History & Architecture of the Erechtheion Temple

The Erechtheion, an architectural marvel atop the Acropolis in Athens, stands as a testament to the ancient Greek world’s artistic and architectural prowess. To better appreciate the influential design and architectural style, take the time to delve into the fascinating history of the Acropolis as well before touring the iconic temple.

Construction of the Erechtheion

While there is evidence of settlements on the Acropolis hill dating back to the Bronze Age, little is known about the buildings from that era. The Erechtheion is believed to have been constructed to replace an older temple dedicated to Athena Polias, which was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. Construction of the Erechtheion commenced in 421 BC and culminated 15 years later, in 406 BC. However, the journey to completion was not without its challenges. Between 413 and 409 or 408 BC, the Athenian forces suffered a devastating defeat in Sicily, prompting a temporary halt in the temple's construction.

The visionary architect Mnesicles, an Athenian native, is credited with designing the Erechtheion. His impressive portfolio also includes the Propylaea, ceremonial gateway to the Acropolis, according to ancient historian Plutarch. Assisting him in the temple’s design and decoration was the eminent sculptor Phidias, who had also been tasked by Athenian statesman Pericles to adorn the Parthenon with his creations. Learn more about the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon here.

As with other buildings on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion is built of Pentelic marble with black limestone friezes from Elefsina, which include relief sculptures of white marble. The decorated columns were painted and embellished with gilded bronze and inlaid multicolored beads.

The Unique Architectural Style of the Erechtheion

The Erechtheion's architectural style is a distinct departure from the symmetrical and predominantly Doric style of the Parthenon. Instead, this temple boasts an intricate Ionic design, which originated in the Greek cities of Asia Minor to the east. Conversely, the Doric style flourished in the western Greek world and the Peloponnese. As the Athenians considered themselves at the crossroads of these two worlds, the Acropolis bears the unmistakable influence of both styles.

The unique layout of the Erechtheion is attributable to several factors, including the significant difference in elevation between its eastern and western parts. Moreover, the temple served a multitude of religious purposes throughout its long history, which is reflected in its architectural design. Initially, the ancient Greeks revered the Erechtheion as a sacred place of worship. However, with the passage of time, the temple underwent several transformations, first as a Christian church, then as a palace during the Frankish period and finally, under Ottoman rule, it served as the residence and harem of the Turkish Governor.

A Temple of Myths and Legends

The Erechtheum is inextricably linked to the mythological origins of Athens. Among the most sacred items held in the eastern part of the temple was the cult statue of Athena, which according to some sources had fallen from the sky. This statue was at the forefront of the Panathenaea festival and a special veil was woven for it every year. Indirect evidence suggests that the statue was made of olive wood with a crown and earrings on the head, a necklace around the neck, a golden aegis and a golden gorgon head on the chest. It was also likely the statue included a golden owl and a bowl in one of the hands. In front of the statue burned a golden lamp designed by Callimachus.

The northern porch of the Erechtheion stands out for its striking decoration with Ionic ramparts and bands of ornate reliefs. There is a section in the floor where marble slabs are missing and some carvings can be seen in the rock. These were thought to have been caused by Poseidon’s trident, during his quarrel with Athena for the city’s patronage. According to another view, they were caused by Zeus and the thunderbolt that killed Erechtheus, whose tomb is located in this section of the temple.

The Pandroseion, which was dedicated to one of the daughters of Cecrops, is located on the western part of the Erechtheion. This is where Athena is said to have planted the olive tree that she gifted to the ancient Athenians. While the olive tree was burned by the Persians when they sacked Athens, it miraculously grew back on the next day.

What were the Caryatids?

The most iconic feature of the Erechtheion, the Porch of the Caryatids, can be found on the southern section of the temple. The sculpted female figures which act as supporting pillars are thought to represent maidens from the Laconic city of Karyes, hence their name. It is believed that the Porch of the Caryatids was made to memorialize the tomb of Cecrops (or Kekrops) – the mythological half-serpent king of Attica. An opening on the western side of the porch allowed access to the tomb.

Measuring about 1.77 meters in height, the Caryatids faced the main street beneath the Acropolis hill, where the procession of the Panathenaea used to pass. The vertical folds of their clothing are reminiscent of the ridges of Doric columns, while the baskets on their heads and their intricate hairstyle were designed to bear the weight of the temple’s architrave.

The Caryatids currently at the Erechtheion are replicas of the originals that once adorned the temple. One of the statues, along with more than half of the decorative sculptures from the Parthenon that had survived, was removed by Lord Elgin between 1799 and 1802, prior to the Greek War of Independence of 1821. This collection is currently on display at the British Museum.

The remaining five were removed from the temple in 1978 for protection, preservation and restoration purposes and are currently on display at the Acropolis Museum. The Greek government has formally demanded the repatriation of the Acropolis sculptures, with the UK government and British Museum refusing. The unresolved dispute is a source of major controversy in Greece.

The Erechtheion’s rich history, innovative design and intricate craftsmanship continue to inspire wonder and admiration across the world. As a unique embodiment of the cultural, religious and historical influences that shaped Athens, the Erechtheion invites its visitors to uncover the mysteries of the past and appreciate the extraordinary achievements of human creativity and ingenuity.