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During the last ten days, I have had the rare opportunity to visit - on one single trip - Ephesus, Samos and Didyma, the sites of three most important temples of ancient Ionia. Three locations united by sharing in the remarkable flowering of Eastern Greek culture and Ionic temple building in the 6th century BC, but also three very different places, separated by their divergent subsequent histories.

Three great temples - what's left

A single standing column, made of finely fluted marble drums, measuring about 14m (46ft) in height, towering over a swamp, overtowered in turn by much later structures and usually crowned by a storks' nest, is all that remains of the most famous temple in the ancient Greek world, the Artemision of Ephesus in Western Turkey, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Barely 50km (32mi) to the southwest, on the Greek island of Samos, another single column marks what was once the renowned shrine marking the Heraion, birthplace of the goddess Hera, and among the richest ancient sanctuaries in the Aegean. Another 40km (25mi) to the southeast and back in the Anatolian mainland stands the empty shell of the oracular temple of Apollo at Didyma, one of the most imposing archaeological sites in Turkey and beyond.

The single column marking the great Temple of Hera at the Heraion of Samos

This triad of sites along the shores of ancient Ionia encompasses the three great Ionic temples, each of them a testament to the wealth and sophistication of the Eastern Greeks, and to the distinctive architectural order known as “Ionic”, the style of architecture they chose to express their sophistication, wealth and creativity, their aspirations, beliefs and identity. The temples' later trajectories, parallel at some times but not at others, throw a fascinating light on the complex history of the region. A visit to their ruins, set in very different surroundings today, is not just beautiful in each case, but also highly interesting, at each site for somewhat different reasons.

Ionic architecture and the Archaic temples

The textbook view of Greek temple architecture, already held by the ancients, is that the Doric style, characterised by heavy, sombre and austere features, developed in the rough and rocky areas of the Greek mainland where it came to dominate, exemplified by buildings such as the Temple of Athena Parthenos (the Parthenon) at Athens and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In contrast, the Ionian temple, lighter, more elegant and ornate and perceived as more “feminine”, was believed to have been created by the rich trading centres of the Eastern Aegean, that is places like Ephesus, Miletos and Samos, which were under more direct influence from the various cultures of the East.

But this compelling image turns out to be a simplification of more complex developments in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when architectural experimentation took place in parallel on both sides and in the middle of the Aegean (one of the earliest known Ionic capitals is from Naxos), when choices and preferences came into being, leading to the creation and crystallisation of the “orders” or styles we know now.

One way or another, in the mid 6th century BC, at about the same time when the Athenian Acropolis was crowned with its first monumental Doric temple to Athena, little of which now survives, the triad of huge Ionic temples came into being.

The first of those monumental Ionic temples was the Temple of Hera on Samos, built between 570 and 560 BC on a site that had been sacred for many generations already. The island and its city state of the same name were then at the height of their power and wealth. To express these, an architect named Rhoikos designed an enormous edifice, unprecedented in Greek architecture, measuring 52 by 106m (171 by 348ft). Where the conventional temple normally enclosed a closed and roofed inner sanctum, the cella, the new temple had an open courtyard. Even more unusually, that inner structure was surrounded not by one row of columns, but by two.

A Roman copy (from Kos) of the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. A far cry from Diana the huntress, she is a fertility goddess, bedecked with either manifold breasts, or more likely, a large number of bulls' unspeakables

A Roman copy (Ephesus Museum) of the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. A far cry from Diana the huntress, she is a fertility goddess, bedecked with either manifold breasts, or more likely, a large number of bulls' unspeakables

The next in line on the list of the great Ionic temples was at Ephesus, where Artemis had long been worshipped as a goddess of fertility. Not long after Samos, her venerable (and rather weird) statue received its proper housing in the form of a huge monumental temple, built on the site of several earlier predecessors and supposedly partly financed by the legendarily wealthy Lydian King, Kroisos or Croesus. Massive, at 55m (180ft) wide and well over 115m (377ft) long, it also had a roofless inner sanctum, enclosed by tall walls, surrounded with a double portico on all four sides, with a total of 117 columns, each nearly 19m (62ft) tall. It was the first time Greeks built a monumental structure entirely of marble, and its sculptural decoration was lavish according to ancient sources. It was completed soon after 550 BC.

Not long after, ca. 540 to 530 BC, the long-established sanctuary and oracle of Apollo at Didyma, associated with the wealthy port city of Miletos, then a major regional centre, was embellished with a third huge Ionic temple, measuring 40 by 85m (131 by 279ft), also with an open courtyard inside and a double colonnade around, here counting 104 columns.

It is clear that this threesome of large-scale Ionic temples, in relative proximity and with strong parallels in plan, dimensions and details, should be seen as facets of the same phenomenon, the apex of Ionian power, affluence and cultural innovation, but also a strong will to express a distinct Ionian identity within the Greek World. No temples of such grand scale existed in mainland Greece at the time. Not long after, the same ambitions were expressed there by the Ionian city states through the creation of strikingly ornate structures at Delphi, where East Greek states showed off their wealth by donating so-called treasuries, repositories for valuable offerings. Eventually, the Ionic order asserted its own presence and achieved its own distinctive formulations in the Greek Mainland, perhaps most famously in form of the Erechtheion at Athens.

Three destructions and three rebuildings

It is a great story of ambition, achievement and art, but the truth is that little can be seen of these three grand Archaic Ionic temples today. On each of the sites, the visible remains predominantly belong to later replacements. In an odd coincidence, each was necessitated by catastrophe, but each by a very different one.

The first and most harmless occurred at the oldest of the three, on Samos. Within a decade or two of its completion, the original temple by Rhoikos collapsed or was deliberately demolished, around 540 BC, most probably because it had been built on unstable sandy ground and was beginning to subside. It was immediately replaced with a slightly enlarged (109 by 55m, 358 by 180ft) version, again a monumental Ionic temple on a similar plan to its predecessor, moved 40m (131ft) westward, its 155 pillars nearly 20m (66ft) high. In spite of decades of building activity, this second monumental temple was never completed. Its sole surviving column, a landmark to sailors in the region for centuries (we spot it on our cruises along the Ionian shore), now stands only to half its original height.

The next of the three to be destroyed was Didyma. In 494 BC, at the end of the Ionian rebellion, when an attempt by the Ionian Greek city states to free themselves from Persian rule had been defeated, Miletus and Didyma were razed to the ground. The temple of Apollo lay in ruin for over 150 years, until Alexander the Great, passing though during his Anatolian campaign in 334BC, vowed to rebuild it, although the effort to do so really appears to have begun somewhat later. The replacement was much larger than its forebear, measuring 109 by 51m (358 by 167ft), with 122 columns. It, too, was never completed, but work continued on and off for half a millennium, right into Imperial Roman days.

Today its remains are the most extensive of the three great Ionic temples, and in fact among the most impressive of all surviving Greek temples. Even though unfinished, it bore very elaborate architectural sculpture, much of which, on column bases in situ and on parts of the column capitals as well as the friezes originally placed above, can be viewed on site. The Hellenistic temple of Apollo at Didyma also preserves some unique and reasonably mysterious architectural detail. It possesses a huge columned room between porch and inner sanctum that does not occur anywhere else and might be connected to the procedures of its oracle.  Even more strikingly, from the enormous porch with its forest of colossal columns, two sloping vaulted passages lead down into the central area, which was another open courtyard, its walls still surviving in places nearly to their full height of over 25m (82ft). At the back stood a smallish shrine containing the statue of Apollo, a temple within the temple of which only foundations survive.

According to ancient historians, the last of the three Archaic temples, that of Artemis at Ephesus, was destroyed in a wanton act of vandalism in 356 BC, when a disturbed individual set a fire, aiming to become famous. The local priesthood condemned his name to be kept secret, so as to thwart his ambition, but it became known anyway as the result of an indiscretion that should not be repeated here. The temple was rebuilt some decades later, more or less on the original plan, but again at larger scale (137 by 69m, 449 by 226ft), now counting 127 columns. It was the only one of the three replacements to be completed, reflecting the ongoing success of Ephesus as a commercial city, a political centre and a destination of religious travel.

Later fates

All three of the great Ionic temples remained in use throughout antiquity, but their cults finally succumbed to the advent of Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. In fact, St. Paul had already railed against the worship of Ephesian Artemis in the 1st century, much to the annoyance of local souvenir sellers, as reported in Acts of the Apostles 19. It appears that the temples at Samos and Ephesus were destroyed deliberately and very thoroughly, and eventually used as quarries for new buildings. The temple at Didyma housed a Christian church for some time, which is the main reason for its better preservation.

A 7th century BC ivory figurine of a youth, just one example of the many extraordinarily fine finds from the Heraion of Samos (Vathi Museum)

A 7th century BC ivory figurine of a youth, just one example of the many extraordinarily fine finds from the Heraion of Samos (Vathi Museum)

Still, there are very good reasons to visit all of them. Even though the temple itself is reduced to its foundations, the Heraion at Samos remains an atmospheric site, traversed to this day by the Imbrasos stream, where the goddess reinstated her virginity every year, and where she and Zeus enjoyed their nuptials annually. Moreover, it is surrounded by multiple further archaeological remains, and its extraordinary assemblage of finds, spanning many centuries and much of the ancient world, is on display in the excellent museum at Vathi. The Artemision of Ephesus, in spite of being a shadow of its former self, is still a striking place, and lies at the edge of one of the most extensive archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. Some of the rich material it yielded to the spade is on display in the museum at Selçuk (currently closed for renovations). Didyma is simply stunning, a must-see for anyone who takes an interest in ancient architecture (and finds can be seen in the new museum at Miletus).

We can take you to all three of the great Ionic temples. Didyma and Ephesus are key sites on our classic one-week cruise from Bodrum to Ephesus and the two-week Sailing to Ephesus we offer occasionally. Samos (while not technically part of the Dodecanese) features on our one-week Cruising the Northern Dodecanese tour and on our epic two-week cruise of the Dodecanese all the way from Samos to Rhodes. And on our Exploring Athens tour, you can catch a glimpse of what was meant to be fourth, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, another story for another posting...

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