Sounion: The Temple Outside Time

How do you talk about Greece without talking about the Greeks’ economic woes? Travel there, visit an ancient relic, and consider the nature of permanence — and how money almost always plays a role. The Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion has stood south of Athens since the Archaic period and served the Greek people as both a holy place and a garrison defending the silver mines from which Athens drew its monetary ores. The layered history of this architectural masterpiece deserves contemplation, and can help us learn to celebrate what lasts.

Flickr. A holy place in ancient Greece, Cape Sounion keeps the past present.

Flickr. A holy place in ancient Greece, Cape Sounion keeps the past present.

Fifty miles south of Athens, on the top of a cliff at the edge of the Aegean, sits one of the most magnificent ancient relics in all of Greece -- the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Constructed in the Archaic period (7th-6th century B.C.), 16 of its 34 original porous rock and white marble columns remain. Each pillar stands over 20 feet tall. The site covers about one acre and includes a second, smaller temple to Athena. That this stunning architectural masterpiece has survived more than 2,800 years of war and cataclysm is almost impossible to comprehend. To see it up close is to feel awe and to know a sense of permanence and timelessness.

“This is beauty,” wrote Nikos Kazantzakis, standing at the foot of the Temple a half-century ago, “the apex of joy . . . This is Greece.”

The first known mention of the temple at Cape Sounion can be found in Homer’s Odyssey: Menelaus, recounting his homeward journey, says, “We saw sacred Sounion, cape of Athens.” Originally built as a house of worship, the Temple once contained ornately carved marble frescos, statues (kouroi), and altars; during the Greek wars they disappeared. By the 5th century B.C., the temple of Poseidon was reengineered to function as a military garrison. Coinage had just been introduced into the ancient world and Cape Sounion was a key strategic point in defending the Lavrion silver mines. The Athenian owl coins minted from silver mined there would quickly become the most desirable coins in the ancient world. Thick and heavy, these high-relief tetradrachms bore an image of Athena on one side and the owl crest of Athens on the reverse. Soldiers, statesmen, and businessmen all coveted coins made of silver from the Lavrion mines.

Understandably, the temple and the cape became part of the seemingly endless territorial struggles in the region. From Thucydides we know that by the spring of 413 B.C., Athens and Sparta were waging constant battles over control of the temple. In 263 B.C., Pausanias, a geographer, described Poseidon’s temple as having fallen under Macedonian rule. In the Roman era the architect and civil engineer Vitruvius (later made famous in a drawing by Leonardo Di Vinci) marveled at Cape Sounion’s beauty -- but only as he passed by from the relative safety of a sailing vessel. After that, sad to say, literature goes largely dark on the subject of Sounion, which does not re-emerge until 1537, in the writings of Jean de la Vega, a French military writer paid by the Ottomans to report on the siege of Crete. Vega remarked how similar the columns at Cape Sounion were to those at the Acropolis in Athens.

It is equally unsurprising that when archaeology began to come into its own as a discipline, Sounion and the temple were targets. The first digs and surveys of the site were carried out in the late 18th century by a group of British aristocrats called the Society of Dilettanti. Then, in 1884, German archeologists came upon a miraculous find: a trove of Archaic-period statues and frescoes whose whereabouts had not been accounted for since the time of Herodotus. These artifacts were found deeply buried in nearby pits, some in fragments, others remarkably intact.

It is a signal difficulty of modernity: our archeological expertise, our recovery of the literature of antiquity, and our mania for collecting and cataloguing have all helped preserve the remnants of the classical world, but have also -- so to speak -- placed a sheet of exhibition-case glass between us and those wonders. How does one really experience an ancient relic today? The formerly buried treasures of Cape Sounion are on display in Athens and in Lavrion, in each city’s Archeological Museum. As a journalist who writes about war and weapons -- and about power and impermanence -- I wondered if a more immediate experience was possible. Implausible as it seems, I asked my husband and two sons if they wanted to come along on a reporting trip, to visit the temple and to contemplate the nature of permanence. No better time to do so, perhaps, than the moment when Greece’s economic future stands at a crossroads.

The delightful and beautiful Cape Sounion Grecotel Resort (something undreamt of, I think, by even the powerfully imaginative Thucydides) is located at the very base of the Temple of Poseidon, on a sloping hillside covered with pine trees. I traveled there with my family at the start of the summer. The high-energy, hustle-and-bustle often felt in business hotels is simply not there. Largely because, I would argue, the visual landscape is dominated by the temple, a sight to inspire awe and tranquility even among the most ambitious.

We could see it from our room. From the breakfast hall. From the restaurant where we ate dinner on the resort’s private beach. We could see Cape Sounion from various points along the garden paths. From the foyer. From the walkway leading to the spa. At night we could gaze at the Temple of Poseidon, lit up by powerful and very modern spotlights.

Immediacy we had achieved. We were closer, much closer, to the temple than the French hireling of the Ottomans, so close that I began to feel as if Cape Sounion was all my own. But this notional sense of proprietorship was given a jolt one morning, when I was out for a walk with my family.

We were following a footpath, headed to the pool (one of the few reasons to be truly glad you don’t live in the more austere antique world), when we came across what looked like an uncharacteristically unkempt area of upturned soil and rocks.

“What’s this?” I asked.

My younger son pointed to a small, discreet sign and read aloud: “Remains of a 3rd Century A.D. village inhabited by mine workers of Ancient Sounion.”