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The Temple of Zeus

Layers of History

The extraordinary temple that we see on site today dates to the fourth century B.C. (around 330 B.C.). It was constructed as part of an extensive building program throughout the sanctuary at that time. Interestingly, though, this temple sits on top of an earlier version from the 6th century, B.C. – although not much of that early temple is visible today because it was destroyed by fire and then built over later on.

Even though there’s not much of the Early Temple (6th century, B.C.) left, excavations were able to reveal a few things about it:

  • It was placed on the same alignment as the later, 4th century temple, just a little bit further south
  • Its overall dimensions were about 10 x 36m
  • It probably did not have a surrounding colonnade, but was distyle in-antis
  • It seems to have had a hipped roof at its western end and a painted pediment on its eastern end

The builders of the Second Temple, from the 4th century, B.C., dismantled and reused some of the architectural elements belonging to its predecessor. We know a bit more about this later temple because much of it is still standing or was recoverable by excavation:

 
 
 
 
  • The temple was very large, about 9,240 sq. ft., in fact!
  • It made use of the three main architectural orders found in ancient Greece:
    • Doric peristyle (6 x 12) around the outside of the temple
      • 32 limestone columns total
      • Each stood about 42 feet tall
      • Each one was composed of 13 “drums”
      • Each drum weighed about 2.5 tons!
    • Corinthian columns in the interior colonnade
    • Ionic columns in the second-story of the interior colonnade
  • It had a front porch with two columns (pronaos in-antis framed by antae)
  • Instead of a back porch (opisthodomos), it had an adyton (room “not to be entered”) with an unusual crypt in it
  • There seems to have been no sculptural program on the exterior of the temple
  • The stone used in construction is limestone quarried from the low ridge running between Nemea and Kleonai
  • Exposed surfaces in the final structure were coated with a fine white marble-dust stucco, which served both to protect and decorate the stone
  • The roof was constructed of wooden rafters over which terracotta roof tiles were layered It had a ramped entrance
Of the 32 original columns, only three columns remained standing when U.C. Berkeley acquired scientific rights to the site. The other columns had given way to time – especially to the many earthquakes that have shaken the region over the last two millennia – and to human intervention – people have been looting and removing architectural elements from the temple for centuries, unfortunately. Because of the looting and the devastation of the intervening centuries, the former director of the Nemea Center and excavations, Professor Stephen Miller, conceived a plan to reconstruct the Temple of Zeus as part of his ongoing efforts to preserve the site of Ancient Nemea. To date a total of six columns have been reconstructed (read more about the reconstruction project below). When you go to the site today, you can enjoy nine full columns – the three standing since antiquity + the six that have been reconstructed recently. In the ground plan pictured above, the three original columns are marked in blue and the newly erected ones in red. The Temple of Zeus played a significant role in the Nemean Games, one of the original panhellenic games of ancient Greece. It was before this temple that, prior to the competition, athletes paid homage to the father of their gods, Zeus. Read more about the Nemean Games (past and present) here.  

More about the temple’s reconstruction

Now completed, the partially reconstructed Temple of Zeus provides the visitor with a clearer sense of the magnitude and magnificence of the original Greek temple, and, most importantly, the site is better preserved for generations to come. The completion of this project included many specialists, sponsors, and friends!     Beginning work on the Temple’s reconstruction was aided by the previous work of Professor Frederick Cooper, Professor of Architecture, University of Minnesota, under whose leadership 1,100 stone blocks located on and around the Temple’s ground were catalogued. It would be in part these catalogued blocks that would be used to re-erect the columns. In 2002 with the Greek government’s permission, Professor Miller began the reconstruction of two columns on the north side, near to where the three original columns still stand. Just prior to his retirement in 2004, and after successfully reconstructing the two columns, Professor Miller formally established the Temple of Zeus Reconstruction Project, with the Earthquake Engineering Research Center (EERC) and the Nemea Center providing oversight and guidance for the project. Although the Nemea Center was primarily responsible for the conduct and work on the project, the responsibility for overseeing day-to-day reconstruction was held by architect and on-site supervisor Ms. Katerina Sklere, along with civil engineer and restoration consultant, Dr. Konstantinos Papantonopoulos. 

From 2004 to 2009, Professor Nikos Makris directed the Project and by the end of 2009, four additional columns were successfully re-erected in the Northeast corner of the Temple. Significant work was completed on the foundations and krepidoma on the east end and in the pronaos, as well as the completion of the placement of all the drums, and the final carving of the exterior surfaces of three columns on the east side. All the columns have been re-erected by using as many of the available original stones, previously catalogued by Professor Cooper, and by the extraction of limestone from a nearby rock quarry, from which the additional blocks are made. Over the following year, infrastructure and reconstruction work not only improved the condition and maintenance of the site but helped to prepare and transport new building material to be placed in their final positions. In 2010, the scaffolding was removed from the previously re-erected columns, offering a more appreciable understanding of the architecture of the Temple to the general visitor.The reconstruction project was a costly venture with each column roughly costing a quarter–million euros. Although Professors Miller and Makris raised much of the funds, including donations from Mr. T. Papalexopoulos, the Opheltes Foundation, and the Club Hotel Casino Loutraki, additional private donations were needed to complete the reconstruction of the Temple, including funds for the positioning of the epistyles that provided the needed stability and endurance to the newly re-erected columns.