10th May 2014
My hotel is on one of the roads leading off Omonia Square, an admittedly rough area of town. It’s a lovely Best Western that just happens to be a few doors down from a derelict porn cinema. Every time I walk past it I laugh when I think what my mother would say if she were here. There are few benefits of being this close to Omonia Square, but one of them is the proximity to the National Archaeological Museum. After the busy day I had yesterday I’m able to treat myself to an extra thirty minutes in bed before I take the short walk to the museum.
First stop, however, is next door to the huge museum. The Epigraphical (inscriptions) Museum is housed in the National Archaeological Museum but has a separate side entrance down a smelly street covered with graffiti and broken glass. Don’t let the grim approach put you off. It being a Saturday I’d initially intended to be waiting outside the entrance at 8.30 ready for the doors to open. As it is, I am the first tourist through the door gone 9 o’clock. The six staff in the lobby look genuinely surprised to see me and one of them suddenly remembers he needs to switch on the gallery lights for me. I get the impression that I may be the only tourist all morning, if not all day. The Epigraphical Museum is usually the haunt of academics which is reflected in the exhibit labels. Labels are few and far between and even most of those aren’t translated into English. I’m a Classics autodidact and haven’t even considered learning how to read ancient Greek, something I may try and rectify after this visit. Exhibits are packed onto dusty shelves as if in a warehouse, but with a little perseverance it is possible to discover some absolute gems within the small museum.
The Epigraphical Museum may be small and at some times confusing, but it is well worth a visit and there is no ticket fee.
Around the corner it is time to enter the National Archaeological Museum, groups of tourists and students already thronging through the doors. As I mount the steps to the entrance I overhear an American teenage girl petulantly complain to her friend that there is no point visiting the museum, all she wants is to “see the Acropolypse.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I do make a mental note that if I’m ever in a Classics themed rock band I’m calling it “Acropolypse.”
The entrance fee is a very reasonable 7 euros. Keep your ticket with you at all times, the entrance lobby leads off to three separate galleries and each gallery required you to scan the bar code on your ticket. Failure to do so earns you a sharp rebuke from the heavily muscled security guards. I understand the need for revenue protection and that the museum is busy, but this seems a little authoritarian. That said, as soon as I spy the first exhibits I’m willing to forgive the museum anything. I advise starting with the gallery that is directly opposite the entrance which houses archaeological finds from Mycenae. It’s one of the most crowded, but the larger groups are being led by guides and teachers who rarely hog a display case for more than a few minutes. If you’re patient you’ll be able to get a close up view of everything you wish to see.
Most popular is obviously the gold death mask that Heinrich Schliemann over-excitedly declared had belonged to Agamemnon. Photos of this object are included in dozens of my books at home, I’m very excited to see the real thing up close.
The next gallery I visit is the sculpture gallery. This museum houses a huge collection of beautiful statues and reliefs from all over Greece. Don’t underestimate the size of the museum, plan to spend several hours here. I was like a kid in a sweet shop for nearly a whole day.
First up, Roman statuary. Having carted Greek originals of statues back to Rome, the Romans then proceeded to fill Greece back up with statues of their own. Several emperors were grecophiles and spent a lot of money beautifying the cities of Greece, perhaps to atone for the destruction meted out on the Greeks by their ancestors.
At this point I decide to head to the lovely little cafe as I am desperately thirsty. After a gorgeous lemon granita I initially thought I’d carry on where I left off, but got distracted. It doesn’t really matter if the galleries are viewed in strict order.
If you head upstairs, you’ll find a ceramics gallery and an exhibition dedicated to Thera, the ancient name for the volcanic island of Santorini. An eruption in circa 1627 BC destroyed the Minoan civilisations of the island and of nearby Crete. Some archaeologists now believe the eruption and devastation were the foundation of the Atlantis myth as told by Plato, making Akrotiri, the ancient city of Thera a possible Atlantis.
The exhibition is small (after all, most finds are at the archaeological museum on the island,) but the pieces are amazing.
Moving on to the ceramics gallery, one of the most interesting sections of which is the collections of failures.
As I walk around the museum several notes tell me that exhibits from the Antikythera wreck have been temporarily moved to the special exhibition space at the rear of the ground floor, so I make my way over. As luck would have it, I’m here mere weeks before the exhibition closes and the artifacts go back to their scattered homes.
Whoever designed this exhibition deserves a huge raise. The rooms are lit beautifully, with sounds and light effects lending a submerged atmosphere. It is my favourite part of the visit.
A ship sank just south of the Peloponnese circa 55 BC. The wreck was discovered in 1900 and the finds were to shock the archaeology and science communities.
As a result of being on the ocean floor for nearly two millennia, some of the finds are damaged, but with unexpectedly beautiful results.
Sculpture aside, the wreck is most famous for the Antikythera Mechanism. A small metal object was found on the ship, covered in tiny writing. It is made up of cogs and gears and is the oldest known analogue computer in the world. I’ve seen a few documentaries about the mechanism and it’s pictured in many books, but to see it up close is akin to magical. It is believed to be designed to chart astronomy or astrology.
Having spent several hours in the National Archaeological Museum I have fallen in love with the place. I am, however, hungry and in need of a rest. A gyros wrap is desperately called for, followed by a siesta at the hotel.
Later in the afternoon, the heat is fading and it’s time to head south. I’ve come to see the Pnyx, which one could call the cradle of democracy.
Cleisthenes was an Athenian noble who, upon his return from exile in 507 BC, set about abolishing tyranny and reforming Athenian government.
- Cleisthenes broke the power of the aristocracy by reorganising the tribes of Athens. The landscape was divided into three zones: urban, inland and coastal. Each zone was split into ten sections called trittyes (thirtieths.) Each Trittys comprised of 1-10 demes, depending on size. There were 139 demes, made of simple subdivisions of land. Some demes were towns, some rural areas. Cleisthenes then created ten phylai (tribes,) each consisting of one rural trittys, one urban and one coastal. Tribes were named after Athenian heroes. Deliberately, no one tribe had adjacent trittyes. This destroyed the old system of four hereditary Ionian tribes.
- He reorganised the Boule, the citizen council whose role was to organise the daily affairs of Athens and increased their number from 400 to 500, 50 men from each tribe. Members (males over thirty years of age only,) were drawn by lot in their deme. Each served on the council every day for a year. No man could serve more than twice and never more than once a decade.
- The Boule would regularly hold an Ekklesia (Assembly) on the Pnyx where all male citizens with a minimum of two years military service could attend and have their say on all decisions relating to the government of Athens. Our word democracy comes from demos (people) and kratos (power.) Any man present was entitled to speak and vote.
The Pnyx could hold around 6,000 men. The name Pnyx derives from “tightly packed together.”
I was alone save for a couple of dog walkers, and was able to soak up the atmosphere and beautiful views.
I decided to walk back down and up the street that starts at the Theatre of Herodes Atticus up towards Monastiraki metro station, but on a whim I decide to visit Hadrian’s Library earlier than scheduled. In the setting sunlight the Roman ruins are irresistible and once again almost deserted. The Library is included on the brilliant combined ticket for nearly all the archaeological sites in the city. For 12 euros (bargain!) your ticket allows you entrance to the Library, the Acropolis, the Agora, the Kerameikos district, The Roman agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus as well as any site museums over a three day period. I’m not sure how many people head to more than the Acropolis and the Agora as many tourists are on day trips, but if you are visiting Athens and have time to see all of the sites mentioned, you really should. And 12 euros is a steal.
Hadrian decided to build a library complex in 132 AD. It housed an auditorium, reading rooms, art galleries and a large courtyard. Since then the site has been built over many times with three churches preserving portions of the architecture. Little remains today, but with a little imagination the site comes alive. Signs on site are plentiful and helpful.