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The Temple of Demeter

The Temple of Demeter at Sangrí is one of the main attractions of the island of Naxos. The temple, which dates back to the Archaic epoch, is small in size, but of great significance for the development of Greek temple architecture. It is built according to the Ionian order of the islands, which originated on the Cyclades, especially on Naxos, and which was used also by the Athenians after they had conquered Naxos. The temple was built around 530 BC, at about the same time as the temple of Apollo in the Chóra, during the reign of the tyrant Lygdamis. Lygdamis came to power as the leader of the peasantry. This explains the construction of the small but very important and artful temple in a rural area far away from any larger settlement, fitting for a temple dedicated to the patron goddess of agriculture Demeter. (One should note though that this assignment of the temple to Demeter is not proven by dedicatory inscriptions and is doubted by some researchers; the temple could also have been dedicated to Apollon).

The Temple of Demeter is undoubtedly one of the most important monuments of Naxos.

The reconstruction of the temple

The Temple of Demeter in Sangrí is one of the few monuments built in the Ionic order of the Aegean islands which can be reconstructed in all its parts and whose architecture is accordingly known to the last detail. This circumstance gives it its special importance. Since the year 1954 the temple area has been excavated by Greek archaeologists. The original temple building had been converted into a church in the first centuries AD of which only minor remnants were preserved on site. Many stones of the ancient temple were used in the sonstruction of a small chapel on the temple grounds (Ágios Joánnis sto Jyroula) and other nearby churches and monasteries.

Around 1990 scientists from the University of Athens in collaboration with the Institute for Building Research in Munich carried out a thorough investigation of the entire area in order to gather all the components necessary for a complete reconstruction of the temple. Parts of the temple were rebuilt from old and newly cut stones. Important findings from the excavations as well as a partial reconstruction of the roof and the sanctuary of the Christian basilica are exhibited in the very interesting museum on the temple grounds.

The Demeter Temple was partially rebuilt in the early Nineties. Both old components and newly cut stones were used for the reconstruction.

Many interesting finds from the excavations on the temple grounds are exhibited in the award-winning museum next to the temple, as well as a partial reconstruction of the roof and of the sanctuary of the Christian basilica.

The location of the temple

The Temple of Demeter is worth a visit because of its interesting architecture, but also because of its beautiful location. The temple is situated on a gentle elevation with a height of only 140 m in the midst of the cultivated plains around the village of Sangrí. The importance of this area is made obvious through the fact that during the Byzantine era the capital of the island was located on the slopes of Mount Apalírou to the east of the temple with a strong and large fortress on top ot the steep mountain. In the archaic period, when the temple was built, the area was already widely cultivated. The people lived in small rural settlements, which lay scattered in the plains and low hills.

To the east, the plain of Sangrí is overlooked by high mountains, including mount Zeus, the highest peak of the Cyclades. Towards the north lies the fertile plateau of the Tragaía and the massif of mount Kóronos, whose steep top, dedicated to the god Dionysus, is visible from the Temple of Demeter. In contrast to these two high peaks, the mountains of Zeus and Dionysus, the location of the Temple of Demeter represents the feminine principle: the gentle, the receptive, the fertile.

View from the Byzantine castle of Apalírou over the plain of Sangrí; the Demeter temple is located approximately in the middle of the picture.

The landscape at the temple of Demeter: gentle low hills and green valleys.

The temple is located on a low elevation close to the mountain range of mount Zeus (in the center in the background).

The location has something very “female”, as befits a temple of Demeter.

The beginnings of worship

The first use of the sanctuary has been established for the 8th century BC (geometric period). At that time rites and sacrifices were performed under open air. In some places the area had been raised and secured by means of low terraces. Directly in front of the temple the remains of two sacrificial pits, which were connected by a small trench, are still visible. Here the fertility goddesses (Demeter and her daughter Persephone) were offered plant juices which were poured into the pit and flowed from there through the trench into a second pit. The scope of these rituals was not only to invoke the fertility of nature and the annual return of spring, but they also symbolized the life cycle of humans: birth, death and rebirth of the soul.

One corner of the temple is built directly on one of the sacrificial pits, without doubt because of the special sanctity of this place. After the construction of the temple the small sacrificial pits were replaced by a larger rectangular pit, which was surrounded by a fence or a hut as still visible imprints of poles show.

In the temple area, the excavators have found pieces of statues depicting two deities side by side, presumably Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Older inscriptions point to a veneration of the god Apollo in the same sanctuary.

In front of the temple the remnants of an older use of the sanctuary are visible.

These two pits were used for offerings of plant juices; the liquid was poured into the eastern pit (which was framed by small stones) and flowed through the narrow trench to the western pit.

Here one can see (in the foreground and to the right) excavated remains of buildings from the Byzantine epoch and behind the wooden fence the larger rectangular pit, which was used for the sacrifices after the temple was built.

The architecture of the temple

The Temple of Demeter has a very unusual form: The interior is wider than long (12 x 8 m) and has a transverse row of five columns. Another extraordinary feature are the two large entrances at the south side below the gable. Before the entrances lies a porch (pronaos), whose roof was also supported by five columns and by laterally protruding walls (antae).

View of the temple from the south; one can see the 5 columns of the pronaos and one of the entrances to the interior.

The temple was built entirely of marble except for the wooden door wings. Of particular interest is the construction of the roof. The saddle roof was supported by the five columns of different height standing in a transverse row in the interior of the main room (cella). The pillars carried each two 4-meter-long and 40-cm-high, horizontal marble beams, which reached to the front and back of the room. On these lay 2-meter-long and 20-cm-high transverse and therefore sloping marble rafters. These carried thin, carefully smoothed translucent marble roof tiles. Marble tiles of this kind were first invented on Naxos (by a person named Byzes). In the interior of the temple (differently from the pronaos), the marble tiles of the sloping roof were freely visible from below, a very unusual feature. Most likely, the temple of Dionysos near the Chóra and the buildings by the Naxians in Delos had the same kind of roof construction. However, the Temple of Demeter is the earliest building for which it is possible to completely reconstruct the roof structure.

Contrary to the cella (the main temple room), the pronaos (porch) had a marble ceiling, that is, under the actual pitched roof lay a horizontal ceiling built from marble beams, rafters and tiles, which was supported by the front wall of the cella and the columns and antae of the pronaos. The rafters of ceiling and roof did not protrude outward, but were covered externally by evenly spaced, vertical stone slabs running all around the temple. Friezes of this kind were decorated in later similarly constructed temples with sculptures, such as in the Nike Temple of the Acropolis of Athens. At the Temple of Demeter in Sangí, the frieze was decorated only by a kymation below and above (protruding decorative ledge). The marble ceiling of the vestibule is the first of its kind in Greece that we know of for certain; however, the temple in Iria and the Naxiotic buildings on Delos probably already had the same construction. Interestingly, the vestibule of the temple of Demeter also shows a refinement like the curvature and entasis on other temples (= slight curvature of the walls and columns for a more harmonious, “lighter” visual impression), whereby here the ceiling beams and all the components above are curved upwards by 2 cm – an innovation that was not adopted anywhere else, however.

A reconstruction of the front of the roof can be seen behind the museum.

The columns of the Temple of Demeter are very slender and smooth, without the usual fluting (longitudinal grooves), with a simply structured, round base with a torus (ring) above it. The columns of the interior and presumably also of the vestibule had leaf wreath capitals, which were not sculpted but only painted. The painting was carried out with hot, coloured wax. Stones with traces of painting are on display in the museum. The columns of the interior of the temple had the same diameter along their entire length, while those of the vestibule became slightly narrower towards the top – both unusual, as the columns of most Greek temples have their largest circumference in the centre or lower third, i.e. they are somewhat “bulged” (entasis).

The most unusual feature of the columns of the cella was that, because of the lack of a horizontal ceiling and because they directly supported the sloping saddle roof, they were of different height with the difference reaching one meter between the middle and the two outermost columns. This very unusual construction is due to the transverse orientation of the room.

The slender columns of the Demeter temple show no flutings (longitudinal grooves).

The columns have simple capitals which were originally decorated with painted leaves.

The walls of the temple of Demeter were made of two layers of stones with an outer wall of large stones and an inner one of much smaller stones. The stones were carved with chisels, but not smoothed, and had different sizes. On the inside, the walls were probably plastered.

The walls of the temple consisted of an outer layer of larger stones and an inner layer of smaller, irregularly arranged stones.

The blocks were carved with chisels, but not smoothed.

The stones of the inner wall were much smaller. Probably the inside was originally covered with plaster.

Another very unusual feature of the temple of Demeter at Sangrí are the two entrances to the transverse cella. The entrances had monolithic door frames similar to the Portára. These had no fascia (decorative bands).

The door frames were made of monolithic stone blocks as in the Temple of Apollo in the Chóra. In the cella the lower halves of two of the inner columns can be seen.

The only wooden element of the temple were the doors. They were carried by hinges made of wooden cylinders. A reconstruction of the hinges can be seen in the museum.

The stones of the door frame show the holes which carried the hinges of the door wings.

Despite the elaborate, unusual and daring marble construction, the Temple of Demeter in Sangrí impresses mostly with its simple elegance. The decoration was mostly limited to painting. The most important aspect of the marble construction for the use of the temple was probably the illumination of the interior through the thin, translucent marble tiles that covered the roof and must have provided a soft, enchanting light.

Because of its highly unusual, indeed unique architecture, the Temple of Demeter is sometimes referred to not as a temple but as a “telesterion”, i.e. a mystery sanctuary or cult building for the performance of the secret mysteries of Demeter, Persephone or Dionysus (the best-known telesterion is that of Eleusis near Athens, where the famous Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter took place).

The architectonic style: Ionian order of the islands

The temple of Demeter in Sangrí is one of the best and most completely reconstructed examples of the Ionian order of the islands, the architectural style developed in the Cyclades, which differs from the East Ionian (Dodekannes and Asia Minor coast) and the Doric order (mainly on the Greek mainland). The main hallmarks of the Ionian order of the islands are the (horizontal) marble ceiling, the sloping marble roof which can be visible from below, the surrounding frieze, sometimes decorated with sculptures, the double walls made out of large outer and small inner stones, the monolithic door frames and characteristics of the design of the bases and capitals of the columns. These features can be found not only in the temples on Naxos itself and the Naxian buildings on Delos, but also in the cycladic Treasuries in Delphi (whose roof construction, however, is unknown). After the subjugation of Naxos and Paros by Athens, the Ionian order of the islands was copied by the Athenians, and they built a whole series of temples in the same style, especially the Erechtheion and the Nike Temple of the Acropolis, and used the same ceiling structure also in the East Hall of the Propylaea. Temples with features of the Ionian order of the islands can also be found in other parts of Greece.

A computer-generated image of the outside of the temple of Demeter in its original construction can be found in Digital Archeology.

The later use of the temple

In the first centuries AD, the Temple of Demeter was converted into a Christian church, with only minor modifications to the building, such as the opening of an entrance on the west side, the costruction of an apse in the east and the closing of the porch with walls. Around 600 AD the building was completely remodeled; only the north wall of the temple was preserved. Many stones and other components of the former temple were used for the construction. The south wall was moved a little further to the south and the interior was divided by two rows of columns into three naves. To the south, another narrow nave was added, the foundations of which can be seen today directly in front of the entrance hall of the temple. In front of the church additional buildings were erected that formed a small settlement. Here the remains of a pottery, of a wine- and an oil-press were found. This settlement was in use from the 6th to the 8th century AD.

When the temple was converted into a church, an apse (semicircular protruding sanctuary) was added towards the east.

Stones of this kind, made out of stones of the original temple, were used as chapiters of small pillars in the windows of the basilica. Several such stones adorned with “Maltese crosses” are exhibited in the museum. This one we discovered on the Byzantine fortress of Apalírou.

The early Byzantine basilica fell into ruins during the Middle Ages and hardly anything of the monument remained in place. More recently a small chapel (Ágios Joánnis sto Jyroula) was erected on the temple grounds.

The Church of Saint Nikólaos, located between the temple and Sangrí, is one of the many churches in the area for the construction of which marble stones from the temple of Demeter were used.

The antique stones still show the typical surface texture caused by the toothed chisels that were used to make them.

Many large marble blocks of the temple found a later use as drinking troughs for cattle (exhibits on the temple grounds).

One can still find such water troughs in the surrounding fields – a rather ordinary use for such extraordinary stones steeped in history!

continue: The sanctuary at Flerio (Mélanes)

back: Temples and sanctuaries

see also:

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additional reading: The Temple of Sangri by Wikipedia

used literature:


  • Kunst und Kultur der Kykladen, Teil I: Neolithikum und Bronzezeit und Teil II: Geometrische und Archaische Zeit; Werner Ekschmitt; Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein 1986

  • Die Inselionische Ordnung, Gottfried Gruben; in: Les Grands Ateliers d’Architecture dans le Monde Egéen du VIe s. av. J.C., Koll. Istanbul 1993

  • Die Entwicklung der Marmorarchitektur auf Naxos und das neuentdeckte Dionysos-Heiligtum in Iria, Gottfried Gruben; Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie, 1991-’92

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