incredibly well preserved at the bottom of the Aegean.

As for the Peristera itself, archaeologists have managed to recover only singed sections of the hull, which is a ship’s main body. However, the piles and piles of amphorae were of great value to historians and archaeologists alike. It has shown us how the cargo was placed in the vessel—layered on top of one another carefully in the hold. The layering also tells us how the ships would have been structured. It was previously thought that such humongous vessels meant for transport of amphorae and similar objects came much later in history, probably during the age of the Romans, around the 1st century B.C. However, the Peristera disproves this theory, as the ship was built before that time.

One of the most captivating parts of all of this is that the Peristera shipwreck will be opening to the public and recreational divers as an underwater museum. Alonissos is already a popular tourist destination and is known for its beautiful landscapes and friendly people. It is fitting that its offerings will be expanded to its waters as well. Even before its opening, officially set for June 2021, there has been much interest in the museum from across the globe. Divers who have already gone down to see the shipwreck have described it as awe-inspiring and a real-life example of time travel. And there are various options for people who do not want to partake in the actual diving as well; underwater cameras stream real-time video of the ship to tourists, and non-divers can even use specially-designed 3D glasses to take a virtual tour of the shipwreck.

An underwater museum of a shipwreck seems very fitting to the atmosphere and culture Greece possesses. In Greek mythology, there are many stories of heroes traveling to unknown and unfamiliar lands via ship on grand, tumultuous, and wild adventures. Popular myths include the decade-long traversing of the seas by the famous Greek warrior, Odysseus; another is that of Jason, who sailed to find the Golden Fleece with his band of Argonauts; the god Dionysus, aboard a ship on his way to Asia, turned a hoard of pirates trying to sell him into slavery into dolphins. Sea travel and ships have been woven into the fabric of Greek history, and the Peristera wreck is a lasting testament to this legacy.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, tourism has significantly dropped globally. This has been particularly unfortunate for countries such as Greece, whose economy relies heavily on money made from vacationers. Alonissos was particularly affected, with its tourism falling about 85% in 2020. Hopefully the Peristera, along with Alonissos’ other distinctive attractions, will help bring some of that tourism back in a more sustainable way.

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