Peiraeus is located 6 kilometers (3 3/4 miles) from the great city of Athens. The city sits on a natural promontory with three natural harbors. The large mercantile harbor of Kantharos lies to the north. The main naval harbor of Zea and the smaller naval harbor of Munichia lie to the south. Peiraeus Public Library is in a pretty building in the agora overlooking the large mercantile harbor of Kantharos.
We are usually open during the daylight hours. We close around midday for ariston (a light lunch). We are also closed on Day 7, 14, 21, and 28 of each month. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
A Brief Tour of Peiraeus
As you look at the front door of the library you will see lovely Kantharos Harbor far below. They say that Kantharos Harbor takes its name from the vase-shaped appearance of the harbor. Kantharos vases are funnel-shaped and have tall handles that came above the vases like giant ears.
To the north there is a marshy area and a cemetary. Nothing much to see. Instead, head down into the Emporion or commercial port section of Peiraeus. The Emporion is filled with commercial shipyards and quays. There is also a new military dockyard. People speaking every imaginable tongue work there. The Harbor itself has 96 of Peireaus' 372 ship sheds.
Now head towards the southern part of town. The southern part of the city is enclosed by the Kononian Walls. The Tomb of Themistokles is located in this area, as is the southern lighthouse. Themistokles is revered in Peireaus for having the foresight to see the strategic value of Peireaus's harbors. It was Themistokles who (beginning around 493 BC) fortified the town and the ports and who then settled many Athenians between the fortifications to hold the area. Under his leadership, the business of the old Athenian port in the Gulf of Phaleron was moved to Peireaus. The lighthouse is a structure with a column of fire at its highest point. There is a second lighthouse to the northwest. The two lighthouses alert incoming ships to the presence of land.
Next, walk across the southern hill of Peiraeus or retrace your steps along the outer city wall. Head north and cross to the other side of Peiraeus at the city's narrowest point. Walked passed the Zea Theater and down to the circular Port of Zea. The Port of Zea is primarily a naval port. The shipyards are older than the military shipyards of Kantharos Harbor. The area is full of naval buildings, barracks, equipment warehouses, and arsenals. Go passed the workers' dwellings and those craft work shops that are open to civilians.
At the end of your walk you will come to the old part of the city, Munichia. The Hill of Munichia is the highest in Peiraeus. On the western side of Munichia is a large theater and the busy streets of the Hippodamian Agora. The old part of town lies on the eastern side of the hill.
From the very top of the hill there is a lovely view of the old town and Munichia Harbor. You can see the old Temple of Artemis Munichia, which is the oldest part of the old town. There is also a splendid view of the gates, towers, and walls that are the oldest part of the city that was built by Themistokles. But best of all, you can see the old shipyards and ships of Munichia Harbor.
Munichia Harbor is circular, like the Port of Zea. And like Zea, and unlike the larger harbor of Kantharos, the port is completely filled with the dockyards. As you look down on the lovely waters of the circular little port you will see the roofs of the ship sheds, which look like giant sleds leading down to the sea. There are graceful ships with curled prows and all-seeing eyes dotted the waters. Curving walls from either side of the harbor cut into the water and nearly meet at the narrow entrance to the bay. Beyond the walls is open water. Beyond that are the gentle hills of a neighboring spit of land.
By now your feet will be quite tired. Follow the wonderful smell of fish to one of Munichia Harbor's excellent restaurants and enjoy your day in Peiraeus.
A Short History of Peiraeus
The great Themistokles (Themistocles) began developing and fortifying Peiraeus in 493 B.C. Peiraeus soon became the major harbor for Athens' ships. Before this time, Athenian ships were beached at the open harbor of Phaleron. The Athenians built the Long Walls 6 kilometers out to Peiraeus and five kilometers (3 miles) to the nearby port of Phaleron to protect Athens during the ancient war with Sparta. Fortifications were finished by 476 B.C. Many people, especially foreign traders, settled in the port during this time. Hippodamos of Miletus, the great architect and planner, laid the city of Peiraeus on a rectangular grid. At its height during the War with Sparta, the naval harbor of Zea held 196 ship-sheds and Munichia had 82. The larger harbor at Kantharos had 94 ship-sheds. The Long Walls and many of the fortifications were ultimately dismantled after the end of the War but Peiraieus continued to be a bustling port. When Athens again became a naval power in the 4th century B.C., the Long Walls were rebuilt and 372 ship-sheds were built at the harbors of Peiraieus. Peiraeus has continued to prosper through time.
The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome, Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 2000.
PIRAEUS: Cantharus, Zea, Munichia
Return to the main room of the Peiraeus Public Library.
Last updated November 20, 2009.