July 9, 2013

The Athenian Stylite of the Temple of Olympian Zeus

In the early 1800's an Athenian Stylite did his "aerial penance", to quote Gibbon's happy phrase, atop the pillars of the ancient Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. The Stylite settled on one of the architraves (the lintel or beam resting on the capitals of the columns) of the ruined Temple and built a small hut to protect himself from the elements. This dwelling can be seen in early paintings and drawings.

Following the freedom of the Greek people of Athens from Turkish occupation in the 19th century, innumerable measures were taken to associate the Greeks of the 19th century with the Hellenes of the ancient past. Among these measures was to clear away the hermitage of the Stylite from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, since it was not ancient and part of the original structure.

An article in National Geographic Magazine (vol. 42, Dec. 1922) titled "The Glory That Was Greece" written by the American Consul General at Athens, Alexander Wilbourne Weddel, speaks of a long line of ascetic Stylites who resided atop the Temple, the last of whom died around 1860. The author writes: "During my stay at Athens I was assured by an old Athenian that he remembered as a child visiting the precincts of the Temple and carrying gifts of bread and fruit to the Stylite who then dwelt on the column and who would let down a basket to receive the offerings of visitors."

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was also the place where St. Michael Paknanas was beheaded by the Turks on July 9, 1771 for refusing to embrace Islam (an inscription marks the spot), and within the structure at one time there was also a small church dedicated to Saint John.

Greek Klefts dancing beneath the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which shows the dwelling of the Stylite above its columns.

This painting by Johann Michael Wittmer from 1833 shows the dwelling of the Stylite on the Temple of Zeus and the Ilissos River in the foreground.