The Temple of Bassae is Greece's Shrouded Beauty

C58PJW
Bassae’s temple has been hidden from view for 28 years Terry Harris / Alamy

You rounded the last bend on a winding rocky road and there it was. Not shining, creamy white like the Parthenon but a cold stern grey, the Doric columns growing as naturally out of the Greek mountainside as if they were petrified trees. This was the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae in the Peloponnese, built in the 5th century BC by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon. Left pretty much alone until it was rediscovered in 1765 by the French architect J Bocher, Bassae survived roofless and pedimentless but otherwise almost intact.

The shrine is still there (praise be to Zeus), one of the most perfect Greek temples in existence and one of the world's greatest and most revolutionary buildings, but it is no longer open to the sky and to the gods. Since 1987 a huge, mournfully flapping and increasingly mouldy tent has covered the monument while complex restoration work is carried out.

Seeing the temple in this state on a cold March morning, nearly 40 years after being stunned by its bare, rugged magnificence, was the most shocking moment of a nostalgic trip to the Peloponnese with an old friend to revisit sites we had last inspected as schoolboy classicists. The venerable building seemed like a patient on life-support.

We could appreciate the exquisite detail of the carving of the Doric columns with their subtle entasis (bulging), though we could not enter the cella to inspect the famous embedded Ionic columns and the lone Corinthian one (Bassae is highly unusual among Greek temples in incorporating all three orders). But everything was changed by the tent, interrupting the relationship with the landscape and the way the sanctuary emerges from it. You could not help feeling the shrouded, melancholy-looking temple was an emblem of the whole beleaguered country.

At least Bassae is being cared for, however slow the pace. Elsewhere in the Peloponnese, and at Delphi across the Gulf of Corinth, there were many signs of archaeological progress, revival and hope. The site museums at Olympia and Delphi have improved out of recognition. The one at Olympia, with its splendid hall displaying the pediments and metopes of the temple of Zeus, its marvellous terracotta statues and bronze helmets, and the super-smooth Hermes of Praxiteles, is now fully worthy of those objects and the flower-strewn site by the river Alpheus. Sadly, more than 60 statuettes were stolen in 2012.

We visited a whole new major site – Messene in the southern Peloponnese, a vast city from the 4th century BC, built for a people long oppressed by the Spartans. Messene is an early example of Hippodamian town planning inspired by egalitarian principles according to which all citizens should have equal plots of land and access to public buildings. Both the site and the fine little museum are beautifully maintained.

Greek art and archaeology, as the thrilling new Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum makes clear, are not just part of our European past, but a vital strand of our present and future. While the remains of whole civilisations are being destroyed in a frenzy of nihilistic iconoclasm, we would surely do well to preserve and cherish the Greek artefacts that have somehow managed to defy time and whose birth represents something like the Big Bang of our civilisation.

When I got back to London, I made some enquiries about the progress of the Bassae works. I was told there was some good news; money had been found to replace the frayed and mouldy tent. That was not quite the good news I was hoping for. How about this idea: European nations, in a gesture of goodwill, get together in providing a fund to hasten the works and ensure the speedy removal of the tent?

Also in London, I popped into the British Museum to see the Bassae frieze – the reliefs from the temple, hardly less splendid than those of the Parthenon, depicting the battles of Greeks and Amazons and Centaurs and Lapiths, which were bought at auction by the British Museum in 1815 for £19,000 and removed by Charles Robert Cockerell. Maybe we owe the Greeks even more than goodwill.

The Temple of Bassae is Greece's Shrouded Beauty