The Temple of Olympian Zeus is the most magnificent monument in Athens, other than the Acropolis complex of sites. It is dedicated to Zeus, the first among the Gods of the ancient Greeks, who resided at the top of Mt. Olympus. We should emphatically state here, since the mistake is frequent, that Mt. Olympus -thus Olympian Zeus- has nothing to do with the ancient city of Olympia, in the Peloponnese, where the Olympic Games were established and took their name from.
In 131/2 AD, in a magnificent ceremony, Emperor Hadrian inaugurated the Temple of Olympian Zeus, for which construction had begun in the 6th c. BC but was concluded with the generous donation of the Emperor. The gigantic temple of the Corinthian order across from the Acropolis was twice the size of the Parthenon and its interior housed the chryselephantine (made of gold and ivory) statue of Zeus.
Located South-East of Hadrian's Arch, the temple covered a surface of approximately 5,000 sq m and was symmetrically positioned in a rectangular enclosure with a perimeter of 673 m. This immense terrace is surrounded by a strong precinct of porous stone, with a hundred buttresses, at a distance over 5 m each. The total perimeter is 668 m (2188 ft) approaching the 4 stadia, as indicated by ancient historian Pausanias.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from Amalias Avenue.
Along the precinct hundreds of bronze statues of the Emperor were erected, dedicated to him by the Greek cities. Behind the west side of the temple, a colossal statue of the Emperor facing the Acropolis and visible from a great distance was dedicated by the city of Athens. The site of the Olympieion was a place of worship of chthonic deities and of ancient Athenian heroes of Athens since prehistory. Located in southern Athens, between the Acropolis and the Ilissos river, the Olympieion was the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus. Here stands one of the greatest ancient temples of Zeus and, according to Vitruvius, one of the most famous marble buildings ever constructed. The sanctuary's foundation is attributed to mythical Deukalion. The site also comprises the temple of Apollo Delphinios - traditionally associated with Thesseus - and a tripartite building with a south courtyard of ca. 500 BC, identified as the Delphinion Court, which was allegedly founded by Aegeas.
The entrance to this enclosure was attained by means of a propylon with four Doric columns, situated 45 m. from the North-Eastern angle; this propylon 10.5 m broad and 5.4 m deep, somewhat resembled the Agora Gateway erected under Augustus. Another principal, and impressive, entrance of the temple, not in existence anymore, was on the West. The temple stood in the middle of the terrace. It was a dipteros (two-winged) octastylos (8-columned), that is, it had 5 rows of 20 columns at the sides and 3 rows of 8 columns at the two fronts, East and West. 124 Corinthian columns in all, 17.25 m (56 ft) in height, 1.7 m (5,5 ft) diameter, below at the summit. The architrave of 3 fillets is composed of 2 beams 2.25 m high and 6 m. long. The temple itself measured at the base 107 m (353.5 ft) in length by 41 m in width; therefore, along with the temples of Ephesos, Selinous and Agrigent, there were the largest temples of their time.
In 174 BC Antioch IV Epiphanes, King of Syria and a fervent friend of Athens, resumed the interrupted work on the plans of the Roman architect Cossutius, who enlarged the temple and made it more magnificent by adopting marble over porous stone. The grandeur of it was so manifest that the contemporary historian Titus Livius wrote that "the temple of Zeus the Olympian, in Athens is the only one in the world worthy of the majesty of the God. "
Of this immense building which contained a real forest of columns, no more than 16 are now standing, crowned by their architraves; one column was pulled down during the Turkish occupation and transported in pieces for the erection of a mosque, still to be seen in Monastiraki Square; and the 18th was thrown down by a violent storm in 1852. The Turks calcined all the columns that had been lain on the ground as a result of earthquakes.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from the Acropolis. At the forefront, Hadrian's Arch, and at the far back left the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium. Photo courtesy Sophia Yiannakou.
After the death of King Antioch in 165 the construction was once more stopped, followed by a new pillage of material lying on the ground. Sylla, the greater destructor of Athens, carried away to Rome some of the columns together with numerous other masterpieces of Greece. It was Emperor Hadrian who was meant to complete -with all due magnificence- this venerable work and inaugurate it in 129, amidst Panhellenic feasts, instituted on that occasion. During the Middle Ages this grand temple underwent the hardest trials until one unfortunate day an earthquake laid it down in ruins. During the dark days of the Turkish occupation a stylite installed his cell on one of the isolated columns of the great temple...
The site of the Olympieion is connected with a well-known legend, that it was at this place that the last waters of the deluge of Deucalion had disappeared. It was probably due to the fact that before leveling the ground for the construction of the terrace, the ground was originally much inclined towards Ilissos river.
On the large platforms all around the temple there was a multitude of statues, votive offerings and other works of art. Historian Pausanias mentions particularly two statues of the Emperor Hadrian in Thassos marble and two others in Egyptian marble or alabaster. There was also a bronze statue of Zeus, a temple of Cronos and Rhea, and a very old sanctuary of the Olympian Earth.
The area south of the Olympeion comprises the Parilissia Sanctuaries (sanctuaries located by the Ilissos river) and was unified with the existing archaeological site of the Olympeion during the Unification of the Archaeological Sites of Athens project. It is currently open to the public. The only access to the site of the Olympeion and the Parilissia Sanctuaries is from the gate house on Vasilissis Olgas Avenue. For a page with Basic Architectural Terminology,including terms used in the description of the ancient Greek temples,click here!
The stupendous size of the shafts of these columns (for they are six feet in diameter, and sixty feet in height) does not more arrest the attention of the spectator than the circumstance of there being no fallen ruins on or near the spot, which was covered with one hundred and twenty columns, and the marble walls of a temple abounding in statues of gods and heroes, and a thousand offerings of splendid piety.
The solitary grandeur of these marble ruins is, perhaps, more striking than the appearance presented by any other object at Athens; and the Turks themselves seem to regard them with an eye of respect and veneration.
John Cam Hobbhouse, 1813
... it was the last day of the carnival (last Monday of the end of Lent carnival), and ... there would be a large congregation of the Athenians outside the town, at the columns of the Temple of Jupiter, to regale themselves with the simple refections of olives and bread, and the small wine of the country, and to amuse themselves with national dances ... I found the assembly very merry over their frugal repast.
George Cochrane, Wanderings in Greece, 1837.
Zeus, the "Cloud-Gatherer" (Νεφεληγερέτης),known to the Romans as Jupiter, is the father of gods and men, supreme ruler of Mount Olympus, lord of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order, justice. Youngest child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Symbols include the thunderbolt, eagle, oak tree, scepter, and scales. He is as unpredictable in his wrath as he is in his storms on earth. Brother and husband of Hera, although he had many lovers, also brother of Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, and Hestia.