first of several nostalgic trips to Greece was in the 1980s. Ah,
the 80s! Such exciting times. Not much must change in lands so
historic, I thought, especially on the more remote Greek islands
lying well off the beaten track. The goats would still be wandering
the village squares, the windmills would still be turning, sometimes
languidly, in the summer air. And the land would still be undiscovered.
Later I found I was wrong. Nothing is forever except memories.
Some memories slide in easily, at times almost before we're aware
of them. Others we have to fight for. Those ones are often the
most memorable and once they are part of us we can never let them
go. That's how I feel about a small Greek island in the Aegean
Sea. I remember it like yesterday.
The small airplane for the Greek island of Kos
fills up rapidly at the Athens airport.
The passengers sure comprise an eclectic bunch:
Bronzed blondes jabbering in German, British tourists sweating
in their heavy tweeds, young Greek couples incessantly smoking
and blowing their fumes carefree into each others eyes,
island families returning after a day in the city, and exhausted
babies crying in their mothers arms. Elderly men awkwardly
feeling their slow way down the aircraft corridor carrying ---
like waiters bearing trays --- crumpled cardboard boxes bound
in twine, or dragging plastic bags incongruously labeled Camel
Cigarettes or Dewars Whiskey, stuffed
with newspapers, rugs, boots and jackets. Thin stooped women ---
in the mournful black theyll wear for forty years of widowhood.
A Greek priest, as always bearded, pausing indulgently on his
way to his seat to permit a woman kiss his hand. Two Spaniards
sweeping down the passage, inches apart yet shouting incoherently
at each other. A tourist, again German, laden with the most expensive
photographic equipment that was ever sold forty years ago ---
all gleaming, stainless steel and heavy on his neck.
And, me, a wide-eyed North American physician
and my wife making a pilgrimage as devoutly as any character in
Chaucers Canterbury Tales --- to where medicine began twenty
four centuries ago in the land of Hippocrates, the island of Kos.
Today things are different. There were only
two flights a day until 1990 but tourism discovered the island
then --- and now Boeing 737s and other jets fly 4 to 5 times a
day. The local population has remained essentially the same. It
was for example 19,850 in 1981 and 19,412 in 2001 but the change
in the number of visitors is striking. Kos had, in 1985, an impressive
enough 214,836 visitors but in 1995 it had 532, 341 and in 2005
606,608 noisy, exuberant tourists came. Paralleling this was the
increase in the number of hotel beds: from 14,500 in 1985 to 45,100
in 2000 and now 65,000 in 2008.
Presently from mid June to early September,
much of the island is a madhouse of young, often drunk, European
tourists on organized all-inclusive tours. Unattractive modern
buildings impact the Italian and Greek architecture and the east
coast of the island in particular is crowded with concrete. Kos
has been discovered by group travel.
Still Greece to most of us is a mystical place
where the greatest civilization in history began and democracy
first flowered, and to doctors where the greatest physician of
all time was born, lived and practiced his craft on this remote
Kos (sometimes spelled Cos) lies so far east in
the Dodecanese chain its shores are only four miles from the mainland
of Turkey. Its the Greek island still least visited by North
Americans. I went in the off-season to savor what it offered.
And what it offered was the land where time still
moved to ancient rhythms.
We sit in a taverna in what used to be the little
town of Kardamena, 18 miles southwest of the capital. Our lunch
is the typical peasant salad of tomatoes, olives,
cucumbers, and onions with huge chunks of feta cheese on top and
honey and yogurt on the side. Even for spring, it is a hot, sleepy
day and no one is in a hurry --- especially the waiter. We mention
this to a Greek companion, who responds with the remark still
heard even today, maybe especially today, all over Europe: Americans
hurry too much.
He points out the owner of the taverna, a burly,
bluff man sitting with his male friends around a long table in
a corner. They are all clutching their ouzo, telling stories and
having a great time. When I look around the restaurant I notice
there are no females dining this evening: Our women dont
like to go out! explains our chauvinistic Greek, contentedly
puffing on his cigar. My wife, by Greek standards a feminist,
gives him a look that would knock Rocky Marciano off his feet.
I was in this restaurant last week,
our companion goes on, when an American tourist signaled
he wanted his bill. He couldnt get the owners attention.
Finally he went over and said he wanted to pay. The owner replied
hed come to the mans table in half an hour --- he
was with friends. The American got angry and said hed leave
without paying if he couldnt have his bill immediately.
The owner said, Thats okay. Go.
The American flung some money on the table
and stormed out. He didnt understand: Sometimes money isnt
Now in the 21st Century it is important. To a degree it consumes
the island. Visitors who make the mistake of coming in high season
find even the secluded beaches on the west coast fill up fast
when water taxis from Kos Town discharge its revelers. Even the
inland villages like Zia in the Asfendiou district on the slopes
of Mount Dikaion can become busy when visitors show up to enjoy
the magnificent sunse --- and buy tourist trinkets in the now
prevalent stalls. Money has become important. I think back on
this when I recall my first shopping excursion on Kos in the 1980s.
At the harbor an old fisherman has laid out sponges
harvested fresh from the sea. Usually Greeks enjoy haggling ---
and, of course, originally being Scottish --- I like a bargain,
too. He has two qualities of sponges with brown cardboard signs
showing the prices of $1 and $2, expressed oddly enough in US
dollars. I pick up a big $2 sponge from the table and say, hopefully,
One dollar? He slaps my hand --- I hope playfully
--- and says, You bad boy!
I go back to the hotel to show my wife the $2
bargain sponge Id got for $2.
The next day, I drive two-and-a-half miles out
of Kos, past chickens and pigs and goats, past honey-colored walls
spilling over with bougainvillea and gardens cluttered with olive
trees and oleanders to the most famous architectural ruins in
When Hippocrates was born on Kos in 460 BC, the
prosperous island was home to 160,000 people. Today, the population
is one-fifth that number. Thanks to tourism, however, local residents
are regaining some of their affluence. Astypalaia, the capital
in the fifth century BC, lay on the west side of the 28-mile-long
island, distant from the eastern sea routes --- and the pirates
who plied them. This gives some credibility to the theory that
Hippocrates taught his students on the west coast of Kos, nowhere
near the present capital. Indeed, according to some historians,
the father of medicine never entered the temple of healing, the
Asklepieion. Maybe. But when the settlements in the western part
of the island were destroyed by an earthquake and a subsequent
Spartan invasion in 411 BC, the people moved to the present location
of town, to be close to a friendly populace and the Asklepieion
itself. Some writers, describing a fire there, declared Hippocrates
tried to save manuscripts and tables of the temple
and was severely burned, nearly losing his life.
is this temple, the Asklepieion, unearthed in 1902, the same one
honored by Hippocrates? Many archaeologists believe so. Thats
good enough for most physicians who know as they wander in the
Asklepieion theyre walking in the footsteps of Hippocrates
This ancient center of healing, the Asklepieion,
was spread across wooded groves on the lower slopes of Mount Oromedon.
That the grove was sacred in earlier times adds to the belief
that Hippocrates practiced here, even though his teachings and
writings were the antithesis of the incubation ceremonies,
miracle cures, and other religious rituals of ancient Greeces
The area is laid out in three terraces. The view
from the upper level carries the eye over tall cypress trees to
the green fields and cobbled streets of Kos, to the harbor and
the 14th-century battlements of the Knights of St. John and ---
beyond the turquoise sea --- to the coastline of Turkey itself.
In contrast to many archaeological sites, this
one is easy to understand. The lower terrace was the entrance
and arena for special events. It contained health spas, bathhouses,
and fountains spouting water from nearby springs. The water of
one fountain was rich in sulfur, a laxative. Says a local author,
Christa Mee, Whatever effect the water was intended to produce
upon invalids, its perhaps no coincidence a sumptuous latrine
was constructed in the vicinity. The middle terrace, 30
steps up, contains the foundation of the altar of Asklepios. Built
between 350 and 330 BC, it is the earliest symbolic structure
left on the hillside. On the right, the west side of the altar,
rises up the Temple of Asklepios, constructed in the third century
BC to house gifts the sick brought their priest-physicians. To
the east lies another temple constructed by the Romans and dedicated
to Apollo. Sixty more marble steps bring visitors to the foundation
of the huge temple of the upper terrace, built in the second century
BC with 104 Doric columns around its 340-foot perimeter. Little
of value remains in the Asklepieion, however. The Knights of St.
John used parts of it for fortification against the Ottoman Turks.
There are more than 300 centers in the ancient
world named for Asklepios but none as famous as this. I stand
on the upper terrace, imagining what Hippocrates students
must have felt sitting at his feet here or, according to legend,
sprawling under the great plane tree in the center of town. The
tree still exists propped up by strong supports. I gaze at it
but the cynic in me says, surely no tree could be that old!
when I walk into the Greek Archaeological Museum in the town center
I become a believer again. I nearly step on one of its treasures,
a mosaic floor transferred from Casa Romana, a Roman villa in
the ancient part of town that is in the process of being renovated.
The mosaic shows Asklepios, the god of healing, arriving on the
shores of Kos and being welcomed by an islander and by Hippocrates
himself. Created in the third century AD, about 600 years after
the death of Hippocrates, it remains one of the few illustrations
of medicines founder.
Beyond the Roman courtyard stands a statue from
the fourth century BC --- identified by Italian architects in
1933 as Hippocrates himself. It surfaced when an earthquake exposed
what had been an arena, the Odeon. The statue dominates an apse
at the end of a hallway. The sun streaming in through the overhead
window bathes it in a strange, deep-green light as the figure
stares into the distance. I drop down on to the floor and stare
A museum guide, an old bent-over man, watches
me cautiously. He frowns and points to the sign No Photography.
I touch the camera on my lap and look at him beseechingly. He
shakes his head. I try to show how entranced I am with his statue,
his museum, his island, his country. He shakes his head. I hold
my hand over my heart. Doctor, I say and look wistfully
at the statue. He glances at his watch. OK, he says,
Yes, OK. Wondering if this could indeed be Hippocrates
and overwhelmed by the thought --- I lift my camera. At, for me,
that mystical moment I feel somehow my journey is validated and
my nostalgia complete.
Demetra Mitropoulou, a spokesperson in the
Greek National Tourist Organization in New York City tells me
of a recent best-seller in Greece that talks about health and
alternative medicine, certainly popular subjects today.
Says Mitropoulou, The book is as current
and significant today as it ever was. Rewritten in a contemporary
voice, the book is called APANTA: All About Medicine. Its author
is a Greek physician named Hippocrates.