Another piece of an elegant puzzle - Poseidon's Altar in Didyma

Reconstruction of the Poseidon's Altar as presented in the Miletus Museum
Reconstruction of the Poseidon's Altar as presented in the Miletus Museum

Text by Glenn Maffia

The rather clement weather we appreciated in January (from the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who looked both backward and forward; old year, new year) allowed myself and my equally historically inquisitive friend Jay Jean Jackson to venture out to Akköy. Our aim was to pick up the Sacred Road and then proceed in the direction of Didim.

It proved to be easy to locate and we managed to reach the summit of the hills, passing numerous sites of archaeological interest, whence the road suddenly plunged into thick undergrowth and the ravines of the downward slope. We decided to retire to the Temple so to continue to wallow in the ancient world and enjoy a drink in the pleasant sunshine.

Pointing to the altar

It was while in conversation that Jay, a surveyor by profession, posed a question which both excited me in its logic and perplexed me in its probable significance, "I was looking at Google Earth and I noticed that the western side of the Temple looks like it could be aligned with the Altar of Poseidon. Could this be true or just rubbish?" The altar is located next to the modern lighthouse looking out at the Aegean Sea, and extremely difficult to get to during the winter months along mud roads and brambles overhanging the narrow track.

Immediately, this made complete sense to me, though I was certainly sceptical for I have very little historical knowledge of the altar. The processional road begins at the Delphinion of Apollo in central Miletus. Delphis is ancient Greek for Dolphin, an accoutrement of Apollo, and we have an altar to Poseidon (the god of the sea) in apparent alignment to the western wall of the Temple. One may believe in coincidence, though it struck me as being so harmonious as to be embedded into the Greek aesthetics of their ancient art forms.

Posing questions

I contacted my archaeologist friends in Europe, some of whom have worked the at Temple of Apollo, none had any knowledge of any survey being conducted on any possible alignment between the two ancient sites. I could not help but notice that the tone of their emails echoed the very same revelation of a harmonious thought in this an ancient design, if it can be proven. One must also recognise that the Temple of Apollo has a rather strange orientation, and that questionable angle must possess a particular reasoning for its existence.

Both I and my close astronomer colleague, Alper Ateş, are certain that the main eastern facade is aligned to a star in the Gemini constellation, named after a Roman mythological character, Castor, though the Greeks called this star Apollo. Thus, the orientation, designed by Greeks, of the Temple of Apollo was to align itself towards this star.

The question now is the dating of the Altar of Poseidon. I delved into cyberspace to ascertain what literature was available. There was surprisingly little considering this region of Ionia has been visited, documented and surveyed since the Renaissance, the first documented was a certain Cyriacus di Ancona in 1446. Though much as the tourists today, he may have been blithely unaware of Poseidon's Altar.

I have read of an estimated construction which dates the structure to the 6th BCE. This dating was concluded by the German expeditions here during the early 20th century by Armin von Gerkan. This means that the altar predates the Hellenistic temple by as much as two centuries. A digital model of this Greek altar has been constructed using data from the survey of the site by Jan Köster, citing his sources as Armin von Gerkan, Milet I,4: Der Poseidonaltar bei Kap Monodendri (Berlin 1915) and Gottfried Gruben, Die Tempel der Griechen (Munchen 1966). The monumental altar has a maximum width of 11.09 metres and a length made up of two sections of 9.47 metres and 8.36 metres (total = 17.83 metres). Its point of orientation is not indicated in this research source.

As the degree of separation between the Archaic Temple (laid waste by the Persian forces after the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE) and the Hellenistic temple we see today is merely in the region of 1 degree, I don't believe that would affect any alignment if indeed there is one.

Therefore, the placement of the Temple could be designed to capture the star at its zenith while having its western wall pointing to the altar by the sea. This could be a most exquisite feat of artistic planning. The received knowledge, so far, that no one has considered these alignments is a thrilling sensation for Jay and I alike. Whether this theory stands the test of academic inquiry depends upon the evidence unearthed by the archaeologists, hopefully this summer season.

I was awaiting some consensus on the research of the altar from Europe and to ascertain if there have been any academic papers published on this possible alignment. I can inform you that my sources have not found any evidence that this theory has even been considered and that no one has even suggested the idea espoused by Jay Jean Jackson. Exciting days.

I have contacted both Jan Köster and the Didyma site Director of Excavations, Helga Bumke, at the German Archaeological Institute, but have, once again, received no reply. I find this pitiful that such an esteemed institution of knowledge does not impart any information to the general public. In this case it probably does not matter too much, as Jay's inquisitiveness has in all probability never occurred to them. Let us hope that they take up the idea and credit Jay with being the inspiration.