Greek Architecture

A Beginner's Guide

This beginner's guide to Greek architecture explains how to tell your Ionic from your Doric columns, and what to look for in temples and Byzantine churches.

The Acropolis and Parthenon in AthensThe Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens

If there is one artistic skill which, quite literally, towers above all others in Greek history it is that of architecture. Take one look at any of the better-preserved temples, such as the Parthenon or the Temple of Aphaia on Aígina, and you know that Ancient Greek craftsmen were masters. Greek temples were originally influenced by Egypt, but quickly took on a style and grace all their own. This was in part due to the building materials available. While the Egyptians worked in stone and created a sombre grandeur from it, the Greeks were using limestone and, later, marble, to create structures of grace and light.

Doric Columns

Doric columns in GreeceDoric Columns with No Base

If anyone knows anything at all about Greek architecture it is that there are two types of columns, Doric and Ionic, even if you cannot always remember which is which. The Doric comes from the Dorian Age, and is most easily identified because the columns do not stand on a base. They rise straight from the floor and are usually closer together than the Ionic style, giving a more claustrophobic feeling. The style spread throughout Greece and into southern Italy and Sicily, and an outstanding example – though imagination will be required today – was the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Ionic Columns

Ionic column in GreeceIonic Column

The Ionic style comes from Ionia, the ancient name for western Asia Minor, where modern Turkey now is. Ionic columns are placed further apart and are also generally narrower than Doric columns, creating a greater sense of space on temple frontages. They are also usually placed on a small base, and their capitals are more ornate than the plain Doric style. Good examples are at Ephesus in Turkey, in the area where the name originated, and the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon in AthensThe Parthenon

The most famous piece of Greek architecture in the world, the Parthenon building on the Acropolis, combines both Doric and Ionic columns. To get a fuller sense of its original beauty, take a look at the small scale model that is in the National Archaeological Museum. To understand some of the drudgery needed to create that beauty, look at the displays about its construction in the New Acropolis Museum.

Greek Architecture: Phidias

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-TademaPhidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

If the workers provided the 90 percent of perspiration that is needed to produce works of art, then the architect Phidias provided the 10 percent of inspiration that is also required. Phidias was the great sculptor and architect of his day, who produced the statue of Olympian Zeus which stood in Olympia and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the giant statue of Athena Nike, which was the centerpiece of the Parthenon itself.

Byzantine Churches

Temples became churches, and the other great aspect of Greek architecture, visible from the tiniest rural village to the very centre of urban Athens, is the Byzantine church. These red-tiled buildings may be large or small, but there are certain standard elements that they all have in common. 

Byzantine Church of Osios LoukasByzantine Church of Osios Loukas

The altar in a Byzantine church is always to the east, and always concealed behind the screen known as the iconostasis. In front of this there are three main aisles, and above the central aisle in the largest open part of the church is the main dome. This is invariably decorated with a painting of Christ Pantokrator, or Christ in Judgement, gazing down unremittingly on the congregation beneath. 

Another icon of Christ will usually be found over the main door to the church, to greet you as you enter. The interiors of Byzantine churches are always elaborately decorated with mosaics and friezes, the walls hung with icons and votive offerings, a real assault on the senses especially during services when the air will be filled with the smell of incense and the sound of holy chanting.

Neo-Classical Athens

1896 Olympic Stadium in Athens1896 Olympic Stadium

A look at Athens today may make you wonder what happened to Greece's glorious architectural heritage, and it is true that few modern buildings stand out. Some of the finest are from the 19th century, when the new king, Otto, came from Bavaria and brought German architects in his wake. These produced a wave of Neo-Classical buildings, and of particular note are those designed by Ernst Ziller. Ziller produced, amongst other buildings, the Presidential Palace, the house of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann which now houses the Numismatic Museum and the graceful 1896 Olympic Stadium. Buildings today simply cannot compare to this and the Parthenon, which looks out over the modern city with what must be a disdainful eye.

Some other general Greece pages

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  • Luxury Weddings in Greece

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  • Travelling Around Greece

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  • Top Ten Things to Do in Greece

    Top Ten Things to Do in Greece include seeing the Acropolis and Parthenon, visiting the National Archaeological Museum and ancient sites like Knossos on Crete.

  • Top Ten Biggest Greek Islands

    The Top Ten Biggest Greek Islands, the largest in size, are listed by Greece Travel Secrets and include Crete, Evia, Lesbos and Rhodes.

  • Tipping in Greece

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  • The Nomads of Greece

    The nomads of Greece are the Vlachs, nomadic shepherds whose capital is Metsovo in the Pindus Mountains, and the Sarakatsani, shepherds in Macedonia and Thrace.

  • The Greek Gods

    The home of the Greek Gods was the top of Mount Olympus, and among the better-known Gods and Goddesses in the Greek pantheon were Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite.

  • Ten Biggest Cities in Greece

    The ten biggest cities in Greece start with Athens and Thessaloniki, followed by Patras and several suburbs of Athens which are Greek cities in their own right.

  • Six of the Best Beaches in Greece

    Greece Travel Secrets chooses six of the best beaches in Greece including beaches on Corfu, Santorini, Crete, Lefkas, Kefalonia and on the Peloponnese.

  • Sailing in the Greek Islands

    Greece Travel Secrets lists four of the best destinations if you want to go sailing in the Greek islands.

  • Quick Guide to Greece: How to Choose the Best Destination for You

    This quick guide to Greece gives advice on choosing the best Greek destination for your holiday, whether in the Greek islands or the mainland.

  • Life as a Waiter on Zakynthos

    Life as a waiter on Zakynthos tells what it was like for travel writer Mike Gerrard to work in a Greek restaurant, the Mantalena in Alykanas.

  • Greek Music

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  • Greek Ferry Guide

    Greece Travel Secrets Greek Ferry Guide page uses an extract from the Aferry Greece website with advice on island-hopping, buying tickets online and timetables.

  • Greece for Beginners

    Greece for beginners is an introduction to Greece and the Greek islands by way of a memoir by travel writer Mike Gerrard about discovering Greek kindness.

  • Greece At A Glance: Currency, Weather and Other Useful Information

    Greece at a glance is a potted guide to the Greek currency, language, weather, health requirements and other information to help you plan a trip to Greece.

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