A tour of ancient Athens begins at the Acropolis and my advice is to start early because it will soon be totally over-run with tourists. Arriving right after the 8 am opening, we had the place nearly to ourselves.
Acropolis means high city, also called the sacred rock, and this iconic citadel is where people in ancient times sought refuge when the city below was threatened. A rocky hill overlooking the city is easier to defend, so it makes sense that the most important and sacred monuments were also erected here. The Acropolis went through many iterations but the ruins that are present today were built in the 5th century BCE after the previous structures were destroyed by the Persians. This new construction occurred under the oversight of the statesman, Pericles, during the golden age of Athens and during the lifetime of the philosopher, Socrates. (He’s the dude who proclaimed, “The unexamined life is not worth living” before he drank hemlock when sentenced to death for impiety which basically means he advocated questioning the religious beliefs of the day, aka Greek mythology.)
You’ll enter through the Propylaea, a monumental gateway built around 437 BCE that was definitely designed to impress the visitor.
This fellow, however, doesn’t seem too impressed. It’s just another day in the neighborhood for him. Don’t be surprised by the number of dogs or the scaffolding you see when you visit. Only some of the dogs are actually strays and 2500 year old ruins require shoring up on a regular basis. The current restoration project has been in progress for over 30 years.
Once inside the gates, the main attraction is the Parthenon, a temple built in 432 BCE to honor Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and (sometimes) war, after whom the city of Athens is named.
A chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena originally stood 40 feet tall in the center of the temple until the Byzantines took it to Constantinople in the 5th Century AD, where it disappeared sometime thereafter. Athena held a six foot statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, in her right hand and in her left she held her shield with a snake behind it.
Today, a smaller replica is on display in the National Archeological Museum in Athens.
Much of the damage to the Parthenon that is still visible today occurred in 1687 when mainland Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. At that time the Parthenon was used as a storehouse for ammunition. (Previously, it was a mosque among other things.) When the Venetians attacked, cannonballs striking the Parthenon caused the gunpowder stored inside to explode, killing at least 300 people and destroying 28 of the columns along with other damage to the edifice (Nova, 2008).
As an interesting side note, there is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon and the statue of Athena in, of all places, Nashville, Tennessee, in the USA. The Parthenon replica was built in 1897 as part of the state’s centennial celebration and the statue of Athena was completed in 1990 although the gold gilt wasn’t added until 2002.
The Erechtheion is a smaller temple on the Acropolis which was home to the famous Caryatids, six massive female statues. Their meaning has been lost but their existence has not. Five of the originals are housed nearby in the New Acropolis Museum and what you see today on the Acropolis are exact replicas. The sixth is in the British Museum in London. More on that later.
There is also another small temple on the Acropolis, Athena Nike, which is often overlooked because it’s to the right of the Propylaea upon entry. Unfortunately, I overlooked it and didn’t get a photo. I did, however, photograph the elevator that makes the Acropolis accessible to the disabled. That’s probably often overlooked as well.
And here are a couple more scenes from around the Acropolis.
Next time we’ll visit the New Acropolis Museum as we continue our tour of Athens.
Based on events from 2009 and 2013
Nova, (2008). Secrets of the Parthenon. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-parthenon.html