Temple of Zeus remains a mystery

The tall columns of the ancient temple of Olympian Zeus, the Olympieion, have long been a prominent landmark in post-antique Athens. From at least the 17th century, painters depicting Athens with realism or romanticism often included the distinctive ruins of the Corinthian-style temple in their cityscapes. Hard to miss, the Olympieion was the largest temple ever built for Zeus. Even today, it remains the largest temple in Greece. Since about the middle of the 15th century, however, only a small ?grove? of its enormous, redwood-like columns ? from an original marble ?forest? of 104 exterior columns ? has continued to stand. Travelers in the mid-1400s were already recording that only 21 columns still stood in situ, while a large painting of Athens in 1674, attributed to Jacques Carrey, shows only about a dozen.

More accurate is an engraving by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, published in 1794, but this view also reveals only the 16 columns still preserved today (15 presently stand, since one collapsed in a storm in 1852).

One question visitors always seem to ask is where all the other columns have gone. The whereabouts of the Olympieion?s architectural remains are one of the intriguing mysteries that still confound archaeologists. The marble blocks and drums that made up the temple must have been reused for the construction of Byzantine, medieval and early modern houses and churches in Athens; but to integrate such massive, heavy remains inconspicuously into the post-antique city?s scaled-down urban landscape would be like trying to hide an elephant in a closet. The mystery of the Olympieion, therefore, has merit as a genuine archaeological puzzle.

The builders of the Olympieion took over six centuries to complete the temple, while its destruction was probably an equally gradual process drawn out over more than a millennium.

A colonnaded stone temple seems already to have occupied the site when the 6th-century BC tyrant Peisistratus and his followers began to erect a larger Doric temple on top. This massive construction, built to emulate the impressive Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, was never finished. Resumed in Corinthian style in the 2nd century BC, the Olympieion?s construction again came to a halt in 165 BC when its benefactor, the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, died.

The building remained half-finished until Hadrian, Rome?s best-known philhellenic emperor, finally completed and dedicated it in AD 132. The Greek traveler Pausanias saw the completed temple in all its magnificence some time later, noting particularly its colossal chryselephantine statue of Zeus inside.

Pillaging of the Olympieion began even before it was finished, however, since the Roman general Sulla had taken several of its columns back to Rome in 86 BC to rebuild the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. More serious looting occurred in the mid-3rd-century AD, when the Herulians invaded Athens and burned much of the city ? including, apparently, the wooden-roofed Olympieion. The Herulians were probably also responsible for the disappearance of the Olympieion?s gold-and-ivory cult statue.

What happened, then, to the burned-out marble remains of the Olympieion? During the 10-12 centuries following the Herulian invasion, about 90 percent of the temple?s columns and much of its other visible architecture also disappeared. Small elements ? mostly coffered ceiling panels ? were incorporated in the adjacent Early Christian basilica in the 5th or 6th century AD; one column was felled by an Ottoman Turkish governor in 1759 to be burned and converted to lime for plastering a mosque. And the rest? Perhaps the other remains were also burned for lime or hauled away as building material. But even small spolia are usually conspicuous.

A glance at the delightful Chapel of Aghios Eleftherios beside the Athens Cathedral, built in the late 12th century AD with nearly 100 carved blocks expropriated from archaeological sites, offers fascinating proof of the frequent reuse of ancient stones. So, where did the Olympieion?s remains go? They may still be out there somewhere…

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