Archaeology

The Erechtheion Temple of the Acropolis Was Not a Harem After All!

The Greek term “ karyatides” means “maidens of Karyai,” which was an ancient town on the Peloponnese in southern Greece. A “ caryatid” is a sculpted female figure that forms an architectural support, usually carved from stone, to replace classic Greek support columns or pillars. Unarguably, the most famous caryatids in the world are the six around the roof of the false south porch of the 5th century Erechtheion, on the Athenian acropolis.

The acropolis of Athens is an interactive museum of ancient Greece, and seldom do we read of Ottoman history associated with this site. Created by Turkish tribes in Anatolia (Asia Minor,) the Ottoman Empire became one of the most powerful states in the world during the 15th and 16th centuries. Now, a researcher has flattened a popular myth surrounding the six iconic caryatids, the Ottomans, and a harem.

It was these six caryatids supporting the roof of the false south porch of the 5th century Erechtheion, on the Athenian acropolis, which led 17th century English and French publishers to the creation of the Ottoman-harem-in-Athens propaganda myth. (No machine-readable author provided / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was these six caryatids supporting the roof of the false south porch of the 5th century Erechtheion, on the Athenian acropolis, which led 17th century English and French publishers to the creation of the Ottoman-harem-in-Athens propaganda myth. (No machine-readable author provided / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Zero Evidence of Ottoman Erechtheion Harem

The Athens’s acropolis temple with the six caryatids was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but in the medieval period it was reused as a church. According to popular myths, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Athens in the 15th century the temple site was repurposed again into a harem, which is said to have housed the Turkish castle warden’s wives.

Professor Janric van Rookhuijzen, a classical archaeologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, says history shows zero evidence of the Erechtheion harem myth. In a recent article published in The Conversation , van Rookhuijzen explained that he analysed all relevant historical sources about the acropolis from the Ottoman period, aiming to get to the source of the story about the Erechtheion becoming a harem. He even scoured through several understudied Turkish sources, yet he found no mention of the harem story in any of these historical records.

A Spanish-inspired scene of an Ottoman Empire harem by Spanish painter Quintana Olleras, 1851–1919. (Olleras, Quintana Blas 1851-1919 / Public domain)

A Spanish-inspired scene of an Ottoman Empire harem by Spanish painter Quintana Olleras, 1851–1919. (Olleras, Quintana Blas 1851-1919 / Public domain )

So, is the Athens’s Harem Story Just a Modern Myth?

Van Rookhuijzen concluded that the story of the Turkish harem in Athens originated in the 17th century. He went so far in his research that he was able to identify a French and English publisher who had visited Greece, and later published books with the tale of the castle warden’s harem. The only reference to the building being used in the Ottoman period as a Turkish harem speaks of it being a palace.

The researcher states, “Time and again, visitors to the Acropolis have given meaning to the mysterious building based on these sculptures.” He believes the six female caryatids in front of the building may have directly inspired the publisher’s connection with a harem. Stepping aside from historical research, Van Rookhuijzen, author of The Conversation article has a go at putting to rest “a long-lived western stereotype of the Turks as violent, sacrilegious barbarians.”

The Ottoman period for Athens began in 1458 with the city’s peaceful occupation and ended in 1821 with the proclamation of Greek independence. (Hellenic Foundation for Culture)

The Ottoman period for Athens began in 1458 with the city’s peaceful occupation and ended in 1821 with the proclamation of Greek independence. ( Hellenic Foundation for Culture )

Not All Turks Are Violent, Sacrilegious Barbarians

The harem story is “deeply problematic,” says Van Rookhuijzen. According to the writer, the negative stereotype given to Turks “originates in the many centuries of warfare between Christian European countries and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.”

He adds that the story of the temple of the caryatids becoming a harem “fitted right into this negative western sentiment about the Turks.” And so bad was anti-Turkish sentiment around the time the story was fabricated, that soon after, the Turkish town at the acropolis was destroyed.

The writer warns that this symbolism [the harem] has “a dark side” and he says “anti-eastern stories continue to be told at the expense of the Turks.”

Top image: The Erechtheion temple on the Athens acropolis with the six “mistaken” Ottoman harem caryatids on the right side a bit back from the front of the temple. Source: Jebulon / CC0

By Ashley Cowie


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