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Why Many Churches were Built on Top of Ancient Greek Temples

ancient greek temple church
Surprisingly, many Christian churches were built on sites where ancient Greek temples once stood, and many temples were once used as churches at some point in history. Credit: Barcex/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Surprisingly, many Christian churches were built on sites where ancient Greek temples once stood, and many temples were once used as churches at some point in history.

In fact, the Parthenon, which is likely the most famous ancient Greek temple in the world,  functioned as a Christian church for a millennium from 500 AD to 1450.

This is not a rare occurrence. Throughout much of the Mediterranean, particularly in Greece and Italy, ancient pagan temples and sites of importance to non-Christians were converted into Christian churches and places of worship.

While Christians did destroy some pagan sites, oftentimes they renovated, altered, or reused ancient Greek temples for their own purposes.

While there are many theories regarding this phenomenon, including that certain sites emit spiritual energy, the most likely is that Christians hoped that by taking over something familiar and already associated with religion, pagans would convert to Christianity more smoothly.

Additionally, many Christians themselves had likely converted from paganism, which further strengthens the argument that the sites were chosen due to familiarity and a pre-established link to religion.

Others assert that the takeover of pagan sites was a show of dominance of Christianity over paganism. By converting a temple into a church, Christians could literally illustrate their belief that their God was overcoming the gods of the pagans.

Built in 432 BC to honor the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena, the Parthenon served as an important place of worship for the ancient Athenians during antiquity.

The building was home to countless stunning works of sculpture honoring the goddess and other twelve Olympians. The most notable work of art contained within the ancient temple is the now-lost chryselephantine (made of gold and ivory) sculpture of Athena which stood at 11.5 meters (37 feet 9 inches) tall.

In 500 AD, when Christianity was established in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the  temple of Athena became the temple of Panagia Athiniotissa (Virgin Mary the Athenian).

The temple soon became a Christian pilgrimage center of great importance throughout the history of Byzantium.

In the 5th century, the Parthenon was transformed into a three-aisled Christian basilica dedicated first to Hagia Sophia and then (in the mid-Byzantine years) to Panagia Athiniotissa.

During the reign of Emperor Justinian, however, it was consecrated and defined as the “Catholic Church of Athens.”

In the earliest days of Christianity before the religion was accepted by the state and many followers practiced their faith in secret or privately, churches were located in rooms inside of private homes or in homes that had been abandoned or handed over to the faithful for that purpose.

Locations where miracles occurred or where saints were martyred were also popular sites for the construction of churches in Late Antiquity.

Although the practice of converting pagan sites into churches began earlier, it became quite widespread after the Emperor Constantine granted legal status to Christianity in 313 AD and the faith became more widely accepted.

While in many cases the conversion of temples and other pagan sites to Christian churches came about organically, in others it was enforced by the state.

Roman Emperor Theodosius I and his successors, for example, banned paganism in the Roman Empire in 391 and began to shut down Greek and Roman temples and transform them into churches.

Ancient Greek temples used as Churches

Apart from the Parthenon, there are many examples of famous ancient Greek and Roman temples that were used as churches.

The Pantheon, located in Rome, was famously converted from a temple to the gods into a Christian church called “Santa Maria ad Martyres” in the seventh century.

The Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora of Athens, which is considered one of the best-preserved examples of Doric architecture in Greece, was converted into a Greek Orthodox church in the seventh century and remained a place of worship until the 1830s.

The church was dedicated to Saint George, and many scholars attribute the building’s condition to the fact that it was continuously used throughout the centuries, as compared to temples that were abandoned and eventually got destroyed.

The final Divine Liturgy that took place in the church occurred on February 21, 1833 in honor of the arrival of King Otto in Greece. The temple was then converted into a cultural site and archaeological museum.

Located in Syracuse, which was formerly an ancient Greek colony, the Temple of Athena, called the Athenaio in Italian, is one of the most stark examples of this phenomenon.

In many instances, when temples were transformed into churches, they were either ruined and a new structure needed to be built, or the faithful simply kept the building as it was without changing the outside.

In terms of the Temple of Athena, however, Christians built a Church around the ancient temple, and the columns are still visible from both the inside and outside of the structure.

The temple, which was built in the 5th century BC by the Greek tyrant Gelon, was converted into the Cathedral of Syracuse in the 7th century AD.

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