Along with the iconic Parthenon and the elegant little Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion Temple on the famed Acropolis overlooking Athens is one of the most recognizable and beautiful of all the ancient Greek structures still standing. It is the lovely porch on the north side of the Erechtheion that is so famous and recognizable. This is the "Porch of the Maidens" on the Acropolis temple (also called the Caryatid Porch).
A caryatid is a sculpture of a draped female figure that takes the place of
a pillar or column, and supports the pediment or other element of a building
or structure. You can also see caryatids on ancient temples in Egypt
and India, as well as in more modern architecture,
such as the Greek Revival Parliament Building in Vienna,
Austria. The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis once had
six of these figures. These caryatids comprise the signature feature of the
temple. One was removed in 1801 by Lord Elgin of the United
Kingdom, and today it stands in the British Museum in London,
England. The country of Greece has long demanded the return of this and
other Greek treasures, including the remarkable "Elgin Marbles," which are elaborate
carved friezes he removed from the Parthenon. There was even controversy surrounding
this removal of ancient Greek cultural heritage among Elgin's contemporaries.
The poet, Lord Byron, denounced Elgin as a vandal and wrote:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Negotiations between the countries to return these Acropolis temple treasures
Built during a lull in the turbulent years of the Peloponnesian Wars between 421 and 407 BC, the Erechtheion is both beautiful and unusual. While ancient itself, it is widely believed to have replaced even earlier temples, and stands on a spot marking some of the holiest relics and shrines of the ancient Greek civilization and the people of Athens. It marks the site of an altar to Poseidon (Erectheus) and the Hephaestus, the spot where Poseidon hit the Acropolis with his trident. The Erechtheion Temple also encompasses the sites of a sacred olive tree, a seawater well (the Erechteian Sea), the tomb of King Kekrops, and the sanctuary of Pandrosus. Having to shelter all the sacred sites is one of the factors that resulted in the unusual and intricate design of the temple.
The Erechtheion Temple is divided into four parts—three central shrine rooms and two porches—the Caryatid Porch on the south side and a north facing porch supported by normal Ionic columns. The unusual design of this Acropolis temple is also because it compensates for the significant slope of the location, and one side is more than ten feet lower than the other.
The Erechtheion suffered damage over the millennia, including from fires. It was further vandalized when it was converted into a Christian church in the seventh century AD, and again when it was used as a harem by invaders from Turkey during the Ottoman occupation—from the fourteenth century AD until Greece's independence in 1821. The five remaining original caryatids have been removed and are now displayed in the Acropolis Museum to protect them from further damage. Those that are currently visible on the temple are faithful reproductions.