Cape Sounion - The Temple of Poseidon

cape sounio tourAccording to the legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where Aegeus, king of Athens, leapt to his death off the cliff, thus giving his name to the Aegean Sea. The story goes that Aegeus anxiously looking out from Sounion, despaired when he saw a black sail on his son Theseus's ship, returning from Crete. This led him to believe that his son had been killed in his contest with the dreaded Minotaur, a monster that was half man and half bull. The Minotaur was confined by its owner, king Minos of Crete, in a specially designed labyrinth.

Every 9 years, the Athenians were forced to send 7 men and 7 women to Minos as tribute. These youths were placed in the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. Theseus had volunteered to go with the third tribute and attempt to slay the beast. He had agreed with his father that if he survived the contest, he would hoist a white sail. In fact, Theseus had overcome and slain the Minotaur, but tragically had simply forgotten about the white sail.

Sounion is 67 kilometers Southeast of Athens at very end of Attica peninsula. The temple is on the top of a hill. from there, there is a vista of the Attic coast ,the islets, the Cyclades and the mountains of Peloponnese. The sunset is spectacular. The Cape Sounion is also a nature reserve, shelter of birds like the Grouse and in the summertime music recitals are given on the nights of full moon.

The headland was evidently inhabited from early times. Graves and other finds point to the presence of a prehistoric settlement in the third millennium B.C. Sounion apparently became a religious center very early too, since Homer describes the cape as sacred. Many gods and heroes were worshiped here, but the main ones were Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon ,Olympian god, god of the seas and the horses, was the son of Cronos and Rea and Brother of Zeus. When Zeus became the most important god of Olympus, he pushed Poseidon to the sea and that's how he became the god of sea and fountains. His symbol was the trident, a long spear with three prongs. With it, he could make the sea calm by simply posing it on its surface or provoke huge waves by stirring the sea with it.

The Athenians were quick to realize the strategic importance of the promontory and fortified it, in order to control the sea routes to the islands along which passed the cargoes of grain, staple foodstuff of the population of Athens. Primarily however the Athenians wanted to protect the major source of the wealth, the precious silver mines. It was with the income from the Laurion mines that the Athenians could afford to build at behest of Themistocles, 200 trieremes , with which they defeated and destroyed the Persian fleet in the naval battle of salamis in 480 B.C. So the Athenians constructed on the summit of the cape a semicircular wall, 500 meters long and over 3 meters wide, reinforced by square towers at 20 meter intervals. In the sea, on the northwest side, they dug the rock and constructed a small ship-shed (neorion) for two trieremes, which patrolled the waters. The sanctuary of Poseidon was entered through a monumental Propylaea on its northern side. To the right lie the ruins of a square hall, which was perhaps the grand house, beyond which are the ruins of two stoas, one at right angle to the other, in which pilgrims congregated during festivals, especially if there was bad whether. The temple of Poseidon was built after the mid-fifth century BC, to replace the earlier Poros temple, which fell victim to the Persian invaders in 480 BC. the white marble for the temple was quarried locally, at Agrileza near Sounion, on Laureotic Olympos, and lacks those constituents of Pentelic marble, which endowed the Acropolis monuments with the distinctive warm golden hue. It is also less durable and is eroded continuously by salt spray from the sea. For this reason the architect made the columns with shallower flutes and reduced their number from the usual 20 to 16. Although the identity of the architect is unknown, he is surely the same one that designed the temples of Hephaestus and Ares in the Athenian Agora, and the temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous.

The temple of Poseidon at Sounion is in Doric order and peripteral, with 6 x 13 columns 6.10
meters high, has an amphiprostyle cella, a Pronaos and an opisthodomos and marble floor. Only a few slabs of the sculpted decoration have survived, which represented the Gigantomachy, Centauromachy and the labors of Theseus. A few meters away from the front of the temple several Archaic statues were brought to light, among them two enormous kouroi, which are exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum.

Those two statues represented Castor and Polux, star gods which captains followed in antiquity in order to navigate. In a country of so many islands it was very easy to be confused. So the temple of Poseidon and the two huge statues served as an excellent-repair point to the Captains. On a hillock above the center of the shore, about 400 meters from the temple of Poseidon, are ruins of the sixth century BC sanctuary of Athena Sounias.

Athens Cape Sounion has inspired many poets, among the lord Byron,who carved his name on the right if the temple Facade. The main temple of the sea god was restored at 1939 by the German archeological School of Athens. Until that moment, only three columns were standing.

 

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