The Temple of Hephaestus, Athens: eastern face.
The Temple of Hephaestus in central Athens, Greece, is the best-preserved ancient Greek temple in the world, but is far less well-known than its illustrious neighbour, the Parthenon. The temple is also known as the Hephaesteum and the Theseum (Greek: Θησείο, thisio), due to a belief current in Byzantine times that the bones of the legendary Greek hero Theseus were buried there: in fact the bones alleged to be those of Theseus were buried in the 5th century BC at another site nearer to the Acropolis.
The temple is located about 500m north-west of the Acropolis and about 1km due west of the modern centre of Athens, Syntagma Square. It was built in about 449 BC on what was then the western edge of the city of Athens, in a district which contained many foundries and metalwork shops. It was therefore dedicated to Hephaestos, the god of blacksmiths and metallurgy. It was designed by Ictinus, one of the architects who worked on the Parthenon. It stands on a slight rise and in ancient times commanded a fine view of the Agora.
Built of marble from Mount Pentelus, in the Doric style, the temple is hexastyle, that is with six columns under the pedimented ends, and has thirteen columns on each side (counting the corner columns twice). The temple is peripteral, with columns entirely surrounding the central enclosed cella. In the entablature there is the plain frieze that is expected with the sober Doric mode, but above it in the spaces between the triglyphs— which are like decoratively grooved beam-ends pegged into place— the labours of Heracles are depicted in bas-relief.
The Temple of Hephaestus, Athens: western face.
Unlike the Parthenon, the temple has all its columns and pediments intact, and even has most of its original roof. Its friezes and other decorations, however, have inevitably been badly damaged by thieves and looters over the centuries. It owes its survival to its conversion to a Christian Church, the Church of St George, in the 7th century AD. The survival of the exterior came at the cost of the ancient interior, which was removed and replaced by the structures of a Christian church.
During the centuries of Ottoman rule in Greece, the temple was the main Greek Orthodox church in Athens. When the first king of independent Greece, King Othon, entered the city in 1834, the service welcoming him to his new capital was held in the church.
Today the temple has been preserved as an archaeological site under the supervision of the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Greek Interior Ministry. The temple itself has a small fence, but the visitor can get much closer than is possible at the Parthenon or most other antiquities in Greece. The temple is now surrounded by an ornamental garden. The site gets much less tourist traffic than the Acropolis and is a pleasant green spot in the heart of Athens.