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Mythology impregnates the history of this building, the Erechtheion, one of the most impressive on the site of the Acropolis.
Legend has it that in the place where the original temple was erected, the contest for control of the city of Athens was held between the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon. In their fight, Poseidon, god of the seas and oceans, hit his trident on the rocks, leaving a mark. This brought forth a source of salt water that he offered as a present to the city of Athens. The goddess of wisdom and strategy, Athena, gave the city a sacred olive tree, the first to appear in the city.
King Cecrops, the mythical founder of the Athenian royal lineage, certified the gift of Athena to the Olympian gods, which brought fertility to the land and, therefore, the deity was chosen to give her name to the city and become its protector.
The three characters are or were present in the temple of Erechtheion that, on the other hand, was named after the king Erechtheus, in honour of whom it is built. He was a mythical king from the Mycenaean era, whose tomb is located in the western part of the temple alongside that of the aforementioned King Cecrops. The temple is named after the mythical king, and is dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon.
The temple was constructed between 421 and 406 BC on the site where another temple to Athena Polias had stood until 480 BC. As in most buildings of the Acropolis, it was destroyed during the Wars with the Persians and the new layout was adapted to the previous Archaic temple.
Some sources attribute the project to the architect Philocles, who was faced with the main challenge of designing a layout over a three-metre drop. In its construction, he had to combine the integration of the previous temple, the two-storey layout, the inclusion of relics from the Acropolis such as the tombs of the kings or the sea water well, as well as building a temple that would serve different religions. Certainly a feat that he solved in a truly prodigious manner.
The architectural solutions sought to build under these conditions led to an asymmetrical building with a considerably complex layout.
The temple was made of Pentelic marble, like most on the Acropolis, but included friezes of grey stone from Eleusias and foundations made primarily of stone from Piraeus.
The central chamber or cella was surrounded by porticos in the east, north and south. The main entrance was on the east, through six elegant Ionic columns. The eastern part of this chamber was dedicated to Athena Polis, and the room housed an extraordinary statue of the goddess carved in wood from the olive tree that, according to myth, she gave to the city. Every four years, at the Panathenaic procession, the faithful changed the robe of the goddess.
The western part of the cella is accessed from the north. The portico on this side consisted of four Ionic columns at the front and two at the sides. Worship here was dedicated to Poseidon Erechtheus and the cella housed the altars of Hephaestus and Butes, brother of King Erechtheus. To the left of the entrance, you could see the marks of the presence of Poseidon in the temple. Three cracks in the stone, mythology says, were the result of the trident of the god of the seas. Furthermore, the sea water well that was under the temple and that the god had given to the city of Athens was reached from here.
A small door in the chamber led to the Pandrosus chapel, dedicated to the daughter of King Cecrops. However, one of the most popular places is the southern portico of the building, which is also accessed from a door in the cella.
This is the world-famous porch of the Caryatids. It was a gallery supported by sculptures of female figures, which replaced the Ionic columns present in the other porticos. These statues, measuring almost two and a half metres in height, were the classic Greek korai: stiff and solemn female figures, dressed in Ionic robes, still and staring straight ahead at the Parthenon. In order to withstand the weight of the porch, a basket supporting the weight of the entablature was placed on the head of each of the Caryatids. These figures were called Caryatids after they were built. The statues were baptized in honour of the young women from Karyes who performed dances in honour of the goddess Artemis.
However, if recognising the world-famous image of the Porch of the Caryatids makes you emotional, imagine the Acropolis Museum, which is where the original sculptures can be found. What are standing before you are mere replicas that were placed on the original site, as the real Caryatids were severely damaged by atmospheric pollution.
After it was built, the Erechtheion served several purposes, the most curious of which to house the harem of a Turkish commander during the Ottoman period. Perhaps the beautiful caryatids inspired the not overly-sacred use of the site.
This temple is now one of the most revered of the Acropolis, given that its reconstruction in the early 20th century, having gathered together all of the pieces spread around the site, is admirably true to the original.
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