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Temple of Athena Nike

Temple of Athena Nike (9)

Built between 426 and 421 BC, this small temple also formed part of the mammoth project of building the Acropolis of Pericles. 

The embossing of the frieze and decorative elements offer some clues to the reason for building this temple. They include scenes of battles between Persians and Athenians, such as Plataea, in 479 BC. After the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the famous battle of Salamis, a decision was made to erect this temple to the goddess Athena Victorious. Pericles kept the project at a standstill until half a century later, although the Athenians were then immersed in a new war, the Peloponnesian. Therefore, some of the friezes show the gods Zeus, Poseidon and Athena helping the Athenians in a clear gesture to boost morale in the city.

The temple was designed by the architect Kallikrates, who also took part in the construction of the Parthenon. It was not built from scratch, but was raised on the ruins of buildings from Mycenaean and Archaic times that were also dedicated to the goddess Athena. In the mid-6th century BC, there was first a wooden temple on the site, which was destroyed by a Persian attack in 480 BC. After this, at the time of the governor Kimon, a small limestone temple was erected.

The ancient structures and altars were respected when building the classical temple whose ruins are visited today.

The building was made of Pentelic marble (from the Athenian hill of the same name), and measures less than nine by six metres. The temple was built on top of a bastion measuring almost ten metres in height, which was especially constructed to cover the previous Mycenaean bastion. It is a small amphiprostyle structure. This is the name given to structures with two colonnaded porticos (at the entrance and at the rear) preceding the main chamber, and that are not aligned with the end of the walls of that chamber but instead are in front of it. The four marble columns of the porticos are Ionic, with scrolled capitals.

The main cella or chamber measures barely four by four metres, giving the temple a completely human dimension. Its small size also gives away the fact that there it was not a place of worship that was to house large groups, but instead the celebrations were held outdoors. 

Inside the temple was a statue of the goddess Athena personified as Nike, or Victorious. It was, of course, Athena, as she was the patron and protector of the city, and was represented as victorious in reference to the Athenian victory over the Persians. However, a detail that you will love to know is that, although the representation of Athena victorious consisted of a winged goddess, given that it is a symbol of naval victories, in this case she was represented without wings. Furthermore, in his writings Pausanias referred to the temple as Apteros Nike or Wingless Victorious. The reason? Represented in this way, Athena could never leave her city.

Architecturally speaking, the parapet of the bastion on which the building is constructed must also be highlighted: a jewel of sculptural relief, most of which are in the British Museum in London and in the Acropolis Museum. The friezes of the bastion, which rise one metre in height, showed scenes of winged victories offering sacrifices and divine figures performing daily activities, a hallmark that is far from the idealization of the original classicism.

This place is also the origins of another mythological story. It is believed that King Aegeus threw himself into the sea from the top of the temple, believing that his son Theseus had been the victim of the Minotaur of Crete.

The high-up position of the Acropolis and the location of the temple in the grounds also served as a vantage point. This strategic position was used to detect the Ottomans, who in 1686 decided to use the site as an artillery position and made the catastrophic decision for the temple of Athena Nike of completely dismantling it. The Turks used the materials to erect a wall and a defence tower in front of the Propylaea. Fortunately, most of the temple was piled up in the same place, which meant it could be reconstructed between 1834 and 1838.

Thanks to its restoration using original materials, today it is a small building that remains considerably true to the original. A real gem.

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