The Temple of Olympian Zeus took almost 650 years to build. It dominates a huge archaeological site below the Acropolis in Central Athens and was once the largest temple in the ancient world. But it was not originally intended to honor Olympian Zeus at all. And it isn't really even Greek.
At the height of its glory, which only lasted about 100 years, the enormous temple at its center was made up of 104 columns of marble, standing just over 56 feet tall. The columns, topped with elaborately carved Corinthian capitals, were each 5.57 feet in diameter and 17.51 feet around. The fluted columns each had 20 flutes and were arranged in double rows of 20 each along the length and triple rows of eight each along the ends.
Looked at another way, the temple was 362 feet long and 143.3 feet wide. Inside it housed two equally massive statues—an ivory and gold sculpture of Zeus and another of the Roman Emperor Hadrian who considered himself a god.
If you visit the site today, you will have to work your imagination overtime to picture this immense temple. All that remains of what had been the biggest temple in Greece (and possibly the largest in the world at the time) are 16 massive marble columns—15 standing and one blown over by winds in the late 19th century.
Other Highlights to See
The site was originally bordered by the Ilissos River (now mostly carried in conduits underground), Sanctuaries dedicated to a variety of titans, gods, and nymphs, known as the Parilissia Sanctuaries, lined the river banks turning the whole area into a wooded religious center on the edge of the city.
Over the centuries, the Olympeion was also the site of Roman baths, classical homes, a 5th century basilica and part of the city walls. The ruins of some of this can be seen on the site or just outside of it.
Nowadays the border of the temple platform site is one of the rare quiet corners of Athens. Wander among the foundations of the early sanctuaries and shrines, surrounded by natural, relatively untended shrub and trees to get a sense of what this sacred riverside area must have been like thousands of years ago. Located around the edges and north of the main platform, look for the following:
- The Doric Temple of Apollo Delphinios
- The Delphinion Court, a spacious courtyard and the outline of rooms dating from 500 B.C. This court was where Athenians tried murders they considered "fair."
- The gates of the Themistoclean Wall, named for an Athenian statesman and built to defend against warring Persians in the fifth century B.C.
- Hadrian's Arch, a monumental double arch, nearly 60 feet tall, dedicated to both Hadrian and Theseus, the mythical hero and founder of Athens. The arch is just outside the walls of the temple precinct in the northwest corner of the site.
Take the path through the trees along the eastern edge of the temple site to find the once riverside area and sacred groves.
Amid the trees, the tumbled stones and foundations include:
- A small temple dedicated to Kronos and Rhea, Greek titans who were gods in their creation story and parents of Zeus.
- A rocky slope dedicated to Gaia or Earth.
- The remains of some of the Parilissia Sanctuaries, so called because they were beside the river Ilissos. Here, ancient Athenians, came to contemplate and worship river gods and perhaps offer sacrifice to gods of the underworld.
- At the extreme southwestern corner of the site, look for the Church of Aghia Fotini. nearly hidden behind it, deep in shade and shrouded in subtropical plants, there's a vertical rock face where you may be able to make out an image of Pan. You may even, without noticing, stumble into a tiny stretch of the Ilissos itself that still flows.
Things to Know
- How to find it in Athens: Guidebooks like to say that you can't miss this monument because it's right in the middle of Athens. That may be true, but so are several parks surrounding impressive ruins. Head for the main entrance on Leof. Vasilissis Olgas on the north side of the site. There's a small parking area and a path between the Athens Tennis Club and the entrance and ticket booth for the site. It's about 200 meters from the tourist bus stop near Hadrian's Gate on Leof. Andrea Siggrou, on the west side of the park. Don't bother looking for a way in anywhere else along the site as it is either fenced or walled all the way around.
- Hours: Every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., year-round. Closed January 1, March 25, Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 26).
- Tickets: Full priced tickets cost €6. If you are planning to visit several monuments and museums in Athens it is probably worth investing in the Special Ticket Package for €30. It is good for five days and includes the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora of Athens, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Agora, the north and south slopes of the Acropolis, and several other sites around Athens.
- Tip: Wear a hat and bring a bottle of water as the only shade is around the edges of the site, well away from the ruins themselves.
History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Look up from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, high above it on the Acropolis and you'll quickly realize that Athens was one town where Zeus, the king of the gods of Olympus, really didn't rate much. For that reason, the temple, when it was started, was simply dedicated to Zeus without the "Olympian moniker." That's also probably why it took several attempts, and almost 650 years to finish.
Built on a site that had been a place of worship and sacrifice for the gods of the underworld and later an outdoor sanctuary for Zeus, the temple was started by an Athenian tyrant, Peisistratus, around 550 B.C. The aim was to build it in sandstone with relatively simple Doric columns. When the tyrant died, about 527 B.C., the project was abandoned and demolished.
It was taken up again, by his son Hippias, also a tyrant, who planned something larger and much more elaborate. But when he was overthrown and expelled from Athens in 510 BC, the building project was once again abandoned. It remained pretty much untouched for the next 300 years.
As an interesting cultural aside, it seems the Athenians did not warm to the building of grandiose monuments. Aristotle himself cited it as a tactic of tyrants to engage the people in huge projects leaving them no time, energy, or funds to rebel.
The temple was briefly taken up hundreds of years later by King Antiochus IV, a Hellenic Greek who was a Roman puppet and incidentally the chief villain of the Jewish Hanukkah story.
Finally, it was left to the Romans to finish the job. The Emperor Hadrian completed the temple, now in marble with intricate Corinthian capitals, adding "Olympian" to Zeus's title, in 125 A,D, (He did like to build very big things—consider Hadrian's Wall, the wall he built coast to coast across the north of England.) It was the largest temple in Greece and housed one of the largest religious statues in the world.
It just didn't last very long. Within 100 years, barbarians invaded, pillaging the ivory and gold statue and wreaking havoc all around. It was never repaired and the ruins were used for building materials around the city.
What to See Nearby
Within walking distance you can also visit:
- The Acropolis: a little over a mile on foot
- The Acropolis Museum: about 800 meters, or a 10 minute walk
- Monastiraki Flea Market: about a mile away
- Syntagma Square: the governmental, ceremonial, and tourist center of Athens
- The Plaka: almost across the street, heading west of Hadrian's Arch