Ancient but still unknown

There are many quiet little areas in ancient Athens, where, if one feels the desire to temporarily escape the noise and crush of the more commonly visited archaeological sites, important historical relics can be found lying largely overlooked or forgotten. Often these secluded corners of the main sites or small singular monuments are notable for their still semi-natural environments that, left unvisited by tourists and untended by gardeners, can fire the imagination and give the visitor a more acute sense of Athens?s long history and fascinating record of archaeological exploration. One such area lies south of the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion), where, amid long dry grass and shady trees, rest the remains of temples, a law court, mosaic floors, the sandle-worn threshold of a city gate, a rocky outcropping sacred to Olympian Earth (Gaia) and a medieval tannery used for the preparation of leather hides.

Once located outside the defensive walls of ancient Athens, this district, whose sloping ground gently declines to the rocky, now fig-choked bed of the former Ilissos River, was incorporated in the 2nd century AD within the new neighborhoods of the city established by the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). In the mid-3rd century AD, Valerian (AD 253-260) authorized the building of a new city wall that cut across the district and left the northern bank of the Ilissos once again outside the bounds of Athens proper. This sacred riverside district eventually became an industrial quarter in late antiquity, where tanners took advantage of the plentiful, constant water supply (augmented by the nearby Kallirrhoe Spring) to clean and soften their hides ? an age-old practice that continued even into more recent Ottoman Turkish times and the early years of the Greek Republic in the 19th century. Today, visitors approach the site along a narrow, inconspicuous path that skirts the eastern edge of the Olympieion?s massive temple platform.

Greek archaeologists excavated the area south of the Olympieion from the mid 1950s through the mid-1960s. These large-scale investigations, which archaeologist John Travlos records, were prompted by the landscaping of the Olympieion area, the covering over of the Ilissos riverbed and the construction of Ardittou Street on the river?s opposite bank, revealing the massive foundations of a mid-5th-century-BC temple dedicated to Apollo Delphinios. This Classical building, probably the successor to an earlier Archaic temple (see below), was built mostly of poros (a type of limestone) with marble metopes, pedimental moldings, roof tiles and acroteria (rooftop decorative figures). The Delphinion, in architectural jargon, was a ?peripteral Doric temple amphidistyle in antis.? It possessed a surrounding colonnade, was Doric (like the Parthenon) in style and featured two columns at each end standing between the projecting sidewalls of the central building.

Textual sources on the Delphinion or the general area include the writings of Thucydides, Plato, Plutarch and Pausanias. Only by combining archaeological data and historical accounts have specialists been able to form a clear picture of the topography south of the Olympieion and to identify the numerous ancient structures whose foundations dominate the landscape. Pausanias writes that ?close behind the Temple of Olympian Zeus stands a statue of Pythian Apollo. Apollo has another sanctuary under the title of Delphinian.? Four pottery shards discovered during the 1962 excavation of the Temple of Apollo Delphinios contained the first letters of the god?s name, thus offering evidence of the shrine?s owner, while the actual stone altar of Pythian Apollo dedicated by Peisistratus in 522-521 BC was also found in the early 1960s in the nearby Ilissos riverbed.

Southwest of the Temple of Apollo Delphinios stood the law court of the Delphinion, once the scene of trials for those charged with accidental or justifiable homicide. This smaller, three-roomed structure dates to the Archaic period, circa 500 BC, judging in part from its finely carved polygonal masonry. Pebble-mosaic floors within the building and its courtyard may be late Classical or early Hellenistic additions. Further east was the 2nd-century-AD temple of Cronus and Rhea, now a bare platform protruding from the grass. Striking natural features of the area include a prominent rocky outcropping dedicated to Olympian Earth and a wide crack in the ground ? described by Pausanias but presently no longer visible ? that ancient Athenians believed was the fissure into which the waters of Deukalion?s flood drained away. Every year, Athenians would celebrate the mythical flood by throwing offerings consisting of wheat cakes kneaded with honey into the crack.

The most extensive sanctuary in the area was probably the Corinthian-style Temple of Panhellenic Zeus and Hera (Panhellenion), which stood within a walled enclosure close to the northern bank of the Ilissos. Built by Hadrian between AD 131 and 137, this complex was apparently an important meeting place for Greek representatives serving on the council of the Panhellenes, who gathered at least once a year from districts throughout Roman-occupied Greece.

The Panhellenion, the Delphinion and other buildings in the area all appear to have been dismantled down to their foundations in the mid-3rd century AD, when Emperor Valerian ? afraid of impending attacks by northern Goths and Herulians ? erected a new gated city wall across the area between the Olympieion and the Ilissos.

The topography of this once idyllic landscape has been greatly altered to the point of almost being unrecognizable but one former shrine survives on the opposite side of the Ilissos: Deep in the shade beside the Church of Aghia Fotini, obscured by agave and luxuriant acanthus plants, can be seen a vertical face of rock carved with a faint image of Pan.

Theseus’ response to the builders

In the 2nd century AD, the Roman traveler Pausanias relates an amusing story told to him by local informants during his sightseeing tour of Athens and which concerns the Temple of Apollo Delphinios, the Athenian hero Theseus and an insult suffered by the legendary hero at the time that the temple was being constructed:

?They say that when the temple [of Apollo Delphinios] was all but finished, except for the roof, Theseus entered Athens, still unknown to anyone. His tunic reached his feet and his hair was plaited and nice-looking. When he came to the shrine of the Delphinian, the builders jokingly asked him what a girl ripe for marriage was doing wandering about on her own. Theseus offered no answer but unhooked the oxen from the cart they had and flung them over the half-built roof of the temple.? (Pausanias 1.19.1)