Chapter 7

Religion: Temples and Special Sanctuaries


Both Greeks and Romans placed the building of temples and sanctuaries high on their list of architectural priorities, because these might effortlessly form a focus for public pride in city and region. In the standard list of the Seven Wonders of the World, for instance, one is a temple statue, and one a temple - the Statue of Olympian Zeus, and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

All cities had temples, usually in profusion; and especially magnificent structures were also built in places that were for some reason sacred, such as Ephesus (for the cult of Artemis), Delos (the site of Apollo's birth), or Delphi or Didyma, where the god had oracles. So splendid and large were some of these structures that the length of time it took to build them rivalled that of many of the great European cathedrals. The Temple of Artemis at Sardis, begun about 300 BC, was probably worked on (with long gaps) until the 4th century AD. It was never finished. The Didymaion, rebuilt after the Persian destruction of c. 494 BC but only after a gap of about 150 years, was still unfinished even by the time of Hadrian (it narrowly escaped being dedicated by Caligula to his own cult). In other words, it probably looked like a building site for the whole of its active existence.

City temples and altars

The typical temple (which would have been brightly coloured) was difficult to decorate with easily viewable sculpture because there were so few surfaces that could take it except for the two pediments. The usual areas were the metopes and the frieze, which formed part of the entablature, the upper part of the Order above the columns. This was unsatisfactory because of their height, and because any continuity was in consequence difficult to "read". As an alternative, the designers of the Artemision at Ephesus (and, to a lesser extent, the Didymaion) hit upon the idea of decorating the column shafts directly above the base, but the idea did not really catch on. The deity, standing or seated inside the shrine, would usually be of marble or other sumptuous materials (such as gold and ivory), and an adjacent treasury might display donated gifts, some of which might even be hung around the columns or the entablature, as with the Parthenon. The precincts would be decorated with statues: again, at the Parthenon the slots for these are still visible, although the surviving statues have been removed to the museum.

The altar was much more accommodating of decoration, and a fine place for display because it was the focus of ceremonies. Every temple needed at least one. It was located outside the temple in the open air, usually completely separate from it and therefore entirely visible - unlike Christian altars, which were usually within the church. Since a temple was the house of the deity, and not a gathering place for a congregation, any yearnings for theatricality might therefore best be satisfied by concentrating on the altar. The earliest altars were probably simple heaps of ashes from the sacrifices (see the famous one at Olympia), and the majority were simple tables on which offerings could be placed or burned.

The Pergamum Altar

Many altars are now no more than an inconsequential heap of stone blocks near to the entrance facade of the temple, and most were never especially interesting, being a simple cube to take the fire. But there is one class, namely of monumental altars, which was particularly prized in Asia Minor. The finest altar ever built (strictly, the finest altar surround) must be the Altar of Zeus at Pergamum, of about 180 BC, which stands in its own precinct but, most unusually, without a temple. Much of the structure and almost all frieze is now in Berlin. Not that this is any kind of oversight, for it was designed, writes Green (1990, 352) for no other purpose than to be monumentally, overwhelmingly impressive. Decorated with vigorous friezes of lifesize figures - 2.3m high and 120m long - depicting a battle between gods and giants, its contemporary context is probably King Eumenes' celebration of his recent victories over the Gauls in Pontus and Bithynia. If so, then the context incorporates within its apparently straightforward mythology the King's assertion of his own triumphant role as the defender of Greek traditions against barbarianism. In this respect it is no accident that so many of the motifs of this stunning frieze derive from the Parthenon and from other examples of that very Greek art of the best "classical" period of which Eumenes was the defender.

An altar so famous was bound to have forerunners as well as smaller-scale imitators. Simplest of all was the type that used just a monumental flight of steps. At Samos (a Greek island but close to the Turkish coast), the great altar at the (archaic) Temple of Hera had a three-sided surround about 5 metres in height, but not articulated by columns. This must have been similar to the earlier altar at Pergamum, a small enclosure articulated by pilasters topped by statues, and enclosing an actual ash-altar. At Priene, the Altar of Athene presented full-size figures between columns, and the base had panels with the Battle of the Gods and Giants but (like the similar structure at the sanctuary of Artemesia Leukophryene at Magnesia on the Maeander) in a much more restrained style than Pergamum. At Ephesus, the Altar of Artemis was apparently largely decorated by Praxiteles, but we have only fragments; however, the whole enclosure was articulated by Ionic colonnades on three sides, just as at Pergamum (photograph of model in Bammer 1984, plates 41- 3). Also at Ephesus, the "Great Antonine Altar" (now in Vienna) is clearly inspired by the masterpiece at Pergamum.

It was common to have cult statues and altars without having a temple to house them. At Ephesus, for example, an altar and statue base were found in situ in the East Baths, suggesting that the Emperor cult was practised there. The same may have happened in the Marble Court at Sardis (Yeguel 1986, 6f) and in similar structures at other sites.

Special Sanctuaries

Pilgrimage as a popular pursuit antedates the Greeks let alone the Christians. Some sanctuaries - that is, temple complexes outside cities - are certainly very old, and were probably in existence well before the coming of the Greeks. At Ephesus the Temple of Artemis, with its 117 18-metre columns, so famous in the ancient world, is far from spectacular today because its site is so marshy that it is covered in bog or water for much of the year. Although one of the criteria (apart from its enormous size) which classed it as one of the Seven Wonders of the World was indeed overcoming the well-nigh impossible site, it seems likely that the temple was built here precisely because it was the site of some cult antedating Artemis, linked specifically to the site. The discovery of other archaic sanctuaries on the site supports this (Bammer 1984, 185-211). In Ephesus museum are offerings left by the faithful - bangles, statuettes and vessels, in clay and silver. At Priene, the Temple of Demeter has produced a large number of votive offerings in terracotta (Raeder 1984, 38f.). At Didyma, as well, the strange layout of the interior courtyard, at ground level to preserve access to the holy spring and (possibly) a sacred laurel grove, must also reflect a holy site long before either the existing temple or its archaic predecessor were erected.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey