A Brief History of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens
What is the Temple of Hephaestus?
The Temple of Hephaestus is a well-preserved 5th-century Doric temple that’s dedicated to the worship of Hephaestus and Athena, it is built on the west side of the Agora in Athens.
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Temple of Hephaestus History
The Temple of Hephaestus was built on the Kolonòs Agoraios, the hill overlooking the western side of the Agora, a centre for the workshops of Athenian craftsmen, where labourers would look for day work. The location of the temple was not chosen by chance as two deities were jointly worshipped here: the god Hephaestus, protector of blacksmiths and metallurgists, and the goddess Athena, who was worshipped, among other things, as patron of potters and crafts.
The building, erected in the mid-5th century BC, is a model of Doric architecture and presents a plan close to that of the Parthenon, although smaller in size. This shrine is also part of the great building scheme devised by the statesman Pericles, seeking to glorify Athens. Just like the Parthenon, the Temple of Hephaestus presented rich sculptural decoration, which depicted various episodes from Greek mythology, including the labours of Hercules and the birth of Athena. The temple is also known as the ‘Theseion’, as the great Athenian hero Theseus was mistakenly thought to have been buried here. He and his deeds, however, are another main decorative theme of the building and the hero is represented in several sculptures.
Originally, the two bronze cult statues of Athena and Hephaestus, work of the sculptor Alcamenes, were placed inside the temple. The building was surrounded by a wall extended to the north and east. Archaeological excavations have also found the remains of flowerpots, indicating that an elaborate garden was maintained around the temple.
The top of the hill was at all times kept free from other building: from the Hephaesteion, people could have an excellent view of the Agora square, where various agonistic contests, religious festivals and processions were held. The Athenians could gather here to admire the procession of the Greater Panathenaea, the most important one taking place in Athens, which passed through the Agora and culminated on the Acropolis. The Chalceia, a festival honouring Athena and Hephaestus as deities of crafts, probably had its centre in this sanctuary and was mainly celebrated by the craftsmen working in the area.
As with many other ancient sites in Athens, the temple was later converted into a Christian church, dedicated to Agios Georgios (or Saint George), probably during the 5th century AD. This adaptation, which established the superiority of the new religion over paganism, is the reason why the building survives to this day in such fine condition, being one of the best-preserved ancient temples in Greece.
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