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National Archaeological Museum

[Athens, Greece, May 20, 2019]

After our marathon through Athens and its outskirts yesterday, we were looking forward to a less busy day. The only things on our agenda were a visit to the National Archaeological Museum and returning the rental car we used to go see the sunset at Cape Sounion.

The National Archaeological Museum houses some of the most important artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece from prehistory to late antiquity. It is considered one of the greatest museums in the world and contains the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity worldwide. The museum was established in 1829. It had various locations until the current site was selected in 1866, but the building, in the neo-classical design popular at the time, wasn’t completed until 1889.

The collection is in chronological order, which makes it very easy to follow along, and signage was plentiful and available in English. Even still, we loved that Rick Steves Audio Europe app had a tour of this museum in its collection. It was much easier to listen, and this way we were sure to hit the highlights of the collection, all below.

Gold death mask, also known as the Mask of Agamemnon (1550 BC). It’s a funeral mask, worn over the face of a buried man. From the Mycenaean age (1600 – 1200 BC).
The Warrior Crater – a two-handled vase from the Mycanaean era. A woman to the left waves at warriors leaving for battle. This provided the world its first view of a Mycanaean soldier.

These artifacts from the Minoan and Mycanaean cultures were fascinating. Little is known about them, and what we do know we’ve discovered because of artifacts like these. We don’t know what happened to either culture, but they were both gone by 1200 BC. The next 400 years are known as the Dark Age of Greece. The next set of artifacts picks up in 8th century BC.

The Dipylon Vase. It is painted with a funeral scene. From the Geometric period, 750 BC. It was discovered near the Dipylon gate, one of the entrances into the city, where it gets its name from.

Kouros (naked male statue) from Sounion, Archaic period, 600 BC. The statue was a votive offering to Poseidon and stood before his temple – we visited that last night.
Kore (clothed female statue). 550 BC. Can you see traces of red paint on her dress?
Statue of Zeus or Poseidon. We would be able to tell by the weapon thrown (thunderbolt for Zeus, trident for Poseidon), but since that did not survive, we don’t know for sure. Bronze, Classical period, ca. 460 BC.

One of the most prized pieces in the collection is the statuette of Athena, also known as Varvakeion Athena because it was found near the Varvakeion school in Athens. This statuette is the best preserved copy (from 250 AD) of the statue of Athena that was erected inside the Parthenon in 438 BC. The original was 12 times bigger and was made of golden ivory.

This bronze status of a horse and jockey was one of my favorite pieces. It was created using the “lost wax” technique. A copy of the statue would be created from clay; then another layer of wax would be added on, then another layer of clay. The whole statue would then be heated in a furnace, where the wax melted – hence “lost wax.” The space left between the inner and the outer layer of clay was then filled with molten bronze.

This grave relief of a horse and a boy shows the progression in the skills of the Greeks. Compare this to the Kouros and Kore we saw earlier. There is so much more realism and movement in this sculpture, right down to the horse’s veins and muscles and the boy’s anxious face.
Bronze statue of a youth, 240 BC. It most likely depicts Paris, who was responsible for starting the Trojan war when he judged a beauty contest between two Greek goddesses. The statue shows Paris as he’s finally made up his mind and is handing the prize of a golden apple to the winning goddess.
Aphrodite, Pan and Eros, 100 BC, marble

There was much more to see in the museum, but we were happy with the highlights we saw. Our AirBnB was about 30 minutes away on foot. We enjoyed being out of the tourist center and getting a feel for what everyday Athens looked like.

We enjoyed some downtime in our AirBnB, where we finally had the chance to watch the season finale of Game of Thrones. We’d been avoiding social media for over a day to stay away from spoilers!

Since we enjoyed the rooftop bar at the Hotel Grande Bretagne so much, we decided to go there again. This time, we got an even better seat along the side that faces the Acropolis. The downside was having to chase away the pigeons, who are pretty aggressive and will get on the table in search for bread crumbs.

The Grande Bretagne is on the right. You can see the rooftop bar where the Greek flags are
The view of the Acropolis from the Grande Bretagne never gets old

When we left the Grande Bretagne, it was almost time for the changing of the guard ceremony at the Parliament building in Syntagma square. It happens every hour on the hour. The guards are members of the elite Evzones unit, a light infantry unit of the Hellenic army. The Presidential Guard is purely ceremonial and provides guards for the Presidential Mansion and the Parliament building. It also provides personnel for the raising and lowering of the Greek flag at the Acropolis and for parades. The guards are required to be completely motionless and at attention when they are not switching position. For this reason, there is always an Evzone in military fatigues nearby ensuring that nobody approaches or harasses the guards.

Their uniforms are quite unique. The red fez with a long silk tassel is called a farion. The long tunic, a doulamas, has summer and winter versions – the winter one is blue and the summer one is light khaki, as seen in the photos. The clogs with the pompons are called tsarouchia. The white woolen stockings and the black garters complete the look. Their changing ceremony is much more elaborate than the one the Bulgarian guards do in front of the Bulgarian presidency. It was fun to watch.

With that, our second full day in Athens was complete and our visit to Greece drew to a close. The next day, we headed to Turkey!

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