I've traveled to Greece for more than 20 years. No matter where my primary destination is, whether I am planning to drive through the Peloponnese or cruise among the islands of the Aegean, I never bypass Athens.
No matter that Athens is crowded, noisy, full of frenetic cars, hot in the summer. It is the mother city of Greece. I never miss the opportunity to climb the Acropolis and revel in the beauty of the Parthenon. I never miss the chance to watch the changing of the guard in front of Parliament in Syntagma Square. And I never miss Sounion.
Traveling to Sounion has taken on the nature of a pilgrimage for me. A trip to Greece would be incomplete without it. First of all, an excursion to Sounion makes a welcome break from the often frenzied pace of Athens. Located only 40 miles from Athens, Sounion is at the southernmost tip of Attica overlooking the Aegean on one side and the Saronic Gulf on the other. It is peaceful and beautiful.
Secondly, the magnificent ruins of the Temple of Poseidon, god of the sea, are located here. Finally, this in my opinion is one of the best places in Greece for sunset, an opinion apparently shared by hundreds of others to judge by the numbers gathered here for the sunset ritual on summer evenings.
Sounion's history stretches a long way. Prehistoric tombs from the 3rd millennium B.C. have been found nearby. Homer, writing in the 9th century B.C., mentions Sounion, "the sacred cape of Sounion, where Attica juts out into the sea," in his Odyssey. In the 7th century B.C., temples to the gods Poseidon and Athena were constructed close to each other on this promontory above the sea.
Well before the construction of the present Temple of Poseidon in the 5th century B.C., this was a special place by virtue of its location. It was appropriate that the god of the sea should be honored here at the point where two bodies of water merge, often turbulently. Sailors of old must have looked up to the Temple of Poseidon atop its cliff praying for safe passage around the cape.
After the defeat of the Persians first at Marathon in 490 B.C. and then at Salamis in 480 B.C., Athens entered its golden age under Pericles (461-429 B.C.). The Parthenon was built during Pericles' reign. It was also when the Temple of Poseidon was built at Sounion. Shortly thereafter, the fort surrounding Poseidon's temple was expanded and strengthened during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.
Most visitors today head straight for the Temple of Poseidon barely noticing the ruins of the structures that once enclosed the temples. Not much is left of the propylaia, which was the gateway to the temple complex in much the same way that the propylaia on the Acropolis served as the entrance to the temples atop the Acropolis. But the outer wall surrounding the sanctuary can still be traced as can the stoa that ran along the north and west sides of the temple complex. Temple visitors would have used the stoa as protection from the intense summer sun, rain and -- perhaps most importantly -- from the wind that often whips across the promontory.
The foundations of the first temple destroyed by the Persians are also still visible beneath the present ruins.
The Temple of Poseidon once had 34 columns; 16 remain. When I first visited Sounion many years ago, it was possible to walk among these columns and to search out the English poet Byron's name carved in 1810 on one of the antae (supports) of the inner sanctuary. This is no longer possible, but it is still impressive to circle the temple, gazing up at the columns that once supported a roof.
The Temple to Athena -- built probably just before the Temple of Poseidon -- was located about 1,600 feet away on a low hill, a spot not nearly as spectacular as the location of Poseidon's temple. It seems appropriate that Athena, goddess of wisdom, should have pride of place on the Acropolis, where the Parthenon is dedicated to her, and that Poseidon should have the prime location at Sounion beside the sea.
I had come to Sounion to visit Poseidon's temple once again. But I had also come for the sunset. It was midwinter on this trip and the day had been cloudy and blustery, especially here close to the sea. Unlike those summer evenings when hundreds sit on the rocks at the base of the temple quietly awaiting sunset, there were perhaps a dozen others beside myself, all bundled up against the wind hoping for a glimpse of the sun behind the clouds.
Poseidon took pity on us this January evening. The wind suddenly died down. The clouds parted. The sun set in a final blaze of yellow, orange and red. I guess Poseidon knew I was on one of my periodic pilgrimages.