Zeus’ Fallen Temple

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The ruins of Zeus’ temple at Olympia.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was once a colossus of stone. Immovable. For the ages. Built around 460 BC, it stood for eight and a half centuries and sheltered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world – a statue of Zeus thirteen metres tall made of ivory and gold.

Today the temple lies in ruins. My guide spoke of earthquakes in the 6th century AD, and as I tried to imagine the force that could bring that temple down, all of a sudden the Greek gods became real to me. That moment of empathy accomplished what endless statues and ruins and temples never could. Just for a moment, I understood.

I’ve been in one earthquake that I can remember. I was sitting in bed, leaning back against the wall. And the wall moved. The incongruity of that was deeply disconcerting, it was wrong on a lizard-brain level. The quake lasted just long enough to panic me. What if it didn’t stop? What if the house fell down? Should I stand in the doorway? That quake had a magnitude of 5 and lasted only thirty seconds. The house was fine.

But can you imagine living through the quake that brought the temple down?

Imagine the noise. The great stone pillars wobble, then collapse, chunks of one slamming into another. The roof, once carefully balanced in a marvel of engineering, thunders down on top of the pillars. The explosive impact of tons upon tons of stone. And under it the rumble and groan of the earth itself.

You run from the structure you’re hiding in as it, too, collapses. A shrapnel of knife-sharp shards of stone rains down, and you choke on the dust in the air. And the earth, the bedrock, the foundation of the world is moving beneath your feet.

Can you imagine finding the temple in rubble and ruins after an event like that? I think I would believe that Zeus was dead. I think I would believe Poseidon staged a coup and now ruled on Olympus. There should be a myth about this event. Why don’t we know this story?

The thought upset me. How frightening for them.

“Were the Greeks Christian already when the temple came down?”

“Oh yes. Phidias’ workshop,” he pointed to another collection of ruins, “was a Christian basilica at the time.”

I was consoled to hear that the local residents were spared that religious trauma, but I still craved the story for myself. I needed to hear the myth about the battle between Zeus and Poseidon that destroyed the temple. All these centuries later, I wanted the tragedy explained in a way that fit the ruins themselves.

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