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Athens, a city steeped in history, is dotted with numerous significant landmarks that not only bear witness to its rich past but also carry with them fascinating myths, legends, and mysteries that remain topics of intrigue to this day. Among these, the Pillars of Olympian Zeus stand out, not just for their historical significance but also for the long-standing enigma that they embodied until recently.
Unveiling the History of a Monumental Site
Originally, these pillars were part of the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, housing one of the ancient world’s grandest temples devoted to the king of the Greek gods. The sanctuary, known for its exemplary marble architecture, dates back to the era of Deucalion, a figure shrouded in myth. Today, however, what we witness are the remnants of this once-magnificent structure, the Olympieion, a shadow of its former glory but still a pivotal Athenian landmark.
Nestled just half a kilometer from Syntagma Square, these ruins were once part of Greece’s largest temple in antiquity. In the Roman era, the temple not only was the grandest in Greece but also housed one of the ancient world’s largest cult statues. Unfortunately, its splendor was short-lived, as it fell victim to the Cherulian invasion in the 3rd century AD. Post-invasion, the temple fell into disuse and eventual ruin, transforming into the historical site we recognize today.
Solving the Centuries-Old Mystery
The mystery surrounding the Pillars of Olympian Zeus, which persisted for years, revolved around a peculiar photograph dating back over 160 years. This image depicted an unusual structure atop the temple ruins – a small, room-like addition that seemed incongruent with the original design. The riddle of this strange feature remained unsolved until 2017, when British author and researcher Paul M.M Cooper delved into historical records and artworks.
A breakthrough came with the discovery of an 1833 painting by Johann Michael Wittmer, which featured the same odd structure. Cooper’s research eventually revealed that the construction was the handiwork of the Stylists, a group of Christian ascetics. These ascetics lived atop pillars, seeking both a closer connection to the divine and a means of spiritual purification through their lofty isolation. This revelation by Cooper not only solved a longstanding mystery but also shed light on the fascinating intersection of history, religion, and culture at this iconic Athenian site.