This article first appeared in The Hindu.
Sitting way up high, it seems appropriate that the Temple of Poseidon commands the sea on three sides, find CHITRA SRIKRISHNA & K. SRIKRISHNA
Land’s End. The words conjure up an image of a windy bluff, beyond which a restless sea, its waves tipped in white, stretches as far as the eye can see. Since time immemorial men, particularly sailing men, have been fascinated by the idea of the end of a peninsula. They’ve given them evocative names such as the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. They’ve built lighthouses and temples and buildings that have often served as both.
Cape Sounion, 60 km south of Athens, marks the land’s end of mainland Greece. When you approach it on the winding road heading south from Athens, the Aegean sea appears tantalisingly around each corner. It is only when you wind your way up a hill on the last kilometer that white columns appear ahead of you. The marble columns are what’s left of the Temple of Poseidon whose very sight, indicating that home was near, has cheered weary Greek sailors for over two millennia.
Perched on a flat area, about 60 m above the sea, sheer cliffs and the azure waters of the Aegean surround the temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion on three sides. Though only 15 of the original columns stand — their Doric style a reminder of their age and origin — you can easily visualise the magnificent sight the temple would have presented to returning sailors.
The temple was first built during the Archaic period (750-480 BC) and likely destroyed during the Greek-Persian wars. The ruins that remain today are from the temple that was rebuilt around 440 BC by Pericles, the famous statesman and general, who had the better known Parthenon re-built at around the same time. The earliest mention of Poseidon’s temple was in Homer’s Odyssey where Poseidon, the God of the Sea, is spoken of as having caused untold mishaps to the hero on his voyage back home. Even though the god’s statue is now at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the grandeur of the temple is undiminished.
At first glance, the ruins look very like the others that spot the Greek countryside — a vaguely familiar rectangular floor plan with pillars on all sides. In fact, the largely intact Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, also built during Pericles’ reign, gives a good sense of what the Temple of Poseidon would have looked like. Yet, the temple, despite absence of roof, pediment or even pillars on one side, is remarkable because of its setting, on a promontory where the Aegean itself is an integral part of its architecture. The legends of Poseidon, Odyssey, and marauding Persian and Greek sailors down the ages imbue the temple with even more significance. Watching the sun set over the temple is unlike anything else we have experienced.
Apparently, we are not the first people to be enchanted by the magic of the temple. Nearly 200 ago, Lord Byron, then still relatively unknown, was so captivated by the temple that he carved his name on one of the columns. Authorities, of course, take a very dim view of such activities these days!
Cape Sounion is remarkable in that it is relatively unspoilt by tourists and has a beautiful natural setting. Today’s Sounion is an upscale summer getaway for wealthy Athenians, and easily accessible by road.
Later that evening, the setting sun forms a crimson splash on the horizon where it touches the waters. The scene is that of an artist’s canvas. A happy confluence of mythology, history and beauty, this is one of Greece’s lesser known but no less valuable treasures.