Temples are perhaps the most iconic buildings the Ancient Greeks constructed. They are found throughout the Ancient Greek World: in Greece, Italy, Western Turkey and Libya. However, there are at least sixteen Greek temples remaining in Sicily – perhaps the highest concentration anywhere outside the Greek mainland. Furthermore, in the Temple of Concord at Agrigento, Sicily boasts the most complete Greek Temple remaining after the temple of Hephaestus in Athens. Undoubtedly they are one of the finest sights that awaits the visitor in Sicily.
Rather than exploring the history of an individual temple or temples, this article goes in search of some of the common truths behind all Greek temples and attempts to answer visitors’ most asked questions.
Why did the Greeks build temples?
Greek religion was “polytheistic” – meaning they worshiped multiple gods and goddesses. The deities were assigned functions or attributes and were invoked according to the need or occasion. Here are some of the most important deities with their attributes:
|Zeus||Ruler of the Gods: God of the sky, thunder, lightening, law and order|
|Demeter||Goddess of the harvest, fertility, agriculture, nature & the seasons|
|Hera||Queen of the Gods: Goddess of marriage, women, childbirth and the family|
|Poseidon||God of the seas, water and storms|
|Hephaestus||God of the forge, craftsmanship, fire and volcanoes|
|Apollo||God of the sun, poetry, music and the arts|
|Artemis||Goddess of hunting, the moon, virginity|
|Athena||Goddess of wisdom and war|
All of these were members of what we call the Twelve Olympian Gods – the major deities of the Greek pantheon. There was no single canonical list of Twelve Olympian Gods and their membership varied from place to place. But it seems that “twelve” was in some way significant. Plato, for example, connected the twelve gods to the twelve months.
Quite simply, the temple was the place where the statue of the god or goddess was kept. And as a very general rule, the more important the god or goddess, the larger the temple dedicated to them. The temple was built in a sacred area and in contrast to most of our buildings of worship today, the temple was off-limits to the general public. Both priests and priestesses served at the temple.
Greek gods had to be appeased as much as invoked. The form of worship was usually that of a sacrifice of an animal (the larger the animal, the larger the sacrifice) on an altar built for the purpose in front of the temple. (Few of these altars remain, for the simple reason that they were plundered in subsequent years for their stone). After the sacrifice of the animal it was then cooked on a barbecue for the smoke to ascend into heaven to appease the gods. The meat was then shared around the assembled public.
What were the characteristics of a Greek Temple?
The first temples were made of wood and hence have long since disappeared. However, in Siracusa, in the middle of the Piazza Duomo, the visitor will notice a black rectangle marked in the pavement. During the course of excavations when the piazza was relaid in the 1990s they unearthed the foundations of an οικος which was later transformed into the earliest temple in Siracusa – though being made of wood, of course, nothing remains of it.
An οικος was essentially the basic unit of society in Greek city states. The word refers to three things: the family, the family’s property and the family’s house. It was thought to be the smallest sustainable unit in Greek society. This is interesting because it is the base of two of our English words: ecology and economy. In our modern idiom, they refer to quite different concepts, but it is sobering to reflect that the Greeks, they were inseparable.
The most important part of the temple was the naos (ναός) – a windowless room where the statue of the god or goddess was kept. And the earliest temples were just this. In Italian, this is known as the cella – and this is usually the word in English by which we refer to the inner sanctuary.
Most temples were therefore rectangular in plan – but not exclusively so. In the Peloponnese there are some examples of some round (tholos) temples, however, in Sicily, all the remaining temples are rectangular.
In later and larger temples, the naos was surrounded by a colonnade. This afforded some shade and also shelter. It also allowed the temple to be larger and visually more impressive.
Almost invariably, there was an even number of columns across the front of the temple and in most of the temples found throughout Sicily, this was six. However, in two of the larger temples – the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento and Temple G at Selinunte (both ruined) this was augmented to eight. This number would be matched by the same number of columns at the back.
The importance of an even number of columns across the front, was that there would be a space in the middle for the entrance to the naos, which was always aligned centrally.
The number of columns down the side was very often double the number of columns at the front plus one. So, common combinations of columns were:
- 6 x 13
- 8 x 17
- 4 x 9
(Bearing in mind that in all cases the corner column is counted twice.)
However, this was not a hard and fast rule and was often varied – for example as in the temple at Segesta which is built on a plan of 6 x14.
It is important to bear in mind that the numbers themselves do not have any significance or symbolism and that they were used purely on aesthetic grounds and simply for practicality. Many scholars subsequently have tried to apply the rules of the Golden Section to the dimensions of the temples and with a little persuasion they have usually succeeded. However, it is important to remember that the Golden Section (1:1.618) was not discovered until long after these temples were built. The extraordinary feat of the Greeks was that they “discovered” this ratio by eye rather than by calculation.
The column were usually fluted. And they often had a capital. The style of the capital reflected the architectural style or order: (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) in descending order of antiquity. The column may or may not have had a base.
In Sicily, all the Greek temples are of the Doric order – recognised by the “upturned mushroom” on the top of the column. There are no surviving temples of the Ionic order (though there was one in Siracusa next to the temple of Athena, beneath the town hall of today). Corinthian capitals in Sicily, signify Roman remains.
Often the whole temple was raised on a platform or stylobate. This had the dual function of providing a foundation for the temple as well as raising the whole above the ground to make it seem more impressive.
Since the Greeks didn’t employ arches in their architecture, the width of the temple was often limited by the widest span over which they could build the roof – invariably being over the naos or cella. The roof was made of timber beams and then tiled – which explains why all the Greek temples in Sicily are without their roof, which has invariably collapsed over the course of time.
The other important concept developed by the Greeks was that of “entasis” – a slight swelling of columns in the middle, the curvatures of the stylobate, the varying of distances between columns in a single side – all to give the impression of uniformity.
How did they build the temples?
To look at even the ruined temples, with their enormous boulders of stone strewn across the ground, inevitably leads the visitor to question how such huge blocks were moved into place two and a half thousand years ago. And how do we even know the answer?
Around Sicily, there are a variety of clues…
The first of these and most interesting is the Cava di Cusa, not far from Selinunte. In this abandoned quarry we still have the sections of columns, roughly hewn from the bedrock but still to be transported to the building sites at Selinunte. The Greeks had iron tools – chisels, but also saws and levers (crowbars) and with sufficient elbow-grease (of invariably a lot of slaves) the form of a column or pediment would have been encouraged from the rock.
How would they have transported the stone from the quarry to the work site? We have the clue at Agrigento, just behind the house of Captain Hardcastle. Looking closely at the ground, we can identify blocks of stone readily sawn and waiting to be transported. Leading away from this site are the deep parallel grooves carved into the ground by the wheels of heavily laden carts. (These grooves are explained as a water-course on a nearby plaque, but the explanation seems to me unlikely as there is no obvious source of water nearby)
At the unfinished temple at Segesta, close inspection of the stylobate reveals rough corbels on the blocks that have been left while they were lifted or levered into place. The intention would have been to remove them once the blocks were in place, but the abandoning of the construction meant they were never erased.
A further clue as to how the blocks were manoeuvred into place lies at Agrigento – most particularly in the ruin of the Temple of Zeus but also, on careful observation, at the temple of Hera. U-shaped grooves carved into the ends of the rock were intended to accommodate a loop of rope that could be connected to a pulley that would have been driven by something resembling a human-size mouse’s exercise wheel. Cleverly, once two such blocks of stone were placed end to end, the groove would have been invisible – and hence creating the mystery of how they were lifted.
How did the temples come to be so well preserved?
The temple of Concord at Agrigento, is among the best preserved Greek temples in the world. The Duomo of Siracusa is built over the once Temple of Athena and even cursory observation of the exterior (and indeed the interior) of the walls, is sufficient to reveal the vestiges of the colonnade. And herein lies the clue…
Even after the time of the Ancient Greeks, the temples continued to fulfil a religious function, from Byzantine times onwards, often being converted into churches. And thus the cathedral at Siracusa (dating as it does from 480BC) lays claim to be the oldest building of Christian worship in use anywhere in the world.
Whilst we are discussing the transformation of temples into churches, it is worth alluding to the alteration that is evident both at the temple of Concord, but even more impressively so in the Duomo in Siracusa, in which the naos of the temple become the nave of the church. And in the process, the arches (interstices) between the columns of the nave are simply cut out from the wall of the naos.
It is crucial to appreciate that the temples would have looked very different in Greek times from the way they do today.
Although, today, we admire the deep honey colour of their stone, in Greek times, they would have been covered with white marble stucco and decorated. Most of this marble stucco has fallen off, but if you look carefully at the temple of Hera in Agrigento, some patches of it are still visible.
The is marble stucco would then have been painted and decorated with slips of different coloured clay.
Furthermore, the pediment and tympanum of the temple, would have been decorated with sculpted marble friezes and reliefs depicting scenes from the Greek myths. Many of these friezes have been spirited away to become part of private collections around the world (or subsequently, just lost). However, in the archaeological museum in Palermo, it is possible to view the friezes that once decorated on of the temples at Selinunte and there are some splendid gorgons in the archaeological museum in Siracusa.
Where are the Greek temples in Sicily?
in Sicily, we have Greek temples remaining in the following four sites:
The temples of Agrigento
The most famous of all the temples in Sicily, there are 6 temples easily identifiable, though archaeologists are also aware of others.
- Temple 1 – Temple of Hera – dating from c.450BC
- Temple 2 – Temple of Concord – dating from c.430BC
- Temple 3 – Temple of Heracles – dating from c.470BC
- Temple 4 – Temple of Zeus – dating from c.480BC (unfinished)
- Temple 5 – Temple of the Dioscuri (reconstructed from pieces of the Temple of Hephaestus)
- Temple 6 – Temple of the Asclepis (perhaps more of a Sanctuary)
The temples of Selinunte
Selinunte is the site of at least 8 Temples named from A to G and Temple O as a result of us not knowing their dedications – although it has been suggested that Temple E could have been dedicated to Hera.
Despite not being as complete as the temple of Concordia in Agrigento, some of them – particularly temples E and F are impressive structures. Most of them are from the 6th century BC and thus predate the temples in Agrigento by around 100 years.
The temples of Siracusa
As well as the temple of Athena which is incorporated into the Duomo of Siracusa, we also have the temple of Apollo (one of the earliest in Sicily). There was also an Ionic temple on the opposite side of Piazza Minerva from the Duomo. The foundations of this temple are still visible through a gap in the wall at the back of the town hall.
The temple of Segesta
Possibly the finest of all Greek temples in Sicily is that at Segesta. Unfinished and lacking a dedication, it is nevertheless, perhaps the best sited and most atmospheric of them all.
In this brief article, it hasn’t been possible to detail all that we know about the Greek temples, but for anyone interested in them, or wanting to make a study of them, Sicily makes an ideal location.
Esplora Travel visit many of these temples throughout the course of their Treasures of Sicily small group tour.