The Temple of Poseidon sits atop Cape Sounion at the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula. It is only about 40 miles (70km) south of Athens. I visited the site in October 2021 on an afternoon small-group tour from Athens.
The Athenian Riviera
Getting to Cape Sounion from central Athens involves a 60-90 minute drive on a divided four-lane highway that follows the coast of the Saronic Gulf. This area is known as the Athenian Riviera. It consists mainly of shops businesses and restaurants along the highway, summer and vacation residences in the hills, and rocky coves and a few sandy beaches for swimming, fishing and boating.
I was intrigued when we passed the old Athens Airport. It closed when Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, Athens’ new international airport, opened in 2001. Hellenikon Airport has remained abandoned for the last 20 years except for 2004 when parts of the complex hosted several venues for the Athens Olympics. The financial crisis that led to the Great Recession of 2008 and political disputes have so far derailed planned redevelopment of the airport as a coastal resort, park and shopping complex.
Driving past this “ghost airport” was a little eerie and suggested a possible temporary use for the space. Until they find other uses, this abandoned complex could be turned into an excellent giant Halloween haunted house experience with a little imagination. After all airports are the source of many real-life nightmares like missed, cancelled or delayed flights (scream), lost or delayed luggage (scream), enormous security lines (scream), issues with passports and visas (scream), inferior and overpriced food (scream). The scary airport scenarios are nearly endless. 😄
Past the old (and possibly haunted) airport, the tour guide pointed out structures in the water she identified as fish farms. It was the only time I recall seeing fish farms in the ocean.
Although I’ve never been there, I imagine the original Riviera looks differently. Given that this tour only lasted four hours, the approximately three-hour drive to and from the temple occupied the vast majority of the tour. During the drive, the guide provided commentary about Greek history and the sights along the way; so the travel time wasn’t a total loss.
Before discussing the temple, a little background on Poseidon is probably appropriate. In ancient Greek religion, Poseidon reigned as god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses. The name Poseidon means either “husband of the earth” or “lord of the earth.” Poseidon was a brother of Zeus, the sky god and chief deity of ancient Greece, and of Hades, god of the underworld. When the three brothers deposed their father, the kingdom of the sea fell by lot to Poseidon. Poseidon is the Greek god often pictured holding a trident, a three-pronged fishing spear.
Cape Sounion (or Sounio) was a special place for the ancient Athenians and a perfect location for a temple to the God of the Sea. According to myth, this is the site where Aegeus, king of Athens, committed suicide because of a misunderstanding. Aegeus’ son, Theseus, had traveled to Crete to kill the Minotaur, the legendary monster who lived in the palace of Knossos, to release Athens from the obligation to send seven boys and seven girls every year to the king of Crete to be eaten by the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
Theseus was to raise white sails on his return if successful. Aegeus had positioned himself at Sounion to look out for the return of his son. When Aegeus saw black sails on his son’s vessel, he thought Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur and he threw himself off the cliff into the sea. In fact, Theseus was victorious but had forgotten (or maybe was too intoxicated to remember) to replace the black sails on his ship with white ones, which ultimately led to his father’s death. As a homage, Aegeus’ name was given to the Aegean Sea.
Cape Sounion was also important to the Athenians because this was the last point of Athenian land sailors and warriors could see when they departed on voyages and also this was the first point in Attica they saw when they returned. Building a temple to Poseidon at Cape Sounion was a way to foster good fortune for their voyages and to create a welcome sight on their return home.
The Temple of Poseidon
The Temple of Poseidon was constructed in 444–440 BC. This temple was the second temple on the site that was devoted to the god of the sea. The first temple was built of limestone and was probably destroyed in 480 BC by Persians during Xerxes I’s invasion of Greece.
Pericles, the famous Athenian leader, organized the temples reconstruction. The architect is thought to be Ictinus (or Iktinos), who built the Temple of Hephaestus in the Athens agora (central gathering place). The structure follows a hexastyle design with a front portico of six Doric columns. Less than half of the original 38 columns are standing today. Four columns were re-erected in the 20th century.
The columns were slightly tapered to look taller. They Doric columns were 6.10 m (20 ft) tall, with a diameter of 1 m (39 in) at the base and 79 cm (31 in) at the top. The columns were slightly tapered to look taller.
The hall of worship (naos), a windowless rectangular room, was located inside the colonnades at the center of the temple. The naos contained, at one end facing the entrance, a colossal, ceiling-height (6 metres (20 ft)) bronze statue of Poseidon. Today only a part of the statue survives. It is displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Athens.
On a visit in 1810, Lord Byron, the famous poet, carved his name on one column. Supposedly, you can still see the word “Byron” on it. To prevent further vandalism, visitors are now not allowed to get close enough to the temple to see Byron’s handiwork.
Once we reached the site, our guide narrated briefly as we walked to the temple and then gave the group about 30 minutes to explore the ruins and cape on our own.
A restaurant and gift shop are available to satisfy the need for food or souvenirs.
Getting to Cape Sounion and the Temple
The easiest way to visit the Temple of Poseidon is to take a guided tour from Athens as I did. The advantage of an organized tour is having a knowledgeable guide. Our guide was very helpful in filling the otherwise dead travel time to and from the site with valuable information.
Another option, if you don’t have a car, is to take a public bus from central Athens. The ride takes about two hours. Bus schedules from Athens and Sounion vary depending on the season and day of the week so confirm departure and return times before you go. The cost of a roundtrip ticket is reported to be 12.5 euros. Admission to the temple site is only 4 euro for adults and children are free. The public bus is the least expensive option, and it allows time to take a swim at the nearby beach.
While the temple lies in ruins, it is still easy to get a feeling for the grandeur of the structure and to admire the skill required to create an edifice that has, at least in part, withstood the ravages of millennia. The experience would be improved if a model of the original structure was available for viewing at the site as well as any artifacts that were connected to it.
Just imagine the pride and relief Athenians felt when they returned from voyages or battles and caught sight of the magnificent Temple of Poseidon sitting high and proud on top of Cape Sounion.