Hephaisteion

Overlooking the Agora from the hill to the west (Kolonos Agoraios), is the Hephaisteion, the best preserved example of a Doric temple in mainland Greece (Fig. 12). It was dedicated jointly to Hephaistos (god of the forge, the Roman Vulcan) and Athena (goddess of arts and crafts), and dates to the second half of the 5th century B.C. It is built largely of Pentelic marble and carries a lavish amount of sculptural decoration. The Labors of Herakles occupy the east facade, while the labors of Theseus adorn short sections of the long north and south sides. The Theseus scenes gave rise to the popular name of the temple, the "Theseion," which survives in the name of the district of the modern city and the nearby Metro stop. Battle scenes surmount the east and west porches, with a lively centauromachy at the west. The two bronze cult statues, done by Alkamenes and described by Pausanias, disappeared long ago. Traces of a garden planted around the temple in the 3rd century B.C. were found in the excavations.

Figure 12. The Hephaisteion ("Theseion"), seen from across the Agora, ca. 460–415 B.C.
Figure 13. Plan of the Hephaisteion, showing also the conversion of the temple into the Church of St. George, 7th century A.C.

The building owes its remarkable state of preservation to two factors: Athens is not in a major earthquake zone, and the temple was converted into a Christian church in the 7th century A.D. (Fig. 13), saving it from later quarrying for building material, though deep depressions in the steps show where the lead used to seal metal clamps was gouged out. Conversion to a church led to the deliberate mutilation of the sculptures, except for the minotaur at the southeast corner who has retained his head. In the early 19th century the church was used as the Protestant cemetery, and many European philhellenes who died in the War of Independence were buried here.

Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).