Ancient Athens

[Athens, Greece, May 19 ,2019]

We began our first full day in Athens with a visit to its most famous landmark, the Acropolis. We knew it would get busy, so we figured we’d avoid the crowds by getting there at 8 am, when it opened. Even though we were staying in the center of Athens, the neighborhood looked like a ghost town on our walk to the Acropolis!

Even though the Acropolis was only a 10-minute walk from our AirBnB, our visit got off to a rocky start. I navigated to the Acropolis Museum, not realizing that’s a separate building at the bottom of the actual Acropolis. When we finally found the main entrance perched up on the hill behind the museum, we realized that I had gotten us tickets to the Acropolis Museum when I booked online the night before, not Acropolis tickets. Acropolis tickets are separate and we had to go to the ticket booth to get them. We were trying to avoid this by going online but luckily, the line was non-existent this early in the morning. My Acropolis Museum tickets were timed for the 8 am – 10 am slot, so we weren’t sure if we were going to make it there in time after visiting the Acropolis. Oy vey!

We entered the Acropolis and tried to put our slightly crazy morning behind us. We queued up the audio tour of the Acropolis we had downloaded beforehand through the free Rick Steves Audio Europe app and, with the in-app map that followed along with the tour, we turned our attention to the ruins before us. All the information below comes from the audio tour.

Our first stop was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient theater built into the hillside. The large, 5,000-seat theater is still used for performances today. The 3/4-circle floor was the stage, where musicians and actors perform. Behind that is a raised stage and a wall for the backdrop.

The odeon was built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy land-owner, in memory of his wife. It’s the most famous of all the buildings he financed throughout the country. Herodes was a famous orator and a close friend of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who also left his mark on Athens. The large, 5,000-seat theater was re-constructed in the 1950s and is now used for summer concerts and performances.

From there, we reached the Propylaea – the grand entrance gate of the Acropolis. This is the original entrance to the Acropolis; thousands of pilgrims entered it through this same entrance for the annual Panathenaic festival. It was held every year to celebrate the birth of the city of Athens. A long procession started over a mile away and made its way to the Acropolis. The parade was carved into the 500-ft long frieze of reliefs that surrounded the outside of the Parthenon – that’s how we know what it looked like.

The tall Doric columns were originally covered with a triangular pediment and led into the Acropolis. The left wing of the entrance contained a painting gallery that contained artwork and housed visiting VIPs. It was originally brightly colored and decorated with statues. The Propylaea was meant to look like a mini-parthenon and give visitors a taste of what the Acropolis would look like.

Several buildings and monuments surround the giant marble staircase leading into the Acropolis. The Temple of Athena Nike, an 11-foot tall temple with four columns at both ends, pioneered the Ionic style with its scroll-topped columns. The temple was started around 425 BC. At this temple, she was worshipped for bringing the Athenians victory (Nike) in the war against the Persians in 479 BC and over the Spartans in the ongoing Peloponnesian wars. In 2001, the structure was completely disassembled, then cleaned up and put back together.

The tall grey pedestal on the other side is the Monument of Agrippa. It’s 25 ft high and made of marble. Several statues graced this pedestal in ancient times – each ruler of Athens wanted to put his statue on this pedestal.

Once passing through the Propylaea, we were finally at the Acropolis. The Acropolis refers to all the monuments here, of which the most famous is, of course, the Parthenon. It’s also the first building you see as you enter. Even though it was partially covered for renovations, our first views of it took our breath away.

First view of the Parthenon! The building to the left is the Erechtheion. The Panathenaic way runs in-between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion.

To the left of where this picture was taken used to be 30-ft statue of Athena with her shield and spear. It was made of bronze and the top of her spear was so tall that it could be seen from ships in the sea. There is nothing there now but rubble, with the location of the statue marked by 3 stones forming a low wall. This statue was one of three statues of Athena at the Acropolis. The statue disappeared in ancient times and nobody knows where it ended up.

The Parthenon sits on the highest point of the Acropolis, 490 ft above sea level. It was completed 2,500 years ago and stood tall in all its glory for 1,000 years. As Christianity took over around the 5th century AD, the Parthenon became a Christian church. Many of the pagan symbols were removed and the Parthenon was re-decorated with Christian frescoes. In 1450, the Turks arrived and converted it into a mosque. In 1687, an army of Venetians attacked the city and the Turks retreated to the hilltop at the Acropolis. They used it to store their armaments, like gun powder. The Venetians fired a mortar shell, which triggered an explosion that badly damaged the Parthenon. Additional damage occurred in 1801, when the British ambassador got permission to take sculptures from the Parthenon. Half of the sculptures were sent to London and sit in the British Museum to this day. The Greek government continues to negotiate for their return. In the 19th century, the Greeks removed the minarets and turned the site into an archaeological museum.

It is giant – 23,000 ft of space flanked by 8 Doric columns at each end and 17 columns on each side. There were 19 inner columns in the Ionic style. In its heyday, the Parthenon was decorated with statues and reliefs in vivid colors. The West End is the classic view that greets visitors today, but the official entrance back in the day was at the other end.

The architects implemented several optical illusions to combat what they knew about how humans would perceive the temple. For example, the base of the Parthenon bulges slightly in the middle to combat the perception of “sagging.” This also helped rainwater drain. The columns at all ends tilt slightly towards each other – if they extended higher in the sky, they would eventually touch. This was done because truly parallel columns would have appeared to lean away from each other. It is believed that these modifications allowed the Parthenon to withstand so many earthquakes. The corner columns are thicker than the others – otherwise they would look smaller than the others. They also bulge in the middle to make them look like the are bearing a lot of weight.

Only a few reliefs remain from all the sculptures and carvings that decorated the Parthenon. On this side of it, the West End, the cross-beam on top of the eight columns was decorated with panels of relief carvings that depicted the Athenians battling Amazons.

The cross-beams once supported a triangular pediment, most of which is now gone or on display at the Acropolis Museum. Remains of this pediment are better seen from the East End, which was also the original entrance to the Parthenon. The pediment depicted the birth of Athena. I saw some of the original statues from this pediment at the British Museum in 2014; a copy of a lone reclining Dionysus can be seen here.

The 17 columns on the long side, in the Doric style, formed an open-air porch around the temple. You can see some of the interior structures from this side. The scaffolding seen here is part of an ongoing restoration project, which started in 1984. The patches of bright marble you see in the columns are part of that restoration project. In time, the new marble will age to the same color as the rest of the Parthenon.

Across the Panathenaic Way was the Erechtheion. This was where the Panathenaic parade ended. It stands on the same spot where the Mycenaeans built their temple centuries ago – in fact, the stones surrounding the Erechtheion are all that’s left of the Mycenaean temple.

The most famous feature of the Erechtheion is the six statues that form the Porch of the Caryatids. The statues were modeled and named after the women of Caryae, who were famous for their upright posture and noble character. The statues displayed here are copies; five of the originals are on display in the Acropolis Museum, and one is in the British Museum in London. Time and the elements caused a lot of damage to these statues, which used to have hands holding baskets and jugs, and their faces used to have pronounced noses and mouths. This is why the originals have been brought indoors.

The east end of the structure has 6 ionic columns. Inside the temple, there was another statue of Athena, depicting her as the protector of the city. This spot is presumably where Poseidon and Athena fought for naming rights to the city. Athena won the contest by stabbing a rock with her spear, which sprouted an olive tree.

At the far east end of the Acropolis is an observation platform with a giant Greek Flag. In the 1941, when the Nazis occupied Athens, a soldier guarding the flag was ordered to take it down. He wrapped himself into the flag and jumped from this spot. Two months after his death, two teenagers climbed up to the same spot, took down the Nazi flag and raised the Greek flag. A sign at the base of the steps to the viewpoint honors their courage.

The viewpoint provided great 360-degree views of Athens.

We left the Acropolis and exited at the opposite side of where we entered. This allowed us to see the theater of Dionysus up close. Behold photos of one of the many cats we saw in Athens – they are everywhere!

This exit also lead us directly to the Acropolis Museum, which we entered at 9:45 am, 15 minutes before my timed tickets expired. It all worked out after all.

The Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 and replaced a much smaller museum at the Acropolis itself. The collection of the museum is exhibited on three levels, with a middle level that houses the museum shop and cafe. The contents of each level reflect where they were located in the Acropolis.

The first level houses what was found on the slopes of the Acropolis.

A large staircase, which resembles climbing the hill to the Acropolis, leads to the archaic level. Here we found the original Caryatids, remnants from the balustrade of the Temple of Athena Nike and many other structures from the Archaic Period (7th century BC till about 480 BC).

The balustrade of the Temple of Athena Nike
Great views of the Acropolis from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the museum. The damage from the 17th century Venetian siege is quite visible from this angle

The third level is the Parthenon level. This floor re-constructs the frieze and metopes (decorative elements of Doric temples) at the Parthenon in pain-staking detail – the spacing of the columns is the same, and the gallery itself has the same dimensions as the Parthenon. It’s even oriented at the same angle, which makes this level askew compared to the other ones.

The signs do a great job of explaining what each piece used to depict – some of them are so damaged that it’s hard to tell from the fragments that remain.

Reconstruction of the acroterion at the Parthenon. You can tell original fragments from the reconstruction by the color. Arcoteria were ornaments placed at the apex of a pediment

Because so many fragments from the Acropolis have been looted, the restoration work involves tracking pieces that have ended up in other countries; some of those pieces have only recently been identified as coming from the Parthenon. The fragment below from the east frieze is a great example of the gradual damage to the decorations of the Parthenon.

A cast from 1790 created a record of what that piece looked like at the time.
Chiseling off between 1790 and 1801
Two large pieces are cut off and transported to England. This is as a result of that British ambassador getting permission to do this, as I mentioned earlier
This is what it looks like today. The fragments in the lower left were found in Palermo in 1893

Between the Acropolis and its museum, we’d been on our feet for almost 4 hours, so we took a coffee break at the museum cafe. Its terrace had an awesome view of the Acropolis. Between the museum and the audio tour, we felt like we got a great sense of what the Acropolis looked like and why it’s so important to Greeks. Without the audio tour especially, we would have been looking at a lot of ruins without really knowing what they signified.

The audio tour from app proved even more invaluable at the Agora – the ancient Athens town square – where you’re really looking at not much more than a few stones. On the way to the Agora, we passed by the ancient Roman forum built by Emperor Hadrian, which we had seen from the Acropolis. The tower you see in this photo is the Tower of the Winds, which functioned as a time piece. The Roman forum was basically the Roman version on the original Agora, which is just down the street from here. The Romans admired the Greeks greatly and therefore copied lots of things from them.

The picture at the entrance of the Agora gives you a great idea of what it looked like at its peak. The word “agora” means “gathering place.” It began as an open-air marketplace at the base of the Acropolis, but buildings, fountains and statues were gradually added on.

The entrance is where #29 is on this map

The main road here, just as at the Acropolis, is called the Panathenaic Way. It was lined with merchant stalls and it buzzed with people day and night. It was the center of the city of Athens, which at the time (7th BC) had 100,000 citizens.

The Stoa of Attalos, an ancient shopping mall, was built in 150 BC. The building that stands here is not the original, but it’s a faithful reconstruction from the 1950s. It’s built from the same marble as the Parthenon, and has the same mix of Doric and Ionic columns. The ground floor, which once housed shops, is now a museum. The covered porch protected people from the sun and rain.

Since Athens was the birthplace of democracy, it was not surprising that several items in the museum showcased that. We saw an ancient voting machine – called a kleroterion – which was used to choose city council members. Members were selected randomly – citizens put their names in the slots, then black and white balls went into the tubes to select randomly who would serve.

Across the street from the Stoa of Attalos, we saw the remnants of the Middle Stoa – a smaller mall. As Athens grew, the Middle Stoa was built to accommodate the need for more shops.

This huge white fragment is the upper cap – or capital – of a column. It once stood atop of a column that lined the entrance of a huge theater – the Odeon of Agrippa – which we saw later. This style of decoration is called Corinthian.

The Tholos – a rotunda-shaped building – housed Athens’ rulers. The broken column in the middle marks the spot in the center where an altar once stood. This was the center of Athenian government.

Remnants of the Tholos
Nice viewpoint of the Stoa (left) and the Acropolis (right)

The only preserved building in the Agora is the Temple of Hephaistos. It’s very similar to the Parthenon even though it’s half its size – it’s built from the same marble and it’s in the same Doric style.

The temple was dedicated to the god Hephaistos – the blacksmith god. The carved reliefs in the frieze were interesting – some were unfinished, some were removed and are in the Agora museum.

Many famous Athenians spent their time in the Agora. One of them was Socrates, the father of Western philosophy. His disciple, Plato, spent time teaching here, as did Plato’s disciple, Aristotle. Thinking that we were walking in their footsteps gave me goose bumps!

Lastly, we visited the statue of Hardian and the Odeon of Agrippa. The Roman Emperor Hadrian ruled Athens around 120 AD. He loved all things Greek; he financed major projects throughout the city, many of which are still visible today.

Headless Statue of Hadrian – the Roman Emperor who ruled Athens around 120 AD

The Odeon of Agrippa was once fronted by six statues, which served as columns. Of those, only three survive. The Romans built this theater for plays and concerts around 15 BC.

Our last stop in the Agora was the Church of Holy Apostles. It was built around 1000 AD and it marked Athens’ recovery from centuries of invasions. The frescoes inside are from the 18th century.

Between the Acropolis and the Agora, we got a great primer on ancient Athens. It was time for some rest and relaxation at our AirBnB before our evening adventure, which I will talk about in the next blog post.

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