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The Temple of Dionysus in Iria near the Chora

The area around the capital of the island of Naxos, Chóra, has been inhabited for millennia. Excavations show that from the Early Bronze Age (Cycladic culture) on a significant settlement (excavation Grótta) existed in the same place as today’s city, which was also densely populated during the Mycenaean epoch. In the following Archaic epoch (about 8th till 6th century BC), just as today, the settlement in the Chóra was the largest settlement on the island. The significance of the Chóra during the Archaic epoch is emphasized by the erection of the large temple dedicated to Apollo with its gigantic temple gate. The ancient historian Herodotus reported the existence of a second large temple near the Chóra, which was said to be dedicated to the main god of the island, Dionysus, and located near a river called Byblos.

The plain of the Livádia. In the background you can see the airport area and the peninsula of Stelída. The Temple of Íria is located just to the left of the center of the picture.

The search for the Temple of Dionysus

For many decades, attempts by archaeologists to locate this Temple of Dionysus remained fruitless. An important clue for the search provided a small Byzantine church situated in the middle of the Livádia, the plains next to the Chóra. When the archaeologists mapped the lintels of Byzantine churches on the island in the late 1960s to find the missing lintel of the Temple of Demeter near Sangrí, they discovered an ancient lintel in this church, which however did not fit the temple of Demeter. The name of a field near this church attracted further attention: Íria. It was assumed to be an abbreviation for “Jyrotychía”, that is boundary wall (the name of the location of the temple in Sangrí, Jyroula, has the same origin). Test drillings in the field quickly reveiled the remains of the missing temple of Dionysus.

at the temple of Dionysos at Iria
In front of the archaeological site in Íria one of the old scoop wells of the plains which were operated by mules has been restored.

at the temple of Dionysos at Iria
The temple area is planted with olive trees and vine.

at the temple of Dionysos at Iria
Even today, the sacred plant of Dionysus, the vine, thrives here.

The remains of the temple complex

From 1986 to 1991, the temple area was excavated by Greek and German archaeologists (from the Technical University of Munich). No standing remains existed, but only a labyrinth of pillar bases and wall foundations. These could be assigned to four different temples overlaying each other for a few decimeters each (plus a Christian church into which the temple had been transformed around 500 AD). The excavators managed to reconstruct the architecture of the individual temples except for a few details with the help of parts of the temple that had been used in church constructions in the area.

temple of Dionysos at Iria
Only the foundations of the temple, but no standing remains were preserved, and these as well were covered by a several meter deep layer of earth.

temple of Dionysos at Iria
Next to the temple complex lie these remains of a “dining room”, where presumably the ritual feasts were held.

The area of the temple of Dionysus had been used as a sanctuary since the Mycenaean epoch (about 1300 BC). In the lowest strata the excavations revealed a large, carefully smoothed marble bowl with a feed channel and a large gneiss plate together with potsherds from the Mycenaean period. The marble bowl and the gneiss plate were filled with fertile mud during the floodings caused by the nearby river (the Byblos of antiquity).

The overlying temples remains were assigned as follows: The first temple was built in the early Geometric epoch (early 8th century BC), the next in the late Geometric (730 BC), followed by an early Archaic (670 BC) and finally the main Archaic temple construction (580 BC). The latter was used until the 5th century AD after which it was converted into a church (Ágios Geórgios).

temple of Dionysos at Iria
The four successive temples lay closely on top of each other. Today some of the remains of the columns have been erected.

temple of Dionysos at Iria
The panel shows the location and layout of the four temples (the first in brown colour, the next two in brownish red and grey, and the last one in yellow).

The early Geometric temple

The first of the temples was built at the beginning of the eighth century BC and belongs to the Geometric period (named after the mostly non-figurative ornamentation of the pottery; it lasted from the 11th till the 8th century BC). The first temple was a simple building of 5 x 10 m size and approximately rectangular shape. The walls were partly built from local, only roughly hewn boulders, partly from mud bricks. The floor consisted of earth from the nearby river. The flat roof was covered with earth and supported by three wooden pillars in the middle of the room. A large gneiss slab formed the threshold. The house was oriented southwards toward the river. Close to the left wall two imprints of a wooden or clay table, which was probably used for the offerings, were preserved. Outside the building was surrounded by a low oval stone wall. The bank of the broad river was fortified; here a sacrificial site with many burned bones was found. This first, simple construction was destroyed in a flooding of the river as were also subsequent temples.

The late Geometric temple

A few decimeters above the remains of the first temple the second building was constructed around 730 BC. It was about four times larger and much more complex. It consisted of a four-aisled hall with three rows of five wooden pillars each which supported the beams that carried the flat earth-covered roof. The walls were made of roughly hewn granite blocks from the surrounding area; only the bases of the pillars consisted of marble. On the inside of the temple a stone bench ran along the walls. The site of the old sacrificial table had been preserved, but due to the enlargement of the building it now lay in the middle of the temple: obviously it was considered essential. Here stood a sacrificial hearth on which the offerings were burnt. The ashes were scattered in the temple.

The early Archaic temple

Only around 60 years later, in 670 BC, after the next destructive flood, the late Geometric temple was replaced by a new, still larger structure. The west and north wall of the old temple were preserved in the new building. The temple was now constructed with three naves; probably the middle row of pillars occupying the center of the hall had proved impractical. The pillars stood in a greater distance (3 m), and may already have possessed a decorative capital with volutes. The pillars themselves were made of wood. The sacrificial hearth was provided with a broad stone border. In front of the entrance to the south four pillars carried a porch. The river had moved its bed so that it now flowed to the north of the temple.

The Archaic temple

Around 580 BC the fourth and last temple was built, which was never completely finished inside. A few years earlier, the Naxians had erected on Delos a gigantic nine-meter-high, freestanding marble statue of Apollo, an impressive marble temple and the famous Terrace of the Lions. After the destruction of the third temple in Íria, the Naxians decided to build in its place by a monumental temple that would surpass everything that had previously existed on the Cyclades. Probably the Kouros of Apóllonas was meant for this the temple in Íria; however, the marble used for the construction of the building came from the nearby quarries at Mélanes. The location of the temple resembles that of other important sanctuaries (for example Samos, Ephesus): it was situated in a fertile flood plain about half an hour’s walk from the Pólis, which was then in the same place as today (Chóra). A special processional road must have existed leading from the Chóra to this main sanctuary of the island. The wealthier citizens of Naxos erected a large number of steles with dedicational inscriptions around the temple, some pieces of which have survived till today.

temple of Dionysos at Iria
Here you can see the foundations and some remains of the archaic temple.

The fourth temple had more or less the same form as its predecessor with three naves, each with a row of four columns. The building was enlarged by an extension on the north side so that it now reached 13 x 24 meters. The walls were made out of carefully carved granite blocks and covered with plaster. Columns, door frames and roof beams were now made of marble. The porch (pronaos) in front of the temple was supported by four columns which were 80 cm thick, a staggering 8 meters high and carried a decorative capital with volutes, which closely resembled that of the column of the Naxian Sphinx in Delphi. The columns had different flutings (longitudinal grooves), which in some columns remained unfinished.

temple of Dionysos at Iria
reconstruction of a column of the archaic temple with its capital with volutes

temple of Dionysos at Iria
The temple seen from the other side. The columns of the porch were originally 8 m high.

The marble roof

The most important innovation in the fourth temple was the roof construction. The flat roof was replaced by a pediment. All the components were made of marble, and the construction was also adapted to this material (according to the “Ionian order of the islands”) and not derived from a wooden construction, as in most the Doric or Ionian temples in mainland Greece. The roof tiles were made of 3 cm thick marble plates and were visible from below, which must have produced an impressive effect due to the translucent light. Such marble roof tiles according to tradition were invented by the Naxian Byzes.

The Ionian order of the islands

The temples constructed according to the “Ionian order of the islands” differ from the rest of the Ionian and Doric marble temples in several ways. The most important aspect is that the horizontal marble beams which support the roof rest only on the inside of the walls and don’t extend to the outside, as in the case of an (originally) wooden construction. On the outer side of the wall, upright stone slabs were set covering the beam endings which made up a frieze all around the temple. In later temples, this frieze was decorated with elaborate sculptures. The “Ionian order of the islands” was developed on Naxos and probably first applied in the Oikos of the Naxians on Delos. The archaeologists managed to establish the roof construction to the last detail for the Temple of Demeter near Sangrí. Later on, temples in other places were built in the same way, such as several temples on Paros and the Cycladic Treasuries in Delphi (especially that of Siphnos, although the roof structures are not preserved here). After the founding of the Attic-Delian League in the 5th century BC, Athens adopted the Ionian order of the islands and constructed several important temples in the same way (with marble roof and tiles), such as the Nike temple, the Erechtheion and the east hall of the Propylaea on the Acropolis. The fact that this important architectural style was developed on Naxos illustrates the key position that the island played in the cultural development of the Archaic era.

Political developments in the second half of the 6th century

Around 538 BC, the aristocracy on the island of Naxos was driven out by the nobleman Lygdamis, who assumed power as sole ruler (“tyrant”). Under Lygdamis, the island’s quarries were nationalised and building work undertaken by private foundations was halted – this is probably the reason why the temple of Dionysus in Iria was not fully completed (the fluting of the columns in the interior remained unfinished). Shortly after Lygdamis came to power, work began on the temple of Apollo in Chóra and the smaller temple of Demeter near Sangrí. Around this time, Naxos lost its supremacy on Delos to Athens – Lygdamis probably wanted to demonstrate his strength and the wealth of the island by building this new, prestigious temple. Lygdamis was only able to hold on to power until 524 BC, when he was deposed by the Spartans, who were passing by Naxos on a military campaign against the tyrant Polycrates of Samos. Now the aristocrats took over the government on the island again. A little later (490 BC), however, the island was conquered by the Persians and destroyed. After the defeat of the Persians at Marathon and ten years later at Salamis Naxos was subjugated by Athens (Attic-Delian League in 477 BC). After these events, Naxos lost its political and cultural significance; not a single temple was erected in the following centuries.

The Temple of Dionysus in later centuries

The Temple of Dionysus at Íria was used for many centuries. Around 150 BC Greece was invaded and conquered by the Romans and the Roman epoch began also for Naxos. Around 50 BC the Roman Antonius ruled over the Cyclades. He wanted to be worshipped as “New Dionysus” and used the ancient sanctuary in Íria for this purpose. During the excavations a fragment of the base of a statue of Antonius was found on which an older inscription had been erased and the name of Antonius engraved. Part of the statue itself is exhibited in the Archaelogical Museum in Naxos.

Roman statue of Antonios in the Museum in Chora Naxos

In the 5th century AD, the temple of Dionysus was converted into a Christian church dedicated to Ágios Geórgios, which was initially set up in the temple itself. After the building was destroyed again by a flood, the church was rebuilt in a short distance (using the lintel and other components of the temple). The former temple site was buried by the following floods under several meters of earth. The last flood took place in 2004 after the excavation and construction of the Archaeological Park.

continue: The Portara and the temple of Apollon in the Chora

back: Temples and sanctuaries

see also:

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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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