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The Portara and the Temple of Apollon in the Chora

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 “Palátia” that is connected by a pier to the Chóra and greets every visitor already at the arrival at the port.

view of the island of Palátia from the harbour

The small island is connected to the Chóra by a pier.

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

The Temple of Apollo

The Portára, the monumental temple gate, “The Portal” 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.

Next to the temple the remains of other small buildings have been found.

view from the temple towards to the Chóra

The development of marble sculpturing and architecture on Naxos

Naxos has been an important center for the use of marble in sculpturing and architecture since its earliest beginnings; and the Naxians passed on their technique and style to their neighbours throughout the Aegean Islands and the Greek mainland. The temple of Dionysos near Chóra, which existed since the Mycenaean Epoch as a small sanctuary, was one of the most important temple buildings of the Cyclades. To the god Apollon, the god of Art and Order, the Naxians had dedicated a hill with a marble quarry near today’s village Apóllonas, from where the material for many sculptures and monuments originated. According to the significance this god had for them, the Naxians wanted to build a monumental temple for Apollo equal to the Temple of Dionysus at Íria.

view from the hill with the ancient quarry towards the village Apóllonas

The marble blocks from which the temple gate is constructed come from the marble quarries at Flerió. Next to the quarry one can still see a large stone block, which supposedly was to be used as an even larger lintel of the entrance gate to the temple which had formerly been planned to be even wider; this piece was abandoned during transport. In a sanctuary by the marble quarries near Flerió the same way the temple gate was constructed as in the Portára was used for the first time in a tiny temple.

the ancient quarries near Flerió

In this small temple in the sanctuary near the quarries of Flerió, the construction of the entrance gate as in the Portára shows up for the first time. Here you can see the doorstep (to the left in the picture).

Details of the construction of the Portára and the Temple of Apollon

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.

On the outside of the gate, the strange protrusions and the unfinished fascia (decorative bands) are recognizable.

One of the remarkable features of the temple is its orientation: The entrance faces northwest (about 320°NW). According to some sources, it is aligned with the island of Delos, but this lies quite a bit further to the north. Most ancient Greek temples were oriented – just as our churches today – towards the east. However, the other two Naxian temples also had a different orientation: The temple of Dionysos in Íria is oriented south, while the two gates of the temple of Demeter near Sangrí look towards the southwest. If you look nowadays through the Portára you see that it is orientated exactly towards the hill of the Chóra with its Kastro, where an ancient Acropolis was located. It is possible that the temple was aligned with an important building in the Acropolis. A close examination of the remains has shown that the building plan of the temple was turned 180° at the beginning of construction, i.e. it was originally planned so that the entrance faced the city.

Later use of the temple

Even in antiquity, the unfinished temple appears to have been used as a quarry for the construction of other buildings. In the 5th or 6th century, a Christian church (Panagía Palatianí) was built on the site of the temple. Major changes were made to the building and the centre section of the door sill, which was around 1.2 m above floor level, was sawn out. There was a small Byzantine settlement around the large three-aisled basilica, of which hardly any remains have survived. Later, the Venetians removed almost all of the stones from the former temple building and used them to build the Kastros; only the foundations and the Portára, which were too large to be transported, remained.

In this old building in the Kastro you can see the marble stones of the Apollon temple that were used for the construction.

The Portára at sunset; Photo by Brigitte Münch

Resemblance and difference of the gods Apollon and Dionysus

The two largest temples on the island of Naxos, located near the main settlement, the Chóra, were dedicated to gods Dionysus and Apollo. These two gods are nowadays usually considered as quite contrary. It is important to understand, however, that the god Dionysus possessed many of the properties that were also assigned to Apollo: he, too, was a patron god of agriculture and vegetation, had mantic skills, was closely associated with music and played an important role in the relationship with life and death. The affinity of Dionysus to Apollo is illustrated by nothing better than the belief of the Greeks that Dionysus took over the oracle of Delphi in winter, when Apollo stayed far in the north among the blessed Hyperboreans.

The main difference between the two gods is their relation to order: Apollon embodies law and order, the static, the clear and the pure, which was so revered in Philhellenism, whereas Dionysus stands for the dynamic, the living, the detached, the unleashed, ecstatic, even chaotic, which was rejected by scholars of the Age of Enlightenment as “low” or “oriental”. The two principles were mostly considered as completely antithetical, even hostile, and the Dionysian was disregarded by the classical philhellenism just as much as it had been condemned by the Christian religion in the course of its establishment in Greece (consider: the devil was imagined in the form of a satyr from the entourage of Dionysus).

For a long time the historians believed and claimed that Dionysus had been added to the Greek pantheon later than the other gods and that he was basically a foreign and extraneous element. Today we know that Dionysus was worshiped in Greece since the Mycenaean period and that he belongs to the Greek pantheon just as much as Apollon and is even one of the gods with the earliest documented appearance. Dionysus and Apollon are different, but not incompatible: In the opinion of the Greeks they were the two sides of the same coin, or two complementary aspects of life itself, which then could coexist without problem. Only by considering both principles the true harmony of life can be grasped. It was not until the last century that science began again to understand the deep connection between the two principles of order and chaos: One might say that it is through the interaction of order and chaos that our world emerges.

It is noteworthy that the people of Naxos still today connect the temple on Palátia Island not with Apollo, but with Dionysus: It is considered to be the palace of Ariadne, that Dionysus had built for his bride after she had been abandoned on Naxos by Theseus during his return from Crete to Athens. No doubt Dionysus was the most important god to the people of Naxos; he was their very own god, and he considered Naxos his home.

continue: The temple of Demeter near Sangri

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