Aegina Island, the Argosaronic.
Aégina or Aígina:
area 77 sq.km
resident population 12,716
max. altitude 531m.
Port Authority: T. 22970 22328.
Travel and information: Karagiannis Travel, T. 22970 25664,
Aegina Travel Guide
The *Temple of Aphaia is one of the most important and beautiful in Greece. Its site on a panoramic hill-top at the northeastern point of the island is magnificent, and its state of preservation (though reconstructed in certain areas) is excellent. It is a relatively early temple (late sixth century bc); it once displayed magnificent sculptural decorations which still exist (in Munich and Athens); and it still possesses many of the elements of an Ancient sanctuary which have generally been lost at other sites. Early in the day, it is a tranquil site, and there are few places in Greece where the feel and the entirety of a place of ancient cult can be better sensed. (Open 8.30–3.30, closed Mon.)
The dedication to ‘Aphaia’
There are no other temples dedicated to Aphaia and there is some uncertainty about who or what the name refers to. An important inscription (now in the museum on the site) found in 1901 and dating from the mid 6th century bc gives the dedication, while stating that: ‘When Theoitas was priest, the dwelling/temple was made for Aphaia, and the altar and the ivory were added, and the [?throne] was completed’. The name ‘Aphaia’ appears to be cognate with φαινειν ‘to make clear’ or ‘appear’, modified by the negative prefix ‘α’. Whoever Aphaia was, it seems she ‘did not appear’. Tradition, passed through later writers, links her with the Cretan goddess Britomartis who may have been honoured here under the local name, manifestation or epithet, ‘Aphaia’. This link is consonant with the Minoan Cretan trading pres ence clearly evident at Kolona (see above). Britomartis was a daughter of Zeus (note that Mount Oros, with its sanctuary sacred to Zeus Hellanios is directly visible from here), and she was therefore half-sister to Artemis, to whom her cult seems to be related and with whom she shared a love of hunting, solitude and chastity. It may have happened that, in fleeing from the unwanted sexual attentions of King Minos of Crete, Britomartis was made invisible (‘αφανης’) by Artemis and transported to the safety of Aegina. Artemis herself is also associated with the moon, which has phases of invisibility, and this may be a further element in the complex composition of Aphaia’s identity. Pindar is known to have composed a hymn in Aphaia’s honour, but its loss deprives of us of much valuable information. We can only guess at what Aphaia’s particular sphere of influence or protection might have been, though the nurturing of children appears to have been an important part of it: her temple, however, would have been a place principally of female cult.
Previous temples on the site
Traces of human presence on this site go as far back as c. 3000 bc, and a sanctuary appears to have been created in the Late Bronze Age. Indeed the cult of Aphaia may have been current already for over a millennium at the time the first stone temple was erected here. In historic times, however, the existing temple is the second or third such temple on the site. An altar is visible which belonged to a first temple that predates 570 bc. Of the second temple, which immediately precedes the present one, substantial foundations can still be seen: this temple was begun in 570 bc and is the one to which the Theoitas inscription, cited above, belonged. It burned down in around 510 bc and its sculptural fragments were, as was customary, buried in the earth movements necessary to prepare the platform of the new (third) temple, which was probably begun almost immediately after and completed shortly after 490 bc.
Layout of the sanctuary
Clearly visible at Aphaia (see plan) are many of the constituent elements of a temple complex which have tended to be obliterated in other sanctuaries: the foundations of the peribolos or perimeter-wall all round the temple, defining the sacred area; the propylaia, or monumental gateway, through which the suppliants entered; the dwellings on the edge of the area for the priests and the ritual baths they would have used. The form of the altar to the east is well conserved, too, with the bases for dedicatory sculptures in front of it. A ramp here (not a particularly common element in sanctuaries) joins the altar to the east entrance of the temple. Finally, in the northeast corner, a visible channel in the temple plat form leads the (sacred) rain-water from the roof to a cistern below. Together with the good state of conservation of the temple-structure itself and the setting which has been little altered through the centuries, this provides a uniquely complete picture of a Greek sanctuary of the Archaic and Classical eras.
Brilliant strong colour was an important feature of Archaic and early Classical sculpture and architecture. Later, as taste changed, the polychrome may have become less vibrant and less universal in later Antiquity. Not only were pedimental sculptures coloured and set against a coloured background to make them more life-like and easier to read from a distance, but the architectural elements of the area of the architrave and above were emphasised and picked out chromatically. In a case such as this temple, which is constructed out of a poor-quality local poros stone, by comparison with the fine Pentelic marble of the Parthenon across the bay, a layer of stucco plaster was applied to the columns and lower elements of the building. This was a common feature of Greek temples in Sicily, where there was poorer building stone and where vestiges of the stucco (esp. at Selinunte) still remain. The stucco gave the building a white colour very different from the more tender honey-colour of its bare stone which is visible today. Whether this stucco was a bright, intense white, or whether it was modified to become an ivory colour is hard to determine with certainty.
The history of the sculptural decoration is complicated by the fact that the first two series for the pediments of the existing temple, produced between 510 and 500 bc, were re moved after what was less than a decade and replaced by two newer series, executed in c. 500 bc (west pediment) and c. 490 bc (east pediment). Were all of these ensembles still complete, they would provide one of the most revealing studies in the development of Greek sculpture at what is, in effect, the most important moment of transition in its long history. The reasons for this surprising replacement of the pediment may have a political origin: this was after all the period of Aegina’s greatest power and its bitterest confrontation with Athens. The first pediment sculptures commissioned for the new temple portrayed stories from Aegina’s legendary past: the fight of Telamon (son of Aiacus of Aegina) and Hercules against the Amazons in the presence of Athena (west pediment); and the abduction of the nymph Aegina by Zeus (east pediment). At the time it was decided to change this programme the east pediment was already in place, while the west pediment may possibly not yet have been fully completed and positioned. These were then removed and set up on display in the precinct in front of the east façade of the temple, since they remained the property of the goddess. New sculpture groups were then commissioned of the same workshop, probably under the same master. This time they were to show scenes, again in the presiding presence of Athena, of Aeginetan heroes during the campaigns against Troy: the west pediment showed the participation, in the siege of Troy, of Ajax—son of Telamon, protege of Hercules, and descendant of Aiacus and of Zeus—who was much honoured in Aegina; the east pediment showed a scene from an earlier Trojan campaign in which Aiacus himself—son of Zeus by Aegina—together with Hercules, stormed Troy and killed the king and all his sons, except one, the future King Priam. It appears that, at the climax of their struggles with Athens around 500 bc the Aeginetans wished to emphasise the heroic prowess of their forefathers in battles with an earlier enemy, Troy, over the blander legendary scenes which figured in the earlier pediments. The change is very revealing: but yet more fascinating is a subtle change in style between the two new pediments which substituted the old ones—the new west pediment of c. 500 bc and the new east pediment of ten years later. The first is a beautifully patterned arrangement of discrete elements and figures with the stylised faces and poses of high Archaic narrative art; the second is an integrated drama of related, more humanised figures, with softer lineaments. The pediment has ceased to be just a patterned design and is becoming a living stage for human drama in the last of the pediment groups.
Although fragments of these pediments are exhibited in the museum at Kolona, and in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the great majority of the sculptures are in the Munich Glyptothek. They were first excavated on the site by Carl von Hallerstein and Charles Robert Cockerell in 1811: they were shipped via Athens, Zakynthos and Malta, to Rome, where they were purchased by Ludwig I of Bavaria. They were restored, arranged and completed according to a design by Thorvaldsen. Between 1962 and 1971, this (by now, much criticised) method of display was dismantled, all the additions removed, and a systematic and academic at tempt was made to exhibit only the original fragments in their most probable original arrangement. This is how they are seen today. The sculptures are executed in marble from the island of Paros.
On approaching the temple from the entrance below, it is important always to recall the fact that there are the remains of two stone temples on this site, that the present one is the temple of 510 bc and that, at a slightly lower level, there are vestiges of the older preceding temple of 570 bc visible at many points. The latter was perhaps only a quarter of the size of the existing temple, had a much smaller sanctuary area and was—for what reason we can not be sure—oriented very slightly differently from the newer temple: its remains therefore are always going to be at an oblique angle to everything later. The early temple was oriented probably 20–25Β° north of a true east/west axis, while the later one was only c.10Β° north of the true axis.
To the left, as you climb up towards the terrace, the ashlar-masonry base of the perimeter wall, or peribolos, of the existing temple-sanctuary is visible. This would have been higher and finished with an upper section in mud brick. To the right are the foundations of the propylaia, or monumental gate of entrance. Visible is the stump of one of its interior octagonal columns. This roofed gate way would have provided a moment of shade before emerging into the dazzling light of the temple’s sanctuary and would have framed a partial—and beautiful—view of the temple. Further to the right, beyond this area, are visible the plastered lustral basins used for ritual ablutions by those officiating. Yet further over to the right are the foundations of a series of rooms which constituted the quarters of the priests and the administrators of the sanctuary.
The upper terrace where the temple stands is artificially constructed; its consolidation would have been effected by burying the remains of the earlier burnt temple and flattening the top with dressed stone. Much of the stone for building both temples will, in turn, have come from substantial cutting of the irregular top of the hill in order to flatten it into a terrace: this excess stone will have been cut into architectural elements, which will have been further supplemented by stone quarried just below the site. A deep cut in the terrace in front of the south side of the temple reveals a piece of the perimeter-wall of the earlier temple sanctuary.
The south face of the temple shows immediately the degree of conservation of the architectural detail on the temple. The perfectly clear fluting of the tapering columns, the minimal concentric decoration on the Doric capitals, the triglyphs (once painted dark blue, with their vertical grooves defined in black), the clear, hanging guttae below—all the variety of architectural elements which derive from an earlier age when temples were constructed, doweled and pegged out of wooden elements, and which the Greeks meticulously preserved when they began to construct in stone—are seen more clearly here than in many other temples. Grooves are visible in the sides of the triglyphs, into which the decorated metopes were slotted: given the width of the groove it seems likely that these were either made of wood or of terracotta. None has survived.
The area to the east of the temple is extraordinarily complete in what it shows us of the working of the sanctuary. A clearly defined ramp runs axially between the east (front) door of the temple and the altar whose base is visible 25m east of the temple, almost at the edge of the sanctuary. The altar was a large, wide, stepped structure, running parallel to the east front of the temple, preceded by a paved rectangular area: the officiating priest would have faced the rising sun. Two square bases, in front of the paved area and to the south, were the bases for dedicatory statues, and would have been balanced by two others to the north.
Two earlier altars are also visible: the roped-off area to the north of the paved way between the altar and temple is the base of the altar belonging to the first temple of around 600 bc; back nearer to the altar, the stone areas running at an obtuse angle to the temple axis and at a lower level, are the base of the altar of the second temple of 570 bc. All the foundations, oriented on the same axis, to the south date from this second temple: these were the administrative buildings for the sanctuary and its entrance gate. Also of the same period are the square pedestal and water cistern on the northern edge of the terrace. On the pedestal stood a 14m column crowned by a sculpted sphinx—the only monument to stand in the same place during the lifetime of both temples. The cistern collected the rainwater from the roof and the stylobate of the temple; a small channel (still visible) paved in the floor of the sanctuary terrace led from the temple down to a shallow basin and thence into the cistern. The water which fell on the temple had a sacred quality and could be collected in this manner to be used for ritual purposes. Further along the northern side, a deep cut in the terrace reveals the perimeter wall of the much smaller area of the sanctuary belonging to the earlier temple of 570 bc.
The superstructure of the building has been reconstructed at various points and this is most visible at the western end, where the sharp-cut, smoother stone is modern and clearly distinguishable from the original material. The view inside from the western end is revealing of the construction of the building and of many of the classic ‘optical corrections’ used in temple construction. The slight rise towards the centre of the stylobate is visible; and the increased diameter of the corner columns, so as to give the impression of greater strength at the corners, is also perceptible. From here it can be seen that the architrave consists of two parallel blocks set side by side; and that the support of the roof of the naos, was on a double colonnade, with the entasis or tapering of the columns following through from the lower columns into the form of the upper ones. The exposed ends of the architrave of the lower colonnade in the interior, display U-shaped grooves cut into the perpendicular face of each piece: around these a rope could be run for lifting the blocks into place. This can be seen also on a number of pieces lying on the ground in the vicinity.
The interior of the temple once contained two cult statues of Aphaia; one small, older image in wood with an ivory surface, which belonged to the earlier temple and was placed in the northwestern corner of the naos on a stone base which is still visible; the second, more than life-size, statue was made together with the construction of the existing temple around 505 bc (a fragment of its acrolithic arm is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). Its place was in the centre of the shrine; the holes for the posts which held a wooden barrier surrounding it can still be seen in the floor of the naos .
Museum (40m downhill of the west side of the temple)
The three rooms of the tiny museum on the site are well labelled and explained. There are two floors: the upper (ground) floor relates to the existing temple, the lower floor to the previous 6th century bc building. The first room, at entrance level, contains some building remains, reconstruction models and fragments with helpful reconstructions of the positioning of elements of sculptures in the pediments. There are marble pan-tiles and covers from the perimeter of the roof (the body of which was in terracotta tiles). The small collection’s most important exhibits are on the floor below, where some fragments of the triglyph/metope succession of the entablature still retain their brilliant and astonishing colouring in (Egyptian) blue, (iron oxide) red, (bistre) black and (malachite) green. The inscription mentioning the name of Aphaia can also be seen here, as well as a model and a partial reconstruction of the pediment and entablature of the 6th century temple, which was of a tetra style in antis design.
In spite of being a roofless skeleton today, the temple is a relic of great presence. Its decoration and colour, and the play of light and shade which would have been created by the roof and the eaves, are all gone. Nonetheless, the counterpoint of clear forms—rectangles, diagonals and cylinders—still gives immense satisfaction when seen against the backdrop of the sky and of the dark, irregular volumes of the Aleppo pines. Sadly, we cannot know what trees covered the surrounding hill in Antiquity—if any. Beyond Aphaia the road descends steeply to the coastal resort of Aghia Marina, grouped attractively around a small port amidst dense pine trees. There are direct connections with Piraeus from here during the summer period.
Aegina Island is part of the Argosaronic Island group
The Temple of Aphaia