Greek temples

Greek temples


From the beginning the function of a temple was not clear. Some temples were built on a sacred place or close to an already existing altar. Here the religious activities could take place such as worship, an offering or divination. But temples were also built as a shelter for gods or demigods and for the images that are worshiped within the religious context (cult images).

However temples were also used to store the precious sacrifice of city states or individuals. So they also had the function of a safe and because the gifts and goods were still identified and registered, some temples can also be seen as an archive and place where the records were kept.

Gods Worship took first place in sacred places with only one altar in the open air. To thank the gods for a favor as curing a particular disease for which they had prayed, they gave votive offerings. These were often small terracotta figurines, usually portraying a human or an animal, but sometimes these were larger pictures or gifts such as cups, bowls and pots.

Over time protecting the holy places was becoming increasingly important. Then one started to enclose them making shelters for the images of the gods. It was the beginning of the geometric time (10th century BC). First they were still small constructions with only one room and a central door with wooden door frames which formed a portal. The walls were made of tiles (a first form of the brick, in ancient Greek sun-dried clay) and were plastered with clay.


Archaeologists found a model of such a sanctuary from the 8th century BC on the site of the Heraion of Argos. Presumably it is a model of the first temple of Hera that was built there. The model is now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The decor of the interior with a fireplace and styles, reminiscent of a Mycenaean palace with a central area (with four columns in the middle and a fireplace or sacrificial well). Such a central area called a megaron and was often used as a throne room, but not only.Other meetings were also held in these places..

In the 7th century BC there is a Orientalising phase in Greece, a period in which oriental motifs and techniques were adopted by the Greeks and were made their own. With oriental I mean parts of western Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza and the coastal areas of Egypt. We can see the oriental influence in the decoration of vases (stylistic features) and in architectural adjustments. Thus wooden pillars were replaced by stone ones, because they were better able to carry an altered structure of the roof, the walls were made of stone and terracotta tiles. On the inside there were several columns on basic elements, placed in a row. A good example of the transition to the first serious form of the now known Greek temple is the Temple of Apollo on the island of Thermon. But also the remains of the temples in Isthmia (for Poseidon) and Corinth (for Apollo) show the transition from the use of old primitive materials such as tiles, wood and wicker to building in stone.


The form of the temple is called peripteros (with a colonnade surrounded on four sides and accessible from the four sides) with five columns on the short and fifteen on the long sides. The naos (central compartment) had no pronaos or porch, but a portal at the back. We call this portal at the back an opisthodomos. In the 7th century BC this kind of elongate proportions were often used for the construction of temples, because they did not yet think of putting an extra row of columns in the middle of the naos, how could one support heavier roofs in a different way?

Here, the lower part of the walls were made of stone and the upper parts of tiles. The columns were originally made of wood, but as said, were later replaced by stone ones.

Painted terracotta metopes alternating with triglyphs, were part of a decorative frieze. The architrave (the thick crossbar between the capitals of the columns and the frieze) was probably originally also made of wood.

Because of the many columns in this kind of narrow peripteroi (plural of peripteros) is was difficult to see the cult image. Later on one was able to make better structures, using other materials and proportions resulting in a balanced design with plenty of space for the cult statue.

A good example in this matter is the temple of Hera on Samos, where the columns in the naos were placed directly against the side walls. This created (upon entering) an unobstructed view of the cult image, although the naos itself is on the small side. The walls were made of limestone and the pillars made of wood.


This elongated building also served as a shelter from sun and rain for the pilgrims, as the altar for the gods was not in the temple. The altar was the place where sacrifices were offered, where fat and bones were burned. You can imagine that people prefered outdoors above offering inside the temple. Not only because of the smoke, but also because of the fire risk. The colonnade on the exterior of the temple had two functions: besides the architectural function (supporting the roof structure) it had also a secular purpose. People were looking for a place in the shade or shelter there from the rain. Thereby, over time the 'loose' colonnade was regularly built elsewhere, namely in places where people gathered, like close to the agora (market). Such a loose colonnade is called a stoa. Not all temples had columns resulting in a covered walkway, built to protect pilgrims. There are also temples that correspond more with the Mycenaean megaron.

By the end of the 7th century BC. architects had switched from tiles and wood to stone. In the East they had seen columns with well carved capitals. They started using the oriental motifs for their own temples.

The temple was an excellent opportunity for the polis (states, settlements or communities) to distinguish themselves from others. This gave rise to variations in size, number of columns, building materials and of course the various cult images. The cult image indicated to which god the temple was erected. The temple complex was often walled and the gateway (propylon) was monumental. Such a walled complex called a temenos. A walled area without a temple, but with an altar called a temenos. If there is no temple but only an altar, such land was often referred to memory of someone, but it was not necessarily a grave. For example, a heroon was a walled memorial for a deceased hero. The English word hero is the same as the Greek word. And so you can see the Heraion as a memorial to Hera, the Peloppeion for Pelops, the Apolleion for Apollo, and so on. And the city in Crete called Heraklion, is named after the memorial for Heracles.

In archaic Greece (600 -. 480 BC)the construction of temples for the gods was very important. It had become common practice to provide every temple on four sides by a colonnade. Looking at the stoa we can say that two styles or systems are of interest: the "Doric" and the "Ionian".


The Doric temple has columns that are directly on the stylobate (see picture) without pedestal. The columns are provided with sharp flutings, vertical grooves in the column, with on the top of the column a simple capital of a cover plate or abacus above a (sometimes the shape of a pincushion) echinus.

Above the entablature was composed of the architrave, the frieze and the pediment or tympanum. The architrave was in the Doric order mostly undecorated and the frieze consisted of alternating (often decorated) metopes and triglyphs (decorated with vertical lines).

The triangular pediments (gables) were often decorated with sculptures, originally in relief but later with detached images and groups of images that were in a triangular formation.

The stylobate is the floor on which the columns and the actual temple was built; underneath we find the stereobate, or the "double layer", which together with the stylobate form the three steps to enter the temple. The stylobate and stereobate form the foundation of the temple.


The Ionic order made a separation between the columns and the stylobate by placing the columns on a pedestal. In addition, the columns had more fluting (or cannelures) but flattened compared to the Doric order.

The capitals of the columns looked different than in the Doric order and were based on the aeolian capitals that were used in the East. The outward curl or scrolls are a feature of the oriental design language. They were in the East already used in smaller size to decorate furniture. The Ionic capital scrolls seem to sit together but being simultaneously pushed down and have a decorative band between them. In the Ionic order the abacus is small and narrow and the architrave often divided into three layers.

An important feature of the Ionic style is the continuous frieze, which in only a single case is decorated with figures. The stereobate was in the Ionian style put on a flattened layer. In the Doric style this layer was missing.

The first Ionic temples were established in Asia Minor. Examples can be found in Ephesus (Temple of Artemis) and Samos (the temple of Hera). The big difference - besides the different capitals - is the slimness of the building and the height of the columns. Because the Ionic temple cannot be found on the Peloponnese, I will not go into detail. Some temples have, however Ionic characteristics; if so, it will certainly be mentioned.

The somewhat pompous Doric and more slender Ionic style were used simultaneously. Dorian was not the precursor of the Ionian. The last is particularly popular in the east of Greece and on the islands, while the former is more common on the mainland and in the west.


In the process of time the Doric temples showed Ionic and (later) Corinthian decorations. Generally speaking one can say that the Ionic order shows more details, and is therefor to somea little screamy, but it is "finer" than the firm Doric. The orders relate to the appearance of the temples; the layout of the almshouses remained virtually the same. Still, the box-shaped naos was preceded by a porch, the pronaos. In the Doric order there often was still a backroom or opisthodomos and adyton, the sacred (usually recessed) portion where only priests were allowed to go and where the temple treasures were stored.

One must always remember that except in sculpture, they also made frequent use of paint in architecture. Unfortunately, most of this is no longer visible, but here and there are still traces to be found, so most temples were a colorful assembly. They used blue, red, green, yellow and black.


I will hereafter elucidate the temples

(in chronological order)


the temple Hera in Olympia (590 BC)


the temple of Apollo in Corinthe (560 BC)


the temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina (500 BC)


the temple of Zeus in Olympia (460 BC)


the Parthenon in Athens (440 BC)


the Erechteion in Athens (410 BC)


the temple of Apollo in Bassae (400 BC)


the temple of Zeus in Nemea (330 BC)


I will explain the development in building and architecture. Pay attention, when you look at the map of the temples, to the number of columns and especially where they are placed.


plan of the Temple of Apollo, Thermon, 640 BC

note the colonnade in the middle of the naos which was necessary to support the roof, but which made the cult statue almost invisible.

plan of the temple of Hera on Samos, 500 BC

the first temple on this spot

was probably built in the 8th century BC

In this chapter we have had a closer look at some fascinating temples. Most of them can be visited from Argos and Nafplion in one day, including those in Athens.

The temples that are not mentioned here, are no less interesting;the ones listed here, are especially important for the development of the architecture. The other temples will of course be mentioned in the different chapters.

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