Majestic Cape Sounion, a strategic point rising above the Aegean sea about 70 kilometers away from Athens in the southern region of Attica, was known by Ancient Greeks as the “Sacred Cape.” On top of this 60 meter cliff stands one of the most important sanctuaries in the region: the temple dedicated to Poseidon, God of the Sea.
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The significance of Cape Sounion for the city-state of Athens
Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of Attica, is a significant strategic point, whence the city-state of Athens controlled the sea passage to the Aegean Sea and Piraeus, the central port, as well as the Lavrion peninsula, comprising the rich silver mines thanks to which Athens emerged as a leading power in the 5th century BC.
Habitation at the Sounion area
The fortress and sanctuaries belonged to the deme of Sounion, formed through the state reorganization by Kleisthenes in 510 BC. The deme belonged to the tribe of Leontis and extended in the area between Lavrion, Megala Pefka, Kamariza (Agios Konstantinos) and the cape. The settlement in the fortress probably forms the center of the deme, of which more remains are also known. In the surroundings of the fortress, a settlement is located over the port and a cemetery of the classical period on the shore where the church of Saint Peter is, as well as part of a settlement of roman times west of the church.
Prehistoric habitation is also attested in the area. Graves of the Early Bronze Age period (3rd mil. BC) are reported on the cape.
Sounion in the ancient writers
Homer was the first to refer to Sounion (Odyssey c 278) as “the sacred cape of the Athenians”. Herodotus (6,87) informs us that the Athenians celebrated there a great four-yearly festival. Poseidon’s sanctuary is mentioned by the tragedians Euripides and Sophocles and the comic poet Aristophanes.
Information is derived from writers like Strabo (Geography, 1st cent. BC – 1st cent. AD) and Stephanus of Byzantium (Ethnika, w. Sounion, 6th cent. AD). A concise account was written by the traveler Pausanias (Description of Greece) in the 2nd cent. AD, when the sanctuary of Poseidon had declined and the temple of Athena was already deconstructed to the foundation level and transported to the Athenian agora. The traveler wrongly mentions that in the temple visible on the cape Athena was worshipped, a misconception that lasted until 1900, when inscriptions found in the excavation proved that the temple was dedicated to Poseidon.
The temple of Athena was recognized by its odd architectural plan, described by the Roman architect Vitruvius (De Architectura, 1st cent. BC).
Travelers and archaeologists at Sounion
From the 17th century on foreigner travelers (G. Wheler / 1676, J.-D.Le Roy / 1754, R. Chandler / 1765, E. Dodwell /1805, A. Blouet /1829 et al.) to Sounion viewed the ruined temple of Poseidon in a romantic mood. The standing columns made the cape known as Kavokolones.
Blouet, as archaeologists and architects of the Dilettanti Society had done (1797), attempted to draw and study the ruins, proceeding also to partial excavation of the sanctuary gateway. Romantic visitors of the temple, like Lord Byron in 1810, engraved their names on the marbles.
The scholarly investigation of the Poseidon temple started in 1884 by the archaeologist – architect W. Dorpfeld, Director of the German Archaeological Institute. The archaeologist Valerios Staes excavated systematically (1897-1913), expenses of the Archaeological Society in Athens, the temple, the wall and the settlement. Works for the restoration of the temple are ongoing since 1875, while its present state is a result of the work conducted by the Greek Archaeological Service in the 1950s, under the architect – archaeologist Anastasios Orlandos, an expert on the monument.
Through the realisation by the Ministry of Culture and Sports (2011-2013) of the project “Arrangement of the Archaeological Site of Sounion” co-financed by Greece and the European Union (ERDF), all the monuments were set forth, so that the composite and important character of Sounion for the city – state of Athens can be perceived.