The Acropolis of Athens counts among the world’s greatest architectural and artistic monuments. The marble buildings, which are a testament to Ancient Greece’s glory more than two millennia back, attract many visitors. The rich Ottoman and medieval history of the site is often overlooked. One of the most interesting stories about this period is the temple housing six famous sculptures of maidens (the so-called Caryatids).
Ancient Athenians built the temple with the Caryatids as the holiest shrine for Athena, the goddess of wisdom. It was used as a chapel during the medieval period. But its fate supposedly changed dramatically following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Athens in the 15th century. The story goes that the Muslim Turks had no interest in preserving the temple’s sacrality, and instead converted it into something radically different: a harem. This was said to be the residence of the Turkish castle warden’s wives and sometimes thought of as a place of seduction.
But my new research shows this information might need to be revised. This study involved the analysis of all historical information about the Acropolis during the Ottoman period. It turns out the idea of a Turkish harem here originated in the 17th century with two visitors from France and England. They published popular books in which they asserted that the building was a harem. However, these visitors did not enter the building, and provided contradictory, possibly speculative, information.
Fantasy, or not, the idea of the harem is a long-cherished fascination for westerners, who have enjoyed the exotic tales of Orient. Later writers simply reiterated the information. This was even the case after the building had fallen to ruin in the Venetian bombardment of 1687.
My research also included many understudied Turkish sources. These sources do not mention a Caryatid harem. They do mention that the temple was used as a palace. There is not much evidence to suggest that this temple was ever used for erotic encounters.
Harems and temples
Stories about Harems in The Temple of the Caryatids existed long before the Turks arrived. They were already known to exist in the time of ancient Greeks. In front of the building, the striking Caryatids appear as petrified women. These Caryatids likely played a part in creating such stories. Visitors to the Acropolis have repeatedly given meaning to the mysterious structure based on these sculptures.
Anthropological research shows that impressive statues like the Caryatids can stir the imagination, prompting wild stories that are sometimes mistaken for “factual” history. The Caryatids may be seen as evidence of the harem to the casual observer.
But the idea of the harem is also deeply problematic as it continues a long-lived western stereotype of the Turks as violent, sacrilegious barbarians. This stereotype originates in the many centuries of warfare between Christian European countries and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This myth also grew into the common belief that Turkish harems were secretive, erotic places for seclusion.
The idea that the Temple of the Caryatids was a degenerate harem fits right in with the negative western sentiments about Turks. That sentiment had dire consequences: shortly after the young Greek state’s conquest of Athens in the 19th century, it led to the complete annihilation of the Turkish town that stood on the Acropolis. The same attitude led Lord Elgin, a British nobleman, to remove many Acropolis sculptures in the early 19th century–including one of the Caryatids.
Still today, these sculptures reside in the British Museum in London, to the dismay of many (in Greece and elsewhere), who wish to see them returned to Athens. Though the Caryatids still continue to fire the imagination: local legend claims the marble girls who remain in Athens can be heard crying out at night in lament for their imprisoned sister in London.
The notion of a Turkish Harem is in keeping with the current meanings of the Acropolis, which is an important archaeological site that serves as a symbol for western civilisation and Greece. But this symbolism has a dark side: anti-eastern stories continue to be told at the expense of the Turks.
The Turks are often portrayed as villains at the Acropolis. However, my research has shown that this is an inaccurate interpretation of over three centuries of Turkish presence. And it doesn’t do justice to their actual attitudes: historical sources show that the Turks were not always the violent barbarians they are often made out to be. They were as interested in antiquities as tourists today.