Wednesday, 11 June 2008

GREECE TRIP - DAY 12b - 8th June 2008

The town of Lavrion is not featured prominently in many guidebooks about Greece even though it has the oldest and biggest ancient amphitheater in the country and a mysterious giant hole that would be an attraction to seekers of unexplained phenomena if they knew about it. The area is famous for its industry and mining operations since ancient times. This is where the giant columns from the temple of Poseidon at nearby Sounion were quarried.

The silver mines of Lavrion date back to prehistoric times. The elution works where the silver was extracted are still visible and currently being restored. These mining facilities are believed to be the oldest in the world. The Lavrion silver mines financed the fleet with which the ancient Athenians defeated the Persians, and financed the building of the Acropolis and other monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. Later the mines got much more industrialised, and covered the entire region with tunnels, mineral extraction works as well as some of the by-products of mining and extracting. In the 19th century, Jean Baptiste Serpieri was instrumental in reviving the mining works, something the locals have not forgotten and have raised a stute in his honour in the centre of town.

One effect of this industrialization in the 19th century was that Lavrion had the first railroad tracks in Greece, and the first proper harbour facility to load ore via a bridge to barges and ships. Another effect of this mining activity was that many different and unique minerals were discovered. These minerals bring a lot of geological tourism into the mountains and very interesting samples are displayed in the Mineralogical Museum. The Archaeological Museum gives a good picture of the development of the ancient civilization, which was hugely effected by the early industrialisation. Unfortuantely the archaeological museum was being renovated when we visited so we were unable to see it.

The tunnels and shafts dug to reach the layers of minerals created heaps of debris near the mine entrances. It is possible, to this day, to find a large variety of minerals quite easily. Despite the highly developed metallurgical techniques in the factories, the remnants of which are very well preserved in Lavrion, the Ancient Greeks could not take out all the silver from the ore and after smelting used to dump the slag into the sea. The seawater, which itself contained minerals penetrated into the slag for thousands of years and reacted with other trace elements. This chemical reaction resulted in the growth of perfect crystals of various minerals , some of which are very rare and exist only in Lavrion. In the winter, when the heavy seas deposit these crystals on the beaches, many collectors come to Lavrion to find them.

Up until a few years ago Lavrion was a pretty dismal place. The unemployment was around 75% and the city was used as a refugee center for Kurds and other people. The physical state of Lavrion was so bad that Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos used the city as a stand-in for war-torn Sarajevo in his film “Ulysses’ Gaze”. In the last few years Lavrion has gone through an amazing transformation. Restaurants, shops and cafes have opened and Lavrion has new life due to the rebuilding of the port into a major ferry terminal for the Greek islands and the relocation of several sailboat charter companies and a marina.

One of the wonders of the area is a giant hole. The history of this hole is not entirely clear yet, but the most probable is that it was created by a prehistoric meteorite, which would also explain why there are so many minerals around this area. Through the heat occurring at the impact of that celestial rock, stones around the area melted, and strange minerals formed. Another theory claims that these minerals were there anyway, and the hole itself got created when a cave or the roof of an underground lake collapsed.

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