One of the most delightful Doric temples of Greece, the temple of Aphaia is located atop the pine-clad Mesagro hill on the northeast end of the island, and it is encircled by excellent views of the Saronic Gulf and the surrounding area.
Excavations on the site denote the use of the hill as a place of worship since the Bronze Age while the first architectural elements were erected on site in the 7th century BCE.
During the initial excavations it was believed that the temple was dedicated to Zeus or to Athena. In 1901, after more extensive research Furtwangler revealed that the temple was dedicated to Aphaia a local Agenetan goddess that was similar to the Minoan deity Britomartis that was later passed to the Mycenaeans.
According to Pausanias, “In Aigina as you approach the mountain of the mountain of the Panhellenic Zeus, there is a SANCTUARY OF APHAIA to whom Pindar composed a song for the Aiginetans. Her story is a local matter in Crete, where they say Euboulos was the son of Karmanor, who purified Apollo from the murder of Python, and his daughter Karme bore a child to Zeus whose name was Britomartis. Her pleasure was running and hunting and she was a
particular friend of Artemis. Running away from Minos, who fell in love with her, she flung herself into a net let down for fishing. Artemis made her into a goddess and not only the Cretans worship her, but also the Aiginetans, who say Britomartis appears to them on their island. Her title in Aigina is Aphaia and in Crete Diktynna.”
(Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1: Central Greece, Translated by Peter Levi, Penguin Classics, London, 1979)
Goddess Aphaia was assimilated into worship of “Athena Aphaia” in later years and the later goddess is featured prominently in the sculptures of the pediments.
The focal point of the sanctuary is the temple of Aphaia and the altar opposite its east façade that is connected to the temple with an inclining ramp.
A terrace masonry wall encloses the sanctuary and provides the level ground upon which the temple was built. Visitors gain entrance by the way of a modest propylaeum. Just beyond the entrance a tall column was crowned by a sphinx, which is now housed at the Aegina museum. to the right of the entrance and outside the wall of the sanctuary stood a large building, which is believed to be the residence of the priests and served administrative functions.
The earliest worship structure on the site was a sacellum (a small roofless shrine), and an early prostyle temple with four columns in front of the naos. This temple was built around 575-570 on the ruins of the sacellum. This temple was destroyed by fire around 510 BCE. The entrance gate, the boundary wall, the priests’ house, the altar, and the Sphinx column are all dated to this early period of construction.
The late Archaic temple we see today was erected on the ruins of this older temple at the end of the 6th century BCE, or early in the 5th century. Excavations of the temple of Aphaia began in 1811, and were continued by German archaeologists in 1901.
The temple of Aphaia is Doric peripteral with six columns at the ends and twelve columns at the flanks, a 1:2 proportional relationship that was unusual for a temple of its era. Earlier archaic temples were usually built with a 1:3 proportional relationship.
The temple of Aphaia introduced architectural refinements in its proportions and inclination of the columns that influenced the architectural style of later Classical temples like the Parthenon of Athens.
The temple had a total of 32 columns, 29 of which were monolithic and three were built of drums. It was constructed entirely of local limestone and it was covered with marble stucco that was itself painted with pigments. Compared with other temples of the era, the temple of Aphaia is much more refined with slender columns spaced further apart, rising with subtler entasis, to conclude at a smaller capitals that support a lighter entablature.
The temple of Aphaia presented another innovation in its interior. Instead of a single colonnade that spans the distance from floor to ceiling, the architects incorporated a two-storeyed colonnade to support the flat roof. The bottom columns are thinner than the exterior columns, and taper as they rise half way to the ceiling to support a slender entablature. Directly above each column, another one was placed to span the space between the entablature and the ceiling. The interior columns, consistent with the peristlyle, are of the Doric order and taper continuously from the floor all the way to the ceiling.
The double naos was divided into three isles by the double-decked colonnade length wise, and it had both a distyle pronaos and opisthodromos in antis (small rooms at the front and the back with two supporting columns each), and it housed the cult statue of Athena that was made of ivory.
The temple was lavishly decorated with vivid colors and some of the finest sculptures of the Late Archaic and Early Classical period. The sculptural composition of the pediments were unique because they presented a unified theme and consistent size of all sculptures. While Athena is the largest figure in both pediments as she stands tall in the center of the triangle, the rest of the figures are all the same size as they appear in different postures that allows them to conform to the diminishing space of the triangular pediments.
The complex of sculptures of Parian marble depict scenes from the Trojan war and were put in place when the temple was completed around 490 BCE. The sculptures of the East pediment were replaced a decade or two later, probably because they were damaged. Consequently, the early statues belong to the Late Archaic period, while the newer sculptures exhibit all the characteristics of the Classical era.
The sculptures of the pediments were stolen in 1811 by the English Cockerell and the German von Hallerstein, while Greece was still under Turkish occupation. Two years later, in 1813, Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased the sculptures, had them restored to contemporary taste and exhibited them in arbitrary arrangement in the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany. In 1962 all restoration work was removed from the sculptures and they were placed in a more accurate arrangement. The sculptures are still on display at the Glyptothek Museum.
Besides the imposing temple, the sanctuary of Aphaia enclosed an altar opposite the east façade of the temple. The foundation of the late altar is visible today, and form its base, an inclining ramp, 2.90m wide, leads directly to the temple. The foundations of several iterations of the altar were unearthed on the area.
The rainwater was collected from the roof of the temple and was channeled to a cistern that was cut on the rock at the northeast corner of the sanctuary. Other votive offerings were placed around the temple, shelters that housed statues, and the base of the Sphinx column can be seen around the front of the temple. The priest’s residence and administrative buildings were built outside the sanctuary, to the east of the propylaeum.
Overall, the temple of Aphaia is an excellent archaeological site to visit in Greece. The small size of the temple is in perfect proportion to the beautiful setting among pine trees, and with the spectacular views of the Saronic Gulf.
The best time to visit the temple of Aphaia is early in the morning. Busloads of tourists arrive for short visits after 10:00 am, so if you visit earlier than that you will avoid the crowds and the heat. While the shade of the pine trees around can provide much needed relief from the intense summer heat, the sanctuary itself offers little in terms of shade.
The entrance fee is 4.00 Euro and you obtain a ticket at the entrance. There is a small café across from the entrance to the sanctuary and a small parking lot. You can take the bus from Aegina town to the temple, or you may rent a car or moped in town and then drive to the temple. The road from the town to the temple is not very difficult to drive on with the exception of the last stretch. You can find more information on getting from Aegina town to other parts of the island in the Aegina island page.
Agia Marina is a busy resort at the bottom of the hill, and many choose to stay in one of the hotels there and to hike an ancient path up the hill to visit the temple. Agia Marina town frames the best beach of the island.
The site itself provides some documentation in the form of architectural plans and diagrams right next to the ruins, and a nice map of the saronic gulf view.