JEFF RUSTEN: The Parthenon dominates the Acropolis from a distance, but the other parts of its plan were equally important, equally elaborate, and equally expensive as we know from the inscriptions. We have time to look at only one more now, and it's one I could not be more different in every way from the Parthenon. Where the Parthenon is grand, this is delicate and modest. The Parthenon is a Doric temple, but this is an Ionic one with lush exterior carved ornament.
The Parthenon is a massive unity, but this one is a jumble of different rooms and purposes. But this small building, which is easy to overlook today and whose name we don't even know properly, was in fact the most sacred place in Athens. We have to call it the Erectheum because that's the name some ancient writers assigned to the shrine of the Athenian founding hero Erechtheus. But that name does not do it justice, since the building commemorates primarily Athena.
Unlike the Parthenon on a site where no major temple had ever before stood, this space had to commemorate much religious history. It was the spot where legend told of a contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of the city of Athens. Athena's contribution had been the olive tree, and she won the contest. But Poseidon had made a saltwater spring, and both the tree and the spring we're supposedly still to be found at this site in the fifth century. And the sanctuary of Athena had always been your here as well.
This temple, which has been beautifully restored out of the confusing and random remains left, is built on several levels. On the east, there are slender ionic columns opening into a room dedicated to Athena in a much more sacred aspect than the Parthenon. Here was kept the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena, which for generations had been worshipped as the city's single most sacred object. Every year the citizens actually bathed the statue in the sea and redressed it with elaborate ceremony.
Projecting from this main building our two porches. The porch on the north has a magnificently decorated tall door and a high coffered ceiling in which one section has been deliberately left open to the sky. Under this opening is a corresponding hole in the floor below that leads to a rock fissure which must've been a holy place, perhaps because it was believed caused by a lightning bolt.
The south porch of this building seems to have no door at all, but it's the one you immediately notice. Here, the roof is supported not by columns but by statues. Although they're nearly eight feet high and capable of supporting the marble roof, they look like six graceful young women.
The statues are not identical. Each has slightly different dress, hair, and posture. They came to be called Caryatids after the story that they were modeled on girls of the town of Karyai. But like the frieze on the Parthenon, they depict an Athenian ritual.
Every year young women of Athens' oldest families would carry sacred objects in various processions, and these girls seem to be marching out of the sanctuary uphill toward us in just such a procession.
I should add to the statues here or copies. The originals are nearby in the Acropolis Museum-- all but the one that Lord Elgin took to London. In the basement and other areas of the so-called Erectheum now long disappeared were shrines of heroes obscure to us but venerable to the Athenians with names like Cecrops, Butes, and Erechtheus himself, as well as sacred objects of Athenian mythical past. In contrast to the Parthenon, this little temple was a place of the most pious traditional worship.
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2500 years ago, the city of Athens experienced a century of brilliant philosophy, drama, politics, and art that still resonates today. Athens was the first democracy, a great military and economic power, and left behind a richly documented history and culture. Professor Jeffrey Rusten leads a tour through the ancient city as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians.
This video is part 4 of 6 in the Ancient Athens series.