Pretty much everyone who visits Athens makes a stop at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. After all, the Parthenon is a spectacular feat of engineering, combined with beautiful classical architecture. But did you know that the Parthenon is NOT the largest Greek temple in the world?
That title goes to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, or Olympieion, located in the heart of central Athens.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus was built in the 6th Century BC on the site of a previous temple. The Athenian tyrants at the time wanted this temple to stand as the most spectacular temple in the world.
Four Greek architects designed the temple – Antistates, Callaeschrus, Antimachides and Pornius. They only completed the platform and a few architectural elements before the tyrannical rulers were overthrown in 510 BC. Work on the temple ceased for the next 336 years.
The project began again in 174 BC, during the reign of Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He fancied himself the embodiment of Zeus, and wanted the temple completed. The original plans called for a double colonnade of eight Doric-style columns on the front and back, and 21 columns on each side. But king Antiochus increased the size of the structure by adding three rows of columns to the front and back, and two rows of 20 columns on the sides. This added up to 104 columns in total!
Antiochus also changed the column style from Doric to Corinthian, a much more intricate and elaborate style. Here’s a close-up of a Corinthian capital on the temple:
But work on the temple ceased once more when Antiochus died in 164 BC. Then, during his sack of Athens in 86 BC, the Roman general Sulla attacked the half-completed temple and removed some of the columns. He took them back to Rome and used them in the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill.
During Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd century AD, the temple was finally finished. It was formally dedicated to Hadrian in 132 AD. Hadrian installed a great statue of himself in the temple, alongside one of Zeus. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was easily one of the largest temples in the world, boasting columns 17.25 meters tall. (Also note the Acropolis in the background. You can easily walk from one to the other).
Hadrian also had Roman baths built next to the temple. You can still see the remains of the foundations:
The site also contains the remnants of classical house foundations:
The temple was damaged yet again in 267 when the Heruli, an Eastern Germanic tribe sacked Athens. It seems that no one bothered to repair the temple after this attack. In 425 AD, Christian emperor Theodosius II banned worship of the old Roman and Greek gods, further sending the temple into a state of disuse and disrepair. As was common practice at the time, locals pilfered much of the costly Pentelic marble from the temple for use in other construction projects.
By 1436, only 21 of the original 104 columns remained standing. Today, 15 columns remain, while a 16th column lies on the ground where it fell during a storm in 1852.
There’s also a fascinating little side story to the temple. For a time, a three-story Byzantine watch tower sat atop the abandoned columns of the temple. When the city’s garrison no longer needed the watch tower, a group of Stylite monks took it over. They believed that they were closer to God by living on top of the columns. Locals brought bread and fruit to the monks, who would lower a basket down from their sky-high dwelling to receive the gifts.
Archaeologists removed the remains of this watch tower in 1870. But some paintings and even early photographs still hold proof of its existence.
The Arch of Hadrian is just on the opposite end of the Temple of Olympian Zeus’ main ticket entrance. Also known as Hadrian’s Gate, it once spanned a road leading from the center of Athens to the monumental structures in this area, such as the Temple of Olympian Zeus, among others. It commemorated Hadrian’s arrival in Athens.
If you have more than a day in Athens to spare, I would highly recommend taking a stroll over to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It’s just such an impressive structure, and really awe-inspiring.
Address: Athens 105 57, Greece
Hours of Operation:
8:30 AM to 3:30 PM
Admission: Regular Ticket: €6, Reduced Ticket €3
You can also purchase a ticket package for €30 (€15 reduced) at any of the major museums and archaeological sites. From November 1 until March 31 (1/11-31/03) each year, you can buy single-use tickets at the reduced rate.