The *Portara is the most conspicuous and best-known Classical ruin on Naxos : its silhouette, standing on a small islet joined to the main island by a causeway, is visible from the town, from the port, from the mountains and from far out to sea before arriving. It is the largest constructed monolithic doorway from the Archaic period in Greece, and is the only standing element remaining from a temple built around 530 bc under the period of rule of the tyrant Lygdamis, and subsequently left uncompleted. In its scale and ambition it expresses the prosperity, confidence and technical mastery of one of the most powerful centres in the Aegean at that time. Lygdamis’s Naxos in many ways rivalled Polycrates’s Samos and Peisistratus’s Athens. All three tyrants knew one another. Naxos had already begun to make its unmistakable mark on the pan-Ionian sanctuary of Apollo at Delos with impressive works of architecture and sculpture. Here, however, it was embellishing its own front door, marking the entrance to its harbour by what was to have been the grandest and most visible temple in the Cyclades. The building was neither the first nor last place of cult on this tiny islet: Lygdamis’s building was raised on the site of Early Bronze Age structures, and there is evidence of human presence on the islet as far back as the 4th millennium bc. Later, through early Mediaeval times, the temple was itself occupied by a Christian ba silica with an inscribed apse, which was erected inside it, during the 6th century ad.
Debate is far from concluded as to the intended dedication and the design of the building. Long thought to have been a sanctuary to Dionysos, patron divinity of the island, it is now generally thought to have been a temple to Delian Apollo, although this leaves unresolved problems relating to the unusual orientation of the building (see below). It was once thought to have been designed as a porticoed temple in antis, with two Ionic porches to either end and with two rows of four columns dividing the interior space into three aisles. It is now generally believed that a much more ambitious and visually striking peripteral structure was intended, with a colonnade all around, which doubled on the short sides. Given the breadth (6m) and height (7.9m) of the existing doorway and its height off the ground, the much greater width of a peripteral design would have given the building more appropriate proportions. In this hypothesis the temple would have had 12 columns on the long side and a double row of six on the short sides, bringing the overall area to c. 55 x 37m. It is not clear whether or not there would have been an open entrance at the opposite, southeast end, either comparable in size or smaller. Nor is it clear where the altar would have been placed and therefore which way the temple faced, nor why the orientation of its main axis is so unusual.
There is an image of the Portara on the frontispiece of this book.
What is visible on the ground conforms well with a dipteral design. The two parallel lines of meticulously cut and inter locked blocks of foundations for the walls of the cella (measuring c. 37m x 15.5m by 12m high) are clearly visible. The outlines of the antae and the distyle pronaos beside the portal, and of the opisthodomos (also distyle) at the opposite end, are both discernible. The exquisite, crystalline quality of Naxiot marble and the fine finishing of the surface of the pieces with a bronze point can be noted in the blocks which are strewn over the area. One piece near the pathway in the south corner still bears the parallel scores from the drill and peg holes made when it was quarried from the rock-face. A great many of the blocks still possess the ‘knobs’ on their surface, left un cut so as to provide a ‘handle’ to help with block-and-tackle lifting and transporting: these are particularly evident in the monoliths of the portal, where they are of very large dimensions. These would have been removed and smoothed before completion.
The configuration of the site is made harder to read by the fact that an Early Christian church (removed in the 19th century) was created within the temple’s cella in the 6th century AD. An entrance into it from the west was cut directly through the middle of the threshold block of the portal, leaving it thenceforward sundered in two. The church’s floor level was therefore well below that of the threshold block. This fact also raises a series of unknowns. Was this floor level already in existence in the design of the temple? Probably yes, for two reasons: there would have been no point or motive for the Christian builders laboriously to dig out a lower level of floor if one had not already existed and if they could have used the floor of the existing cellaof the temple. Second, the marble paving to the inside of the portal appears to be contemporaneous with the temple: it may, in fact, have belonged to a lower undercroft or treasury to the building (cp. the Archaic Temple of Hera on Samos ), covered by a stone or wooden floor, c 1.90m above, at the level of the threshold. If this high er floor had deteriorated or collapsed, or had never even been finished, then the Early Christian builders would have had to use the lower level of floor and to cut a new entrance through the ancient threshold and its foundation courses.
What remains today of the temple is instructive of ancient building techniques in several ways: these can be summarised as follows:
Order of construction. The habit—part practical, part sybolic—of laying a threshold first, followed by the door posts and lintel, and lastly building the rest of the structure around it, is as old as architecture itself. It can be seen in earliest Neolithic house-building. The door-frame here, which has proved so extraordinarily resistant through time, almost certainly came first and the other elements of the temple followed piecemeal thereafter. All other measurements and elements followed on from the main doorway once it was erected, since it is unlikely that there was a preconceived master design or comprehensive plan of measurements drawn up beforehand.
The raising of the doorway. The doorway stands well above the present ground level raised on at least four courses of marble masonry acting as foundation. This extra height would have made the erecting of the verticals and the lintel much harder. How was this done? It can be seen that the profile of the hill has been cut away substantially where the temple now stands, in relation to the summit to the north. Before this digging away was done, the foundation courses would have been sunk deep in a trench in the hill and the threshold block put in place. At this point a mound of earth, produced by excavating the hill further back would have been built up behind (southeast) the trench which contained the threshold block and foundations. The massive door posts would then have been brought into position, lying on the steep slope of the mound of packed earth, with the dowels in their bottom surface in position beside the corresponding holes in the threshold block. The lintel block must then have been ‘bolted’ onto the door-posts so that the whole locked upper frame could then be raised from a 45 degree position to vertical, on top of the threshold, until the dowels sank satisfactorily into their holes, holding the now complete frame in perfect order—a position it has apparently held ever since, throughout tremors and quakes in the intervening centuries. The unresolved curiosities which the structure presents can be summarised as follows:
Decoration. In spite of meticulous engineering and cutting of the principal blocks, the running ridges carefully carved on the outer (northwest) faces of the blocks of the portal patently do not continue or correspond from one block to the next, leaving an awkward transition from the horizontal to the verticals, which furthermore is of a different degree of discrepancy to left and to right. How can this be explained?
Orientation. Accepting the hypothesised dedication to Apollo for the moment—the majority of temples to Apollo are oriented on an east to west axis; some notable exceptions (e.g. Apollo Epikourios at Bassae) are on a north to south axis; here at Naxos we have a northwest/southeast axis. This is explained erroneously by some as an orientation towards Delos , the epicentre of Apollonian cult. Delos lies well to the north of northwest from here, and on a clear day it is possible to verify with the naked eye that the temple in no way ‘looks towards’ the sacred island. The axis of the temple is however perfectly aligned with the summit of the hill of the Kastro, towards which its (south)east ‘front’ faces. There is no epigraphic evidence to suggest whether the summit of Kastro was or was not occupied by another sanctuary in antiquity, to which the Portara temple was in some way related; but this could explain the unusual axis of orientation.
The 1925 curiosity. In December 1883, Theodore Bent and his wife visited Naxos and saw the Portara: ‘the two white marble doorposts and the lintel, standing up high and solitary on the summit of the little green island, a conspicuous object from everywhere’. We see it today just as they saw it then. But in a frequently reproduced photograph of 1925, the islet of Palatia is clearly visible, but there is a conspicuous and complete absence of the Portara.
Looking back to the land from the Portara, the hill of the ancient acropolis now occupied by the old town enclosed within the walls of the Venetian castle is directly ahead along the axis of the temple. The Venetians used the Portara as a quarry for large blocks of marble, and many of its elements can be seen built into the walls of the Kastro. The ruin has become the symbol of the island and one of the most famous landmarks in the Cyclades. Local mythology holds that it was on this tiny islet that the sleeping Ariadne woke to see her faithless lover’s ship disappear over the horizon to Athens, and grieved until she was found by Dionysos.
ARIADNE OF NAXOS
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Pasiphai«. When Theseus, prince and preeminent hero of Athens, came to Knossos in Crete as part of a human tribute of Athenian young men and virgins who were sent each year to King Minos as expiation for the death of his son Androgeus in Attica, Ariadne glimpsed him and fell in love with him. She provided him with a ball of wool with which to help him escape again from the Labyrinth once he had slain the Minotaur: as she did so, she asked Theseus to promise that he would marry her in return and take her with him when he escaped, so that she would avoid the wrath of her father. Theseus assented.
After Theseus escaped successfully from the Labyrinth, having achieved his mission, the two fled north: their first stop was Naxos , then called ‘Dia’. While Ariadne slept, Theseus set sail for Athens and abandoned her: she awoke to find him gone. Dionysos, finding Ariadne grieving on Naxos and seeing her mortal beauty, fell in love with her. He presented her with a gold wreath set with precious stones; later this was placed in the heavens as the constellation of Corona Borealis. And she bore him children. So—in this version of the story at least—the god converted her grieving into a renewed fertility, like the return of a new spring. In Antiquity, fertility festivals which must have originated in relation to an ‘Earth Goddess’ celebrated Ariadne’s story: a mourning festival which recalled her sleep, abandonment and almost death from grief (winter); and a subsequent festival which celebrated her awakening and marriage with Dionysos (spring).
The story, as Plutarch recognised (Theseus, 20), had many versions and there were many explanations of what Theseus was up to. Homer implies that Ariadne was already married to Dionysos when she followed Theseus from Crete, and that she was killed on Dia by Artemis at the request of Dionysos. Anacreon, Apollonius of Rhodes and Hyginus say that she bore Dionysos sons: Anacreon says one, Apollonius four, Hyginus six. Diodorus and Pausanias claim that Theseus left Ariadne because the gods commanded him to, since Fate would not allow him to marry her. Ovid and Hyginus suggest Theseus was simply a rotter. Plutarch mentions that, in some accounts, Ariadne came to Cyprus (not Naxos ) already pregnant by Theseus, who abandoned her there. And anyway, he adds, the Naxiots themselves claimed that there were in fact two different Ariadnes—one for Dionysos and another for Theseus.
The story of Ariadne and Theseus encapsulates the ambivalent view that Naxos had of Athens and Athenians. History had taught Naxos not to trust Athens.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.