In ancient Greece, the Sanctuary of the Cabeiroi (Sanctuary of the Great Gods) was the home base of a secret cult. Not much is known about the cult since it was secret, after all. But the site was used for the cult’s initiation rituals. Due to its out-of-the-way location on Samothraki, a tiny windswept island in the northeastern Aegean Sea, the buildings used by the cult are remarkably well-preserved.

The cult was favored by King Philip II of Macedon who met his future bride, Olympias, an Epirot princess, during their simultaneous initiations into the cult. Their union gave rise to Alexander the Great.

“The rites of initiation promised protection at sea and the opportunity to ‘become a better and more pious person in all ways.’ The power of these rituals to transform is most palpably signaled today by the deployment of the innovative buildings that once framed the rites within the sacred landscape – a dozen extraordinary monuments, each distinct within the history of Greek architecture, each deftly positioned within the terrain to heighten the experience of the initiate, each archaeologically well-preserved although no longer standing. In concert with the landscape, they justifiable make Samothrace one of th emost important expressions of Hellenistic sacred space in the ancient Mediterranean.” (That’s Bonna’s writing.)

The best known archaeological find from the Sanctuary is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Nike, which now resides at the Louvre.


The statue was discovered in 1863 by the French archaeologist Champoiseau without its arms and head. Subsequently the statue has been mounted on a block carved to resemble a ship’s prow, and a hand was discovered in 1950 by American archaeologists Karl and Phyllis Lehman.

Initiates were led into the site from Paleopolis (the ancient city) which sits on the Aegean bordering the sanctuary. Below is a picture of the Sanctuary taken from the position of where initiates would enter on the Eastern Hill.

Sanctuary from eastern hill 1979

You will notice the large circular stone structure, the Theatral Circle. Initiates would be led from the spot where this picture is taken, through the Propylon of Ptolemy II, which stood on the empty field that lies along the diagonal from the Theatral Circle to the lower left corner. Initiates came through the Propylon to the Theatral Circle, where preliminary rites took place. They were then led down the grand Processional Way which led from the right of the Theatral Circle complex, approximately in the middle of the picture, down to the main ritual buildings in the valley below. Across the valley you can see the Western Hill, where the living and dining accommodations were located.

This is the Processional Way  today, looking down the hill into the valley:


This is the Hieron, the building where the main initiation rites occurred.100_0399

Yes, there has been a restoration. The columns were raised and polished up in the 1960’s, an effort of the Lehmann’s.

The Institute of Fine Arts of New York University has managed archaeological and conservation activities at the site since the 1930’s, first under the direction of the Lehmann’s, who were succeeded by James MacCreadie. Here is a picture of Jim:


I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work here. I will write more about the statistical work that I am doing later.


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