The Heraion of Samos was considered to be one of the largest and most significant religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world. It was situated on the island of Samos, around 6km southwest of the ancient city, in a marshy area near the Imbrasos river.
The sanctuary was dedicated to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, with the Archaic temple built in the area being the first of the gigantic free-standing Ionic temples. The site’s rich history and cultural importance have earned it the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Visiting the Temple of Hera in Samos
History of the Heraion of Samos
Due to its important geographical location in the eastern Aegean, and its secure connections with the coast of Asia Minor, Samos turned into one of the most important political and cultural centers in Greece already from the prehistoric era (5th millennium BC). The rise of the first settlement is rooted in the 10th century BC when it was colonized by the Ionian Greeks.
Already by the 6th century BC, Samos had managed to establish itself as a major sea power in the eastern Mediterranean, retaining at the same time close trading relations with the coast of Ionia, Thrace, even with the peoples of western Mediterranean.
The cult of Hera at Samos centered on the goddess´s birth. According to tradition, the future wife of Zeus was born under the lygos tree, and during the annual Samian festival called the Toneia (the binding), a cult image of the goddess was bound with lygos branches in a ceremonial fashion, and it was then carried down to the sea to be cleaned.
The first temple of Hera was constructed during the 8th century BC, with the sanctuary reaching the peak of its first prosperous era in the late 7th century.
During this period, many important events took place, such as the construction of the Hekatompedos II temple, the colossal Kouroi, the south stoa, and the Sacred Way, which connected the whole complex with the city of Samos.
The second phase of the construction took place in the second quarter of the sixth century BC, with the formation of the monumental altar, the Rhoikos Temple, and the North and South Buildings.
During the reign of the tyrant Polycrates, Samos was established as a major power in the Aegean, with the sanctuary undergoing a new wave of monumentalisation when a larger temple replaced the Rhoikos Temple.
During the Classical period, the Athenians incorporated Samos into their empire, and the activity of the sanctuary almost ceased to function. The worship of Hera on the island officially ended in 391 AD, when the emperor Theodosia forbade by edict every pagan observance.
Things to see at the Heraion of Samos
The sanctuary’s history stretches over a millennium, with the site containing several temples, numerous treasuries, stoas, pathways, many statues, and other works of art.
Temple of Hera
The great Temple of Hera (Heraion) has its origins in the 8th century BC, is then followed by a succession of monumental temples that were built on the same site on the west of the altar.
The first temple constructed on the site was called ‘Hecatompedos’, since it was 100 feet in length. It had a long, narrow shape and was made of mudbrick, while it is still unknown if there existed a peripteral colonnade running around the outside.
Around 570-560 BC, the construction of another temple began, by the architects Rhoikos and Theodoros, known as the ‘Rhoikos Temple’. This edifice was about 100 meters long and 50 meters wide, and it was supported by 100 columns.
At the front side stood a roofed pronaos with a square floor plan. This was the first of the massive Ionian temples, closely resembling the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
After the destruction of this temple, an even larger one was erected at the same location. Known as the ‘Great Temple of Goddess Hera’, this monument was built during the reign of the famous tyrant of Samos, Polycrates, in the 6th century BC.
The temple was 55 meters wide and 108 meters long, surrounded by a peristyle of 155 columns, each being 20 meters high.
Overall, the close study of the Heraion of Samos is considered to be fundamental, as to the deep understanding and appreciation of classical architecture, since its innovative style had a strong influence on the design of temples and public buildings throughout the Greek world.
The Sacred Way
First laid out around the beginning of the 6th century, the Sacred Way was a road that connected the city of Samos to the sanctuary of Hera. It played a central role in religious processions, with its value being demonstrated by the numerous votive offerings that surrounded its route. Today, the Way is visible due to a repavement that took place during the 3rd century AD.
The first altar structure was built in the 9th century BC. It was rebuilt several times, reaching its final monumental form in the 6th century. It had a rectangular shape, being roughly 35 meters long, 16 meters wide, and 20 meters high. On the west side, a staircase was formed, that led up to a flat platform on the top, where animal sacrifices were made, mostly adult cows. The altar was also richly decorated by a series of floral and animal reliefs that ran around it.
The South Stoa was built at the end of the 7th century BC, during the same wave of monumentalization that the Hekatompedos temples and the Sacred Way were constructed. It was built of mudbrick and wood, with a length of 60 meters. The North Stoa was built in the 6th century BC, to replace the South Stoa which was demolished during the same century.
The sanctuary and the ancient city were adorned with sculptures of splendid quality, establishing Samos as one of the greatest centers of sculpture in the Ionic world. Most of these works of art are kouroi, large statues of naked young men, or Korai, statues of young women of similar size but veiled.
One of the most famous sculptures is the Kouros of Samos, crafted during the early 6th century BC, and being about three times life-size. Overall, these works of art seem to have been dedicated to temples by rich Samian aristocrats, who desired to make known their wealth and status.
Information for visitors
The archaeological site of Samos is located in the southeast part of the island. You can easily get there by car. The site is open to visitors every day, from 08:30 to 15:30, except Tuesdays. The ticket price is 6 euros.