The highest point close to the Agora, on the site known in antiquity as Agoraios Kolonos, is dominated by the best preserved temple of classical antiquity, the temple of Hephaestus. Here the god of fire and iron was worshipped, alongside the city’s patron goddess Athena, as the divine guardians of the arts and crafts and, more particularly, of metalworkers and potters. There have been metalworking shops close to the temple from antiquity until the present day.
This temple was the first project of the great building program proposed by Pericles. Its construction began before that of the Parthenon, which explains why its exterior is stylistically less developed. However, construction was interrupted and it was only completed after the conclusion of all work on the Parthenon.
The architect’s name is unknown, but he was the same man who was responsible for three other important temples of the same period: the temples of Poseidon at Sounion; of Nemesis at Rhamnous; and of Ares at Acharnae.
The latter was moved to the area of the Agora in the first century BC. These four impressive peripteral temples bear close resemblance to one another and share a number of features in common with the Parthenon.
The Temple of Hephaestus was divided into a pronaos, cella and opisthonaos; it has 6 columns on its short and 13 columns on its long sides. The central cella may possibly have been divided by two-storey colonnades, in this respect copying the Parthenon.
The two statues of Hephaestus and Athena Ergane, which were created by the sculptor Alkamenes, were worshipped in this area. The Metopes, the frieze on the exterior of the cella influenced by the Parthenon, and the pediments depicted the Labours of two great heroes, Theseus and Heracles. Particular stress was laid on the achievements of Theseus, which explains later confusion regarding the identity of the monument.
In around 600 AD, the temple was converted into a church dedicated to St. George, which received the sobriquet “the idle” under Ottoman rule because it was permitted to function liturgically only once a year, on its feast day.
In the era of European travellers to Greece, the temple was the spot where Protestants were buried. Although entry to the temple is not permitted, within it one can find gravestones with the names, in Latin characters, of those foreigners whom fate determined should remain forever buried in the soil of Attica.
Among these, can be found the name of the English philhellene Tweddle, whom the Athenians considered as one of their own. The records of medieval Athens, particularly the period 1000 to 1150 have been engraved on the marble of the temple.