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The Secret of Naxos: Where Are the Marbles of the Portara?

The Portara, the lintel of Lygdamis' Temple of Apollo at Naxos
The Portara, the lintel of Lygdamis’ Temple of Apollo at Naxos. Credit: Manfred Werner/CC-BY-SA-4.0

The imposing ruins of the iconic Portara, or gate, still stand on the islet of Palatia, near Naxos. What remains of a temple dedicated to Apollo, which was built in the 6th-7th century BC and was never completed, stands behind it today in mute beauty.

According to Greek mythology, the god Theseus left Ariadne, whom he had earlier abducted from Crete after he had killed the Minotaur, to live on Naxos.

According to the myth, during their trip from Crete Theseus and Ariadne made a stop at the island. Theseus saw the Greek god Dionysus in a dream while staying there, and the god told him that he had to leave Naxos without Ariadne, since she was meant to stay there and become his wife.

Ariadne indeed stayed on Naxos and married the god Dionysus, and her worship as a goddess flourished for centuries on the island.

The history of the Portara in Naxos

At one point, the tyrant Lygdamis began to build a temple on Naxos’ tiny islet of Palatia. He had grand ideas of creating a temple even larger than that of Zeus in Athens or the temple of Hera on Samos.

After the tyrant’s fall, the temple remained unfinished, leaving only its foundation and part of its gate, or Portara.

The gate was originally constructed of four large pieces of local marble, each weighing approximately 20 tons. The Portara has a height of nearly 6 meters (16 feet) and a width of at least 3.5 meters. After the rise of Christianity, a church was built in the ruins of the temple, but this was later destroyed by the Venetians.

Where are the marbles of the Portara?

The marbles once comprising parts of the Portara were known to have been used by the Venetians to construct other buildings, mainly the Castle of Chora in Naxos, which was built in medieval times by the Venetian Marco Sanoudo.

Sanoudo constructed the castle on a hill which rises approximately 30 meters above sea level, over the remains of the ancient acropolis, which he considered a suitable place for the establishment of the city of Naxos. The most remarkable feature of his castle is that its wall is made up of the houses of the city itself, which were erected along its perimeter.

Today, the visitor, taking a stroll through the beautiful alleys of Naxos, if he notes carefully can see gleaming marble stones from the Portara in various places around the city. The unmistakable smooth, glassy stone stands in stark juxtasposition to the darker, rougher stone used in the rest of the walls.

The ancient history of the island of Naxos continues at every step, with stones quarried almost 3,000 years ago telling an eternal story of destruction and survival.

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