Saturday, April 28, 2012

No, This is Not the Parthenon.

I know you know that, yet do you ever wonder how many who’ve never been to Greece but have seen so many photographs of this Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion might think that it is?  I mean, let’s face it, both sit on the top of a hill, have majestic marble columns, and were built in the mid-5th Century BCE during the golden days of Pericles.  And to complicate matters, there is a Temple of Hephaistos very near the acropolis in Athens that closely resembles what the Sounion temple probably looked like in its glory days. (I wrote “acropolis of Athens” because many places have an acropolis.  The word literally means top of the hill (acron) city (polis), and it was quite common for ancient Greeks to build a fortified citadel on high ground in their city that would be called an “acropolis.”)
Temple of Hephaistos, Athens

Harry's Greece Guide
Cape Sounion is about an hour’s drive southeast of Athens’ center (without traffic), and aside from being one of Greece’s most popular tourist day trips, it is home to some of the most expensive residential real estate in Greece.  It is at the tip of a peninsula, and a drive along either coastline (particularly the east side) has you wondering how a place as pretty and green as this could be so close to Athens (hold the mail, please).

Theseus and the Minotaur
Legend has it that the Temple sits at the very spot where Aegeus, King of Athens, leaped to his death when he wrongfully thought his son, Theseus, had died battling the King of Crete’s dreaded half-man, half-bull Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete.  Aegeus had told his son that the ship returning from Crete with news of his battle should hoist a white sail if he’d survived and a black if he’d not.  But Theseus forgot and came in under black sail. Bye-bye daddy.  But it wasn’t a total loss, for the Aegean Sea took its name from the mourning king.   

The original Temple of Poseidon was made of limestone and was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE.  After the defeat of the Persians, a new temple was built around 440 BCE, this time of white marble.  Fifteen of the original forty-two columns still stand 200 feet above the sea in testament to Poseidon, god of the sea, subservient in power only to Zeus the supreme.

Lord Byron
Sounion is first mentioned in literature around the 8th Century BCE by Homer in The Odyssey as the place where Menelaos stopped to bury his helmsman during the return to Troy.  Perhaps its most famous more modern admirer was Lord Byron (1788-1824) who wrote in his poem Isles of Greece:

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep…

Too bad he hadn’t confined his admiration to pen and paper.

Scene of the Crime
The culprit's calling card.
When I visited Sounion last week I limited any record of my presence to the digital photo card of my iPhone.  Here are few more firsthand glimpses of a sight that has inspired gods and mortals alike for millennia.  For better examples of what so attracts photographers and romantics to the place, check out this YouTube link



  1. Stunning photos.

    You say that so casually, "When I visited Sounion last week" as if it's an ordinary excursion, though I imagine it is for you.

  2. Sort of like a Coloradian saying "I think I'll take a drive up to the Rockies for a picnic today":)

    For those of you who don't know Pat Bertram, she's one of us--a writer and blogger--who comes up with so many interesting bits of information on her blog. Such as that in 2003 there were 300,000 books published, in 2011 3,000,000 and in 2012 fifteen million ISBN numbers are expected to be issued (though as we all know different forms of the same work have different ISBN numbers, that's still a lot of new work competing for a diminishing readership).

    If you're looking for something that will never see it's own ISBN number, catch Pat's interview going up tomorrow night (Sunday) with the author of that hot new title coming out June 5th, TARGET: TINOS, at

  3. It is one of my favourite spots in Greece. You forgot to mention how windy it usually gets there, although it looks beautifully calm and serene in your pictures.

  4. Perhaps because I live on the Island of the Winds, Marina, anything less than 5 Beaufort seems downright balmy:). But yes, on the day I was there the wind and sea were absolutely calm.

  5. Stunning pictures of one of my favorite Greek spots. Must wonder, however, about one hour estimate and the "without traffic" caveat. Aside from never seeing the coastal road with no traffic, one hour just to get out of Athens seems ambitious.

  6. Yes, Liz, the Miracle of no traffic is a wonderful sight to behold but sure enough one day no traffic to Vouliargmeni and the same thing on another jaunt to Sounion. I think the trick is picking the right times and roads. Plus luck:) And, of course, Never on Sunday.

  7. Another lovely journey for me. I feel as though I should dig out Edith Hamilton's book on Mythology, but with your writing, I don't have to. Just beautiful stuff, Jeff.

  8. Sadly, the economy may play its part too.

  9. Love the mention of Byron, Jeff. Hope you blog about his adventures in Greece sometime...didn't he die there?

  10. How is it possible for a sky to be so blue.

  11. Lil, to mention Edith Hamilton and even part of my name in the same comment is an honor richly undeserved by moi:) She's one of the heavy hitter classicists of all time...and, come to think of it, a lot of people could benefit from reading another of her books, "The Greek Way." Possibly none more so today than the Greeks themselves!

    Yes, Liz, good point. The economy is playing a huge part in everything. Never saw so many human powered bikes in Athens before. Even a few on Mykonos, though here they're more a style of suicide by target as tourist drivers seem to take aim more than care with cyclists.

    Good suggestion, Cara. In his 36-year life span Byron crammed in a lot of living. As you correctly remembered (as if anyone had any doubt you would:)), he died in Greece in a city called Missolonghi, a place with it's own tragically romantic history. It's located in the west of Greece, just north of the Peloponnese and was a haven for Greek freedom fighters during Greece's War of Independence (1821-1829). By 1822 it had survived a brutal siege by the Ottomans. In the Spring of 1824 Byron came to Missolonghi to assume command of a part of the Greek army but instead contracted an illness that ultimately (via bloodletting and the like) led to his death from a violent fever. A year later the town was besieged again and a year of that siege starved the population of more than 10,000 into attempting a escape. They were betrayed and virtually all were slaughtered by the Ottomans. Missolonghi is now uniquely honored among the Greeks with the title, "the Sacred City."

    And, Beth, truly that is the color of the Greek sky. Blue, blue, blue.

  12. That's why the Greek flag has Blue :)

    Jeff, beautiful, informative post, and I love the photos. Memories too. Every time I read your post, I learn something new. Thanks!

  13. Thanks, Junying. I feel precisely the same way about your blog!

  14. Jeff, would you ike to do a guest post for me? Anything on Greece or anywhere in Greece would do.

    If you don't mind sending me a short post with some of your fab photos, then I Can promote your books at the same time. Let me know if thi idea appeals to you. Thanks!

  15. Might find interesting:

  16. My Lord (not Byron), Liz! Isaly's and its chipped ham. What memories. In fact, if I recall correctly, both played a featured bit part in Michael Chabon's "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" My personal Isaly favorite, though, was its ice cream cones with the "scoop" in the shape of an obelisk.

    Speaking of Pittsburgh memories, Pat Bertram just posted an detailed interview with me where one of the questions is "What is the first story you remember writing?" My answer referred to a dinner party in Pittsburgh, though I don't remember chipped ham on the menu. Darn.