It was back in the early 1970's when I saw my very first Greek temple and that happened in
. Until then I had only seen spare pictures, mostly black and white and some rare color illustrations on luxury calendars as were fashionable back then. Today this is hard to believe we once lived without digital photography or even color TV. As I traveled to southern Paestum, Italy Italy in mid-winter I was about the only tourist there and I could take all my time to mentally reconstruct this magnificent city, once part of Magna Graecia.
Walking in and around
, I couldn't escape the main landmarks, i.e. the three temples that were absolutely mind-blowing! The oldest temple (c. 550 BC), the so-called Basilica, was labeled as an odd one since it counted nine columns on its small side (width), a rare exception since their numbers are supposed to always be even. Next, there was the splendid Temple of Poseidon (c. 450 BC) with on the inside two rows of columns one on top of the other – I couldn’t believe something like this existed at all. The Paestum (c. 500 BC) was more austere and did little to trigger my imagination, but overall I couldn't get enough of the sun and shadows playing with the columns and their projection against the blue skies although I perfectly realized that I was marveling at something the ancient Greeks would probably have torn down. In their eyes it would have been nothing more than an empty skeleton as the sacred naos of the temple was gone and none of its decorations had survived. Yet, my curiosity was awakened and the foundation for my enthusiasm for Greek architecture, especially temples, was established once and for all. Temple of Ceres
Only a couple of years later, I was lucky enough to make it to Greece and I rushed straight to Athens, which for me was the very core of everything that was Greek, the city crowned by its unique Acropolis that reigned over the Greek world for eons.
This was a trip which I had thoroughly prepared, writing to the various tourist offices, museums and other institutions to obtain their catalogues and informative guide-books as we did in times before the internet. I had studied the pictures and maps, and I knew exactly at what time of the day this or that monument would stand out to give the best perspectives and evidently the best photos. I remember how nervously excited I was, striding upwards through the Propylaea and setting eyes for the very first time on the huge complex with the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Niké and others. My legs were shaking and I felt dizzy, not knowing where to start or how to properly take in this amazing site. It was like a meeting with the gods. The place was crowded of course, but that was nothing compared to today's hordes led by yelling guides in scores of languages. On one occasion I was there in the very early morning with only a dozen of other early birds, a rare opportunity to let myself slide back in time.
The crown-jewel of the Acropolis is evidently the Parthenon (c. 440 BC), which we oddly enough meet from the wrong side, yet in all its majesty. What amazed me most and still amazes me is the sheer perfection of this temple – a perfection that has never been surpassed in later Greek sanctuaries. In my mind, it is clear for instance that there are no Roman temples, they are all Greek but built by the Romans since every copy, Roman or other, can only compete in beauty when this same Greek perfection is being met.
Strangely enough, the true secret of this perfection lies in the fact that the eye is being tricked for there is not a single straight line in the entire construction! Well, maybe this is an over-statement on my part but still not too far from the truth. To start with, the very crepidoma (base) of the temple is not entirely flat but slightly bulging in its centre; the architrave (the part running just above the capitals of the columns) is bulging also. The walls of the cella (the actual heart of the temple) and the outside columns are leaning a fraction inwards. These same columns slowly taper off towards the top in a slight inward curve and the fluting is deeper at the bottom than higher up. Most mysterious of all is the inter-relationship between its height, width and depth. I am not familiar with architecture but there seem to be lots of arithmetic and geometric correlation in the calculation of the proportions. The love of the Greeks for these proportions will certainly have contributed to creating such perfect measurements. In any case, it took us more than two thousand years to figure this out. It is hard to believe that in those heydays of antiquity architects knew how to make these complicated calculations or had the tools to do so! But once you give them the credit they deserve, you'll look at a temple with greater respect and higher consideration – I can assure you!
But returning to my visit of some forty years ago, there was another surprise awaiting me: I could walk freely inside the Parthenon and the other monuments of the Acropolis – a unique opportunity to let my mind and imagination run back to the days of Pericles, Demosthenes and evidently Alexander the Great. I could take all the time I wanted to uncover every corner, every single frieze and every sculpture still left in situ. It felt as if I were sharing the Parthenon's intimate secrets as I looked up to this fabulous masterpiece, just like the people of Athens had done over the centuries and with them all of Greece and the rest of the known world.
The absolute climax was my calculated visit by full moon, a feast that is no longer available to today's pilgrim. For three consecutive nights you could stroll over the entire Acropolis! All the floodlights were extinguished and after buying my entrance ticket at the poorly lit booth, I was plunged in this surreal moon-lit stone island. I thought I was seeing the Acropolis just like the ancient Greeks did by full moon, but at the same time, I was aware that the temples and other sanctuaries must have looked quite different in their full glory. The reflection of the moonlight on the pure marble was absolutely breathtaking, more from an alien planet than from the real world. The handful of people who shared this timeless moment with me moved like shadows and spoke in low whispering voices. I walked over to the southern edge of the plateau, right above the Plaka with its many restaurants and bars. The sounds must have been familiar to the ancient Greeks, with the people talking, laughing and singing to the music streaming out of the local taverns. It came and went in waves, carried by gentle summery winds into the darkness of the night. It was pure magic … My steps then led me past the very entrance of the Parthenon to the northern edge of the Acropolis from where I had a plunging view into the Theater of Herod Atticus and that of Dionysus. No memories here of the common people chatting and chanting but instead a performance even older than this sacred area, that of a Greek play in a perfect setting and performed as only the full blooded Greeks can. What a thrilling and timeless experience this was!