The temple of Apollo and the Portara

The best known symbol of the island of Naxos is the gigantic ancient portal of the Temple of Apollo in Naxos-Town, the Portára. It stands conspiciously on a small island that is connected by a pier to the Chóra (“Palátia”) and greets every visitor already at the arrival at the port.

view of the island of Palátia from the harbour

View from the Portára to the Chóra with the Venetian Kastro; in the background you can see mount Zeus.

The Portára, the monumental temple gate, “The gate” as one might say, consists of four marble blocks of about 6 x 1 m, each weighing just under 20 tons. It belongs to an archaic temple (around 530 BC), of which only the foundations are preserved. The temple was dedicated to Apollo, the god of arts and sciences, but also of agriculture and vegetation, as well as oracles, medicine and light. Apollo’s main sanctuaries lay on the nearby island of Delos and in Delphi. The Naxians had erected important buildings and statues on Delos;(the Terrace of the Lions, the Oikos and Stoa of the Naxians, the statue of Artemis and the 9-meter-high marble statue of Apollo, the largest ever erected kouros). Until the year 540 BC the Naxians ruled over the island of Delos; after that, they lost their supremacy to Athens, which was governed by the tyrant Peisistratos. Perhaps that was the reason why the Naxians now decided to build a monumental temple on their own island, on Palátia island next to the main settlement in Chóra, where probably since the early archaic times a small sanctuary of Apollo had existed. The construction of the temple was started under the Naxian tyrant Lygdamis (who reigned from 538 till 524 BC). The temple was never completed; its construction was probably abandoned with the fall of the tyrant.

Only a few remnants of the temple are preserved except the gate.

Built in the Ionian style the temple building was unusually large (15.4 x 36.85 m) and meant to demonstrate impressively the strength of the island of Naxos. The interior was similar in size to the largest Greek temples except that they often were additionally surrounded by a colonnade (peristasis). For the Temple of Apollon on Naxos it has also been suggested that it had a peristasis, or that one had originally been planned, but a more thorough survey could not confirm that opinion. The roof of the inner hall was supported by two rows of 4 pillars each, which carried the 4-meter long marble roof beams. The side walls projected on both sides of the temple, forming a porch which was supported by two columns each.

Here one can see the foundations of the temple building; in the foreground the remains of the southeastern porch.

Even apart from the impressive size, the construction of the Portára remains an puzzle for the archaeologists. For example the function of the protrusions of the stones remain unclear; according to newer results they could not have been necessary for the transport. On the invisible side facing away from the passage, the stones are indented rectangularly, perhaps to keep the weight a bit lower. On the outside, the stones were to be decorated with unfinished fascia (protruding decorative bands). The gate was thicker than the wall protruding on the inside for about 24 cm, which is very strange. Most astonishingly, the threshold stone was over a meter higher than the level of the floor, so that on both sides a few steps had to be built to lead up to it. When the temple was later converted into a church, the middle part of the disturbing threshold stone was sawn out. The characteristics of the Portára can hardly be explained simply from its function as an entrance. The elaborate and strange design suggests that the gate fulfilled a special function in the cultic procedures.

The central part of the threshold stone, one meter above the floor level, was sawed out when the temple was turned into a church.

The stones of the gate are indented on the invisible side, probably to keep the weight down.

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