In a country like Greece, where you will find ancient ruins left and right, you have to take your pick. Not all ruined sites are created equal and you cannot visit them all. Some are more stunning, more fascinating than others. Those are the ones you need to seek out.
Greece has, of course, hundreds and thousands of ancient temple ruins. They are dedicated to a variety of gods.
Because that’s what the ancient Greeks liked to do. They built places of worship in strategic locations to beg the gods for good fortune and to ask for success in their ventures. And when you think about it, a maritime civilisation like the Greeks needed a lot of good fortune coming from the sea. The sea provided food, it supported trade, it was a battlefield during times of conflict.
Hence they built quite a few Poseidon Temples. They were meant to serve one of the mightiest of all gods in the Pantheon. We visited the Temple of Poseidon near Athens, a 2,400 year old ruin in one of the most stunning locations of the Mediterranean.
The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The Temple of Poseidon near Athens at Cape Sounion is probably one of the most beautiful temples you will see in all of Greece. It is located in an extraordinary position overlooking the Aegean Sea.
Today, this area is the playground of the rich and famous. In ancient times, the people believed that King Aegeus jumped off a cliff here after erroneously concluding that his son was dead. A tragic myth, one of missed chances. It is befitting for a stretch of coast that is as tragically beautiful as this.
The Poseidon Temple at Cape Sounion is just a two-hour bus ride from Athens. A perfect short trip from the Greek capital, in particular if you schedule it so that you can see the sunset from here. It is probably one of the most romantic things you can do in the wider Athens area.
Even Lord Byron admired the beauty of this place back when he visited Greece in the early 1800s. With a great dose of melancholy, he wrote about the ruins:
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep, Where nothing, save the waves and I, May hear our mutual murmurs sweep…’
I have a terrible literary crush on the man, one of my most favourite travel writers. Byron had the uncanny ability to seek out true gems on his trips.
People say that he visited Cape Sounion twice. A small inscription on one of the columns reads his name. However, we cannot confirm whether he left the mark himself or if someone else did it. To avoid further damage to the site, fences now surround the temple, which makes it hard to find the inscription unless you know exactly where to look.
A spectacular Mediterranean sunset
We booked a tour specifically to see the sunset. The temple is of course stunning at any time of the day, but we wanted to see the warm glow of the setting sun on the white marble. A photographer’s dream come true.
We pulled up at the site just in time. The temple was sitting on top of the cape like a gift to the gods, the tall columns straight and erect in a harmonious composition. Built on a raised plateau, it humbled us into making us feel insignificant and small. Despite its incompleteness, it looked just perfect. Only some parts were missing, leaving enough room for interpretation without posing too many questions.
Just like the other visitors we circled the temple many times. Now, with the sun slowly setting on the horizon, the light took on some magical qualities. The white stone seemed to glow in hues of orange, pink and golden yellow. With every step, every new perspective, this effect changed. There was a certain magic to this play of colours that was difficult to comprehend.
With every passing minute, the drama that was painted on the stone changed. The colours adjusted. The shadows grew. New details would emerge, others would descend into oblivion. After a few moments, the colours had vanished, leaving behind a shadow play of human civilisation, a reminder of the great past of the ancient Greeks, a fleeting memory of our human mortality.
A walk around the historic site
Strategically, the Sounion peninsula was an important line of defence for the ancient Greeks. It was in a prime position to control the activities at sea close to Athens and the port of Piraeus, as well as the nearby silver mines at the Lavrion peninsula. So while we are enjoying the great views these days, the ancient Greeks appreciated in particular the control that they had over the coast.
If you walk around the site you will see quite a few remains of the fortifications that protected the cape and the surrounding countryside. There is the straight outline of a road that connected dwellings, as well as foundations of towers and a wall that made up a fortress. You can easily explore these ruins and add some historic sightseeing to your experience before heading back to Athens.
For a last photo we crossed the patio of the small café that serves the site to climb up the hill next to the cape. A beautiful spot to take one last photo of the temple as it was bathed in the pink shades of the setting sun. An unforgettable experience, well worth the trip.
Looking for more things to see and do in Greece? Check out these Greece travel posts here!