Marathon: The Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods and the Archaeological Museum

In September 2021 Dr Thomas Alexander Husøy and Olivia Ciaccia visited Marathon (Nea Makri, Greece) to explore the remains of the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods and the local Archaeological Museum, both agreeing that these were absolute treasures not to be missed by travellers, tourists, and scholars. Here, they recount their experience visiting the site and museum.

The Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods

The sanctuary is located opposite the exquisitely beautiful Marathon Beach (the site of the famous battle of 490 B.C.E). Walking in, under the midday sun, we were greeted by a friendly host in a kiosk who directed us towards the visitor’s route.

This sanctuary was created under the patronage of Herodes Atticus in the 2nd century C.E., located within Herodes’ family villa. Its access with limited to a select group of elite associates and intellectuals. The site would have originally been enclosed by a wall. The entrance was marked by pylons imitating post-New Kingdom Egyptian temples and a pyramid structure would have stood at the sanctuary’s centre. Today, visitors walk along paths tracing the outlines of two courtyards within the enclosure and around the adjacent bathhouse, enjoying the ambience provided by surrounding vegetation and the chorus of crickets.

As specialists in ancient Greek and Egyptian history, we were both interested in how the site communicates a merging of Greek and Egyptian religious ideas. This is visually evident to visitors owing to the presence of life-size replicas of the Egyptian-style statues that belonged to the ancient sanctuary. Today, these replicas stand on either side of the ruined remains of four pylons, located in the four cardinal directions surrounding the central enclosure.[1] These statues come in pairs, depicting a god – seemingly Osiris (Wesir, to the Egyptians) or Serapis [2] – wearing a kilt and nemes headdress, and a goddess, identified by the symbols clasped in her hands. Visitors who look closely, as we did, will notice these subtle symbols:

The goddess of the south pylon holds a sheaf of wheat in her hand and wears a horned lunar crown, identifying her as the syncretised Isis-Demeter. The goddess in the west holds a cluster of roses and wears a tall headdress, representing Isis-Aphrodite. The northern goddess holds a papyrus scroll, or piece of cloth (though her upper torso and head are now missing), referencing the goddess’s origins in Egypt; again, this is likely a form of Isis. The statue that was likely located in the east (found inside a room in the north-east, wore a knotted garment and held a crook, reminiscent of those traditional to Isis’ later Egyptian iconography.[3] Unfortunately, this statue is absent today.

Replica statue of Isis-Demeter at the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods at Marathon.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Olivia Ciaccia

According to Lindsey Mazurek, the Egyptianising motifs and syncretism of Egyptian and Greek goddesses were intended to show Herodes’ alignment with Middle Platonic philosophy and the concept that divinity was One, yet represented in many forms, manifest in the material world.[4]

The literature arising from the cults of Isis in the Mediterranean (adopted from the cults of Aset in Egypt) frequently describe Isis as many-named, encompassing all other goddesses. These statues clearly represent this idea in a form that visitors can see in situ today, thanks to these wonderful replicas watching over the site millennia later. For those wanting to view the original statues, we recommend heading over to the Archaeological Museum of Marathon.

The Archaeological Museum of Marathon

The Archaeological Museum of Marathon is roughly a ten-minute drive from the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods at Marathon Beach. It contains artefacts reaching from the Neolithic to the Late Roman period and also includes an in situ Middle Bronze Age cemetery. The museum consists of six rooms which are divided into the following categories:

When entering the museum, the visitor first enters a room containing Neolithic artefacts from the Cave of Pan at Oinoe, near Marathon (Gallery I). Archaeological evidence shows continuous use of this cave from the Late Neolithic to the end of the Late Helladic period, covering a duration of around 4000 years of human activity. The cave’s name comes from the local worship of Pan, a deity who was brought to the region after the famous battle between the Athenians and Persians in 490 B.C.E. According to the legendary tradition, an Athenian herald was approached by Pan outside Tegea (in Arcadia) before the battle; at this time, Pan was only worshipped by the Arcadians. It was believed that the god came to the Athenians’ aid, bringing his cult to Attica. [5] The Cave of Pan at Oinoe was one of several locations in Attica where a cult of Pan was set up as gratitude for his believed support of the Athenians during the battle. Finds from this period can be seen in the museum, including statues of the deity and Attic Red Figure Vases.

Museum interpretation showing a photograph of the Cave of Pan from the Archaeological Museum of Marathon.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Thomas Alexander Husøy

When moving on from Gallery I, the visitor enters Gallery II, which contains objects dating to the third millennium B.C.E. and finds from the Early Helladic cemetery at Tsepi (3200 – 2000 B.C.E.), Prehistoric tumuli at Vranas, and a Mycenaean chamber tomb at Amos. This is followed chronologically by Gallery III, which houses finds from nearby tombs from the Geometric, Archaic, and Classical periods. The collections represented in these galleries communicate the prehistoric story and ancient history of the region across a large timespan through the effective use of eye-catching, interesting artefacts.

The following two galleries, IV and V, continue the story from the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods, as described above. Gallery IV is dedicated to Herodes Atticus, the sanctuary’s creator, a 2nd-century C.E. sophist from Marathon. [6] The exhibits in this gallery include portraits of the sophist himself, as well as his students and members of his architectural workshop. A fascinating object within this gallery is a seated portrait of Herodes and his wife, Regilla. The next room takes the visitor into the gallery focused on the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods, where visitors can see originals from the archaeological site of the sanctuary.

Gallery VI is the final gallery within the Archaeological Museum and is the largest room in the museum, referred to as the ‘Trophy Room’. It is so named as it houses part of the trophy for the Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 B.C.E. Additionally, the display cases house grave offerings from the ‘tumulus of the Athenians’ and the ‘tumulus of the Plataeans’ (the latter referring to those who fought alongside the Athenians at Marathon). [7] These tumuli are the burial mounds in memory of the fallen soldiers of the famous battle, which dominate the landscape of the Marathon plain.

The museum grounds house a second, larger building that provides a roof over the Tumuli of Varnas, a cemetery dating to the Bronze Age (2000 – 1600 B.C.E.). Each Tumulus at the site consists of several burials, likely belonging to a wealthy family. Similar tombs have been found in other locations in Attica, such as Menidhi and Thorikos. [8] When entering the building with the tumuli, the visitor follows a path around the circumference of the building, allowing them to take in the impressive significance of these archaeological structures from various levels and directions.

Remains of the Tumuli of Varnas at the Archaeological Museum of Marathon.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Thomas Alexander Husøy

Concluding Remarks

A visit to the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods at Nea Makri and the Archaeological Museum of Marathon invites visitors to immerse themselves in the history of this fascinating part of Attica, comprising the home of an important sophist, the location of a unique sanctuary of Graeco-Egyptian gods, prehistoric burials, and the site of an important battle. Visitors explore intriguing artefacts covering a timespan from the Neolithic through to the Roman Imperial Period. On top of this, the museum’s staff are especially approachable, friendly, and keen to talk about the artefacts on display, the history of the area, and to provide recommendations for other sites to visit in this beautiful part of Attica.

We highly recommend that anyone local to, or visiting Athens and nearby locations take the time to visit this wonderful hub of Greek heritage.


[1] India Dekoulakou, Le sactuaire des dieux égyptiens à Marathon’, in Bibliotheca Isiaca II, ed. by L. Bricault and R. Veymiers (Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2011a), pp. 23-46 (p. 25); India Dekoulakou, ‘The Egyptian Sanctuary at Marathon’, in Second Hellenistic Studies Workshop, Alexandria, 4-11 July 2010: Proceedings, ed. by Kyriakos Savvopoulos (Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandria, 2011c), pp. 22-44 (pp. 26-27).

[2] Dafni Maikidou Poutrino, ‘The Statues of Isis in the Sanctuary of Marathon’ (unpublished MA dissertation, University of Leiden, 2015), p. 49.

[3] Lindsey A. Mazurek, ‘Middle Platonic Isis at Herodes Atticus’ Marathon Villa’, (2018) American Journal of Archaeology, 122:4 (2018), 611-644 (pp. 628-630).

[4] Mazurek, ‘Middle Platonic Isis’, p. 612.

[5] Herodotus The Histories 6.105.

[6] Mazurek, ‘Middle Platonic Isis’, p. 613; John Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 293.

[7] Herodotus 6.108.

[8] Camp, The Archaeology of Athens, p. 16.

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Thomas Alexander Husøy and Olivia Ciaccia

Dr Thomas Alexander Husøy holds a doctorate in Ancient History, an MSc in the Hellenistic World, and a BA Joint Honours in Ancient History and History. Olivia Ciaccia is a PhD candidate in Historical Studies at the University of Bristol and holds an MA and BA in Egyptology. The pair met during their undergraduate degrees and reunited in the library when Thomas returned for his PhD. They now reside in Wales with their black cat Moaki, and frequently collaborate on historical projects to make history accessible to more and more people.