30 Years as World Heritage Site: Greek Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae

The remote and mountainous ancient region of Arcadia has been a refuge of cultural accomplishments due to its surviving Temple of Apollo Epicurius, a World Heritage Site of great significance that’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of its heritage status this year.

Bassae was the first Greek site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 1986. The ancient writer Pausanias is the only ancient traveler whose remarks on Bassae have survived. He honors the Temple of Apollo Epicurius as overshadowing all others except the sanctuary of Tegea by the refinement of its stone and the harmony of its structure. His statement and the site’s remoteness have worked as an advantage for its preservation.

View of the temple from NW, 1976 Photo Courtesy Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports

At this archaeological site of Bassae, on the lonely heights of the Arcadian mountains, lies one of the most important and imposing monuments of ancient Greece, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius, which dates back to mid-to late-5th century BC (420-410 BC), and is still well-preserved today.

The temple was dedicated to the god of healing and the sun, Apollo Epicurius or in other words ‘’Apollo the helper’’. The history of this site is linked to the fights of Phigaleia and to the unending battles between Arcadians and Spartans. It is believed that Apollo either helped the Phigaleians in their struggle against Sparta in 659 BC, or he prevented the plague from spreading during the Peloponnesian War.

The Cella from North Photo Courtesy Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports

The Temple of Apollo sits at the height of 1,131 meters on the hills of Kotilion Mountain. While in a secluded sanctuary on the highest peak of the same mountain, Artemis and Aphrodite were also worshiped.

However, the latter temples were abandoned in the third century BC, unlike the sanctuary of Apollo, which remained in use during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In the following centuries, however, the Temple of Apollo was also deserted and damaged by earthquakes.

Despite its distance from other polities of ancient Greece, The Temple of Apollo has been one the most studied monuments due to its variety of rare and exceptional features. It is believed to be designed by Iktinos, the architect of the Temple of Hephaestus and the Parthenon of Acropolis. However, the remaining sanctuary is not the first one to have been constructed on the site. The earliest temple of Apollo was established in the late seventh century BC at the same location. The surviving Classical temple was built on bedrock and is orientated north-south, in contrast to the majority of Greek temples which are aligned east-west. It was manufactured out of grey Arcadian limestone, while the frieze was engraved from marble.

Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae Photo Courtesy: UNESCO

The temple has six columns on the short sides and fifteen on the long sides, instead of the Period’s usual ratio of 6:13, which gives it an elongated shape. It is phenomenal and unique due to its combination of three ancient Greek architectural orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric columns compose its external colonnade while Ionic columns uphold the porch and Corinthian ones give prominence to the interior. The capital of its Corinthian columns is the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital in the history of Greek architecture.

In the eighteenth century the French architect J. Bocher was able to identify certain finds as coming from the great Temple of Apollo. In 1812 the site was explored (with the permission of the Turkish commander of the Peloponnese during the reign of the Ottoman Empire at that time) by a group of foreign antiquaries who removed twenty-three pieces from the Ionic frieze along with other sculptures. The finds were given in exchange for a small bribe and the removed frieze was bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815, where it is still on display. British intellectual C. Muller describes this as an act of cultural vandalism, made at the behest of the agents of Lord Thomas Elgin, who was a British Ambassador to Constantinople between 1799 and 1803.

Current Photo of the Temple Covered by a Protective Shelter Photo Courtesy: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports


At the beginning of the 20th century, the Greek Archaeological Society excavated and restored parts of the temple. A program was launched aiming to deal with the difficult task of conserving and restoring the monument ever since. A year after its inscription in the World Heritage List, the temple of Apollo has been covered with a shelter in order to be protected from the extreme weather conditions. Since then, extensive conservation work is being carried out under the supervision of the Committee for the Conservation of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius of the Greek Ministry of Culture, in order for this brilliant achievement of Greek civilization to be brought to light in all its glory and splendor.

This article is written by Nikoleta Platia, who is a student of Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art in Greece. 

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