"Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie."
Those words are packed with emotion for all who know or care what happened at Thermopylae, arguably the most famous battle in history.
Thermopylae sits 11 kilometers south of Lamia, Greece, which lies some 200 kilometers north of Athens. That means the 300 marched about 400 kilometers from Sparta before they arrived at the Hot Gates.
Thermopylae means hot gates in Greek and refers to the three hot springs at the battle site. They are called gates because the pass narrows near them, so they are ideal for a military defense.
I wasn't sure how I'd feel as we approached the site. I'd seen all the pictures (everyone takes the same ones) and read all the stories. Needless to say, I didn't need an sign to tell me where to go.
As you travel north on Route 1, you come to an exit sign for Thermopylae. The ramp becomes a road dedicated to providing access to the battle site, looping back to the main road after a mile or so.
You first look for Leonidas on the north side of the road. He stands on top of a wall depicting the battle. Below his feet is the immortal saying, "come and get them". There are two statues flanking him: Eurotas (the river of Sparta and Taygetos (the mountain of Sparta). The wall faces south so you spin around to find Kolonos Hill, which is immediately across the road. Without a sign you wouldn't be able to find it because its obscured by trees.
Crossing the road, you take the path up the hill to the plaque containing the quote cited at the beginning of the post. To read the plaque you look west toward the Persian camp. Above your left shoulder is the pass traversed by the traitor Ephialtes and the immortals.
Here's what Herodotus had to say about the end of the battle. "This conflict continued until those who had gone with Ephialtes came up; and when the Hellenes learned that these had come, from that moment the nature of the combat was changed; for they retired backwards to the narrow part of the way, and having passed by the wall they went and placed themselves upon the hillock, all in a body together except only the Thebans: now this hillock is in the entrance, where now the stone lion is placed for Leonidas. On this spot while defending themselves with daggers, that is those who still had them left, and also with hands and with teeth, they were overwhelmed by the missiles of the Barbarians, some of these having followed directly after them and destroyed the fence of the wall, while others had come round and stood about them on all sides."
I look up to the left and imagine the Persian archers by the hundreds on the hill above me. What chance would I have with a couple hundred of my colleagues?
All that remained of my visit was the middle gate which sits just west of where the Phocian Wall stood. One has to imagine the scene since there are no current landmarks near the gate. The water is hot (spa temperature) and flows quickly out of a mill race into the stream below. It comes out of the mountain side so as you approach you face the shear elevation.
There is no sound except the falling water. When you move away from the gate and the sound dies away, you're left alone with the murmur of the soft breeze.
Standing here, it's easy to apply a little imagination and take yourself back 2,490 years -- same mountains, same pass, Hot Gates flowing. I think of the men who fought and died here and how their immortality is a beacon for all mankind.