Greek temples … and where to find them

“Most visitors to Greek temples today will find little more than some holes in the ground and half a column.” Although that’s true, I have felt slightly guilty ever since I wrote it, because several Greek temples are still standing. Here’s my guide to the best of them.

Zeus was the king of the Gods, and youngest child of Chronos, giving hope to younger siblings everywhere. The best remaining Greek temple in his honour is in the heart of Athens, a stone’s throw from the Acropolis: The Temple of Olympian Zeus, with giant Corinthian columns. One of them fell down in a storm during the 1850s and they still haven’t bothered to pick it up:

As you’d expect, the temples to Poseidon, God of the Sea, were on the coast. One of the most celebrated is at Cape Sounion, about 70 kilometres south of Athens. Much of the building still remains, with spectacular views over the Saronic Gulf:

Among the major Gods, the three brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon drew lots to divide up their zones of influence. Zeus ruled the air, Poseidon the sea, but Hades got the short straw and ended up in the basement, as God of the Underworld.  Everyone seems to have been too terrified to worship him, because I can’t find a temple to Hades anywhere.

Hermes also seems not to have had temples built in his honour, which makes sense because he was the patron god of travellers. Instead, people erected “Herms” around their cities. These were short busts that included a prominent part of someone’s manhood. Older translations coyly used to translate this part as a ‘nose’. One of the most famous can still be seen on the now uninhabited Greek island of Delos:,_Delos_01.jpg. As the centre of the Cyclades, this island was once the treasury of Athens, and visitors today can spend the day wandering around a vast number of ancient ruins.

Delos was the birthplace of Apollo, and many of the finest sites for Greek temples were those dedicated to the sun god, for example the ruins at Delphi. Although still worth visiting for their spectacular setting on Mount Parnassos, little remains of the temple today. The best place to see a temple to Apollo is actually in Paestum, southern Italy: In this former Greek settlement, there are no less than three extant temples. Each one of them would be in the very first class of ruins were they to be standing on their own. There is also a temple to Poseidon (Neptune) and one to Hera (according to the archaeologists – there is still some doubt as to the provenance of each building).

In fact, a large number of the surviving temples are dedicated to Hera, Queen of the Gods. Selinunte on the south coast of Sicily was a former Greek colony, and its ancient inhabitants built a huge temple to Hera next to the beach. You can swim in the Med while marvelling at its Doric columns. I saw a two-metre black snake there, which still scares me to this day:

Nearby in Agrigento on Sicily, there are several impressive ruins in the Valley of the Temples. One is to Hera (again) and another to Hercules – the one to Hercules is still partly standing, although the area was devasted by an earthquake. The best preserved is the astonishingly complete Temple of Concordia, made of a lovely honey-coloured stone. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t built for a bigger name God, for example Ares, God of War:

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, Sicily

Ares was the rival of Hephaestus, blacksmith of the Gods. He caught Ares in delicto with his wife Aphrodite, wrapping them both in a net to the amusement of all on Olympus. Today, Hephaestus has a stunning temple still standing in his name. An almost perfectly preserved Doric temple to him lies in central Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis. The freize around the top depicted the twelve tasks of Hercules (not the deeds of Ares, as you might imagine, all things considered):

Then there is the Parthenon itself, dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The legend goes that Poseidon and Athena competed to gain the homage of the Athenians. Poseidon created the horse while Athena created the olive. The people chose the tree, and ever after, poor Greeks like Odysseus would face the wrath of the slighted God of the Sea. He may have been a God, but Poseidon was one hell of a bad loser.

Unfortunately, that is the extent of the temples that remain. Guide books will talk about other “temples”, but before you spend hours tracking them down, ascertain how much of the original buildings remain standing. Many have too little remaining for me to call them temples. “Rubble” would be a better description.

There are also more well-preserved temple complexes on Greece. These, however, belong to other cults than the main panthenon of Greek Gods. Two particular highlights are the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothraki, and the gorgeous Minoan ruins of Crete, such as Knossos: There are also many Roman ruins in Italy, Turkey, Greece and North Africa, but those belong to a later time, and that moves beyond my remit here.


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