Magazine article History Today

Aphrodite's Temple at Knidos

Magazine article History Today

Aphrodite's Temple at Knidos

Article excerpt

Knidos is a mariner's city, situated at the end of a long spindly Turkish peninsula jutting out towards the Dodecanese islands of Cos, Nicyros and Telos. It is renowned for its wine, vinegar and above all for Praxiteles' statue of Aphrodite. The statue has long since disappeared, but the elegantly proportioned podium of the round temple in which it stood was discovered twenty-five years ago. The temple was built in the fourth century BC to Aphrodite Euploia, the Aphrodite of fair voyages. It was a merchants, temple. the cathedral of a city whose rationale was commerce.

The temple dates from the foundation of Knidos in about 360 BC, when its citizens moved their city from an inlet surrounded by fertile lands at Datca, fifty miles to the east, to this barren, waterless, but dramatic headland known as Cape Crio. The Knidians, then under Persian hegemony, understood the promise of this unlikely site. When the meltem, the strong northwest wind, blows, ships sailing from the south are unable to round the cape. Obliged to shelter for days at a time in the great commercial harbour constructed by the Knidians, wayfarers were compelled to contribute substantially to the port's revenues.

Aphrodite's temple was the symbol of this new venture. It was circular with eighteen Doric columns which supported a cupola. The altar, on which sacrifices were made to the goddess, faced the temple's main entrance, located on the east side. Here stood the remarkable statue made by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles (active c. 370-300 BC). It is known that in about 360 he had made two versions of the goddess. The clothed version was purchased by the Coans, while the other, portraying the goddess in naturalibus, was chosen by the Knidians as the principal ornament of their new city. Why the great sculptor made these two works remains unknown, but it was the Knidian Aphrodite, which over the subsequent millennium was the subject of profound appreciation as well as prurient voyeurism.

Pliny the Elder tells us that this marine Venus stood `in a shrine which allowed the image of the goddess to be viewed from every side'. A fuller description exists in a dialogue known as the Erotes (love Affairs), ascribed to the second-century AD satirist and philosopher, Lucian of Samosata. The account is almost certainly the work of a later imitator of Lucian, but conveys why the Aphrodite, of Knidos became the standard against which all subsequent representations of feminine beauty were measured:

In approaching the sacred enclosure we were fanned by the most delicious breezes; for within, no polished pavement spreads its barren surface, but the area as suited to a sanctuary of venus, abounds with productive trees ... canopying the air around ... In the centre (of the temple) stands the goddess, formed of Parian marble - a half-suppressed smile is on her mouth. No drapery conceals her beauty, nor is any part hidden except that which is covered unconsciously as it were by the left hand. Charicles [Lucian's companion] cried aloud ... and springing forward ... he repeatedly kissed the statue.

The American archaeologist, Iris Cornelia Love, uncovered a round temple, precisely where it should have been at the westernmost end of the site, on the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The temple occupies the freshest spot in summer, where, looking out to Cos, it would have been conspicuous to sailors passing from Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) to Rhodes. Love used dynamite to blast away the great fall of scree above the platform.

Armies of Turkish peasants wearing goggles to protect their eyes from the dust billowing in the prevailing summer breeze excavated the remains. on the intermediate terrace below the sanctuary four parallel rows of theatre-like seats with at least two stepped aisles were uncovered. A section of a frieze of dancing girls suggests an Ionic building, perhaps an associated shrine. Directly behind the round temple other buildings were found, one of which was probably the treasury. …

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