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Physical Description

Magnesia is a region in central Greece at the head of the Pagasitikos gulf, a splendid natural harbor that serves as the entrance to Thessaly. The shape of the district is that of a large crescent with its western point among the rolling hills of the mainland on the west, and in the east its other point is the splendid Mount Pelion that extends south into the Aegean sea towards the northern Sporades islands, then curves back to the east in a great crab clay that attempts to close the mouth of the Pagasitikos gulf. The modern town of Volos, the largest in central Greece, sits on a small plain midway along the crescent in the north at the top end of the gulf. The ancient sites of Magnesia cluster around Volos and its pocket plain and include the Neolithic towns of Sesklo and Dimini, the Bronze Age towns of Pefkakia and Iolkos, and the Classical cities of Phthiotic Thebes, Demetrias, and Pagasai.


Magnesia, as the natural point of entry to the fertile plains of Thessaly, was settled by Neolithic immigrants early in the 7th millennium B.C., and a typical village of this period is found at Sesklo some 19 km west of Volos on the road to Larissa. The Thessalian Neolithic lasted 4000 years, and more than 350 artificial mounds (called tells) are scattered today across the plain. These tells were formed by the successive construction and destruction of farming villages on the same site, and the debris from the ruined houses of adobe brick helped raise the summit of the mounds above the level of the flood-prone plain. Dimini is another of these Neolithic villages, and like Sesklo it is near to Volos. Recent study of the geology of the district has shown that the coastline has been moving seawards over the last 8000 years as new alluvium has washed down from the mountain slopes, building the plain outwards at the coast. The villages were shifted periodically to keep them close to the moving coastline.

In the 3rd millennium B.C., at the beginning of the Bronze Age, the center of population and the development of advanced civilization shifted to the Peloponnese, the Cycladic islands, and Crete in southern Greece. Thessaly had its own flourishing Bronze Age civilization at this time, but little is known about the history of this period. In Mycenaean times a major city known as Iolkos was the political center of the region. Greek archaeologists excavated the remains of a Mycenaean tell in the heart of modern Volos in the 1950's that are believed to be those of Iolkos. Jason and the Argonauts began their voyage according to tradition at Iolkos.

The greatest prosperity and importance for Magnesia in Classical Antiquity was in the Hellenistic period, when the Macedonian kings who succeeded Alexander as rulers of Greece moved the principal city from Pagasai to the newly-built city of Demetrias. The latter became an important town in the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C., primarily as the exporter of Thessalian grain and war horses. The Macedonian kings used Demetrias as a port and regional capital during the wars with Rome, and after their defeat Demetrias became a Roman provincial town of no great significance.

Magnesia and Thessaly were part of the Byzantine Empire until the Turks occupied them in the 15th century A.D., and they were only united with the modern Greek state after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Partisans from the picturesque, and nearly impregnable, villages that cling to the high slopes of Mount Pelion above Volos played a heroic and still-remembered role in resisting Turkish dominion.


Demetrias and Pagasai-The successive Classical and Hellenistic cities of Magnesia are found together at the southwest edge of the present city of Volos. There is little preserved at the surface. What is known about the sites has come from Greek and German excavations carried out intermittently during this century. The fortification walls, mostly belonging to the Hellenistic period, are the only conspicuous feature. It is from these walls that archaeologists have pulled a number of beautiful Classical painted grave stelae that were used as construction material in antiquity.

Dimini-The site is perched on a rock at the northwest edge of the city of Volos. The site is confined to the summit of the rock, and was first cleared by Greek archaeologists in 1899, and subsequently explored in the 1970's by a team from the Volos archaeological museum. Foundations of concentric stone walls, with an inner courtyard, and a central megaron-style building were once part of a Neolithic and Early Bronze Age citadel complex. The lower town has not been explored. At the edge of the site is a fine small Mycenaean tholos tomb, possibly belonging to an important person from nearby Iolkos.

Iolkos-Remains of two Mycenaean buildings, perhaps palaces, were found in excavations by Greek archaeologists in the 1950's in a tell in a suburb of Volos, about 2 km southeast of Dimini. These remains, the tholos tomb at Dimini, and other chance finds from the vicinity, have convinced many archaeologists that this is site is Mycenaean Iolkos. There is nothing to be seen at the site at present.

Pefkakia-This small tell is found at the southwest edge of the Volos, and it was an important town in the Early Bronze Age. A succession of villages and towns, moving from Dimini, to Pefkakia, Iolkos, Pagasai, and Demetrias, were following the retreating coastline. Pefkakia was excavated briefly by German archaeologists in the 1970's, and some ruined walls are visible in a section at the site.

Phthiotic Thebes-The Classical city of Phthiotic Thebes is located 20 km southwest of Volos, and it was the center of the mainland arm of Magnesia. The most conspicuous feature are the extensive Classical fortifications with 40 standing towers. There are also remains of a stone temple of Athena, a theater, and a stoa. The city was moved a few kilometers to the coast in the Late Roman period, and Greek archaeologists have uncovered a fascinating string of 5 Early Christian basilica churches with beautiful stone columns along the beach. In addition to the churches there are many fine mosaics, roads, public buildings, and houses tobe seen.

Sesklo-This site is some 19 km northwest of Volos off the road to Larissa. This is one of the important Neolithic sites of Thessaly. Excavated by Greek archaeologists in 1900 and the 1960's and 1970's there are many interesting remains to be seen. First settled at the beginning of the Neolithic period c. 6800 B.C., the site was continuously occupied until the Early Bronze Age. A small acropolis has a Middle Neolithic (c. 5500 B.C.) megaron on its summit, and around it are many foundations of houses and other buildings, many showing clear traces of the fire that destroyed them. A stone fortification wall was built around the Neolithic acropolis after 4000 B.C., a time when the town reached its greatest size. Neolithic houses, possibly part of an extensive lower town, can be seen in the fields by the car park, about 100 m from the acropolis.

Curtis Runnels

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