Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Temple of Apollo the Helper

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Temple of Apollo the Helper

Article excerpt

On a grandiose and lonely site in the Peloponnese, the majestic ruins of an ancient Greek temple registered on the World Heritage List in 1986

I first set eyes on the temple of Apollo Epicurius (the Helper), at Bassae in Arcadia, in the late 1970s. At that time it was not covered by the tarpaulin which shrouds it during restoration work today.

Its columns came into view at a bend in the road that climbs from Andritsena to Bassae. A set of slender shadows in a lonely place, silhouettes designed to capture the essential relationship of the human body with space, they seemed predestined to occupy this lofty site which dominates the surrounding countryside.

But had not the temple of Segesta in Sicily inspired the same thoughts? Do I not feel the same whenever I see the ruins of Delphi appear beneath the Castalian rocks? Do I not always come to the same conclusion in summer when I sit on the tiered seats of the theatre at Epidaurus and contemplate the sunset while waiting for the performance to begin? Before they devoted themselves to the joys of arithmetic and geometry, the ancient Greeks had carefully observed the landscape around them.

But in choosing to build the temple of Apollo Epicurius on this isolated site, devoid of any trace of human presence, they faced a particular challenge. This is a far cry from Byzantine monasteries perched on the edge of steep cliffs or hidden away in remote places, seemingly at the mercy of a landscape ready to engulf them.

The temple's architect - whether it was Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon, as is widely thought, or someone else - did not feel that kind of humility. He had no need of a mediator to converse with his god, a god of light and observation.

A MOMENT OF HARMONY

On my way to the summit, among the builder's rubble - a jumble of rocks left by time and the elements - I discovered the surrounding countryside. In the distance I could see the massif of Taygetus, and beneath it the oval bulk of Mount Ithomus, then a stretch of the Ionian Sea, and the peaks of Arcadia beyond. Through some miracle of light, this immense landscape had become accessible.

This impression is familiar to those who know and love the rugged outlines of the Peloponnesian landscape. If you see it steadily and see it whole, then the horizon, without ever losing its depth, is never far away. But on the pitted floor of this ancient temple, through columns which seemed to have absorbed into their flesh the shadows of the setting sun, the phenomenon was at last explained. The temple seemed to have been designed to be the virtual centre of a world which had become circular and complete.

Built in grey Arcadian limestone and not in the white marble from Pentelicus which gives the Parthenon its transparency and brilliance, the temple of Apollo Epicurius sharpens your powers of observation and whets your curiosity.

Its architecture encourages one to look at the landscape in a new way. Seen from this temple built 1,100 metres above sea level, mountain peaks, sea, and patches of dark green stipple the harsh grey-green tones of the Arcadian landscape, so that a world which a moment earlier seemed indifferent, like a story without beginning or end, becomes an open book and can at last be properly observed.

The French philosopher Alain described ancient architecture as "the moment of harmony between the viewpoint of everyone and the unique world which is common to all and different for all."

AN OUTBREAK OF PLAGUE

But without their history, without the many histories that jostle behind their barrier of silence when we discover them in an undulating landscape, ancient ruins would doubtless be no more than beautiful objects. That is why I have always preferred archaeological sites to museums. In their native disorder, in the midst of their natural surroundings, old stones are redolent of human activity, reminding us that they are the traces of a bygone age which can be conjured up by looking at them with care. …

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