Exploring the Ancient City (Athens Travel Journal – Day Four)

11th May 2014

The Kerameikos is a little visited archaeological site in Athens. As I make my way there I can’t help but speculate that it is little visited because it is poorly sign posted.

Firstly, don’t head for the metro station called Keramikos. You need to go to Thissio station. Exiting the metro, there are no signposts for the site. Ignore the traders at the flea market on the right, turn left out of the station, left and left again to Ermou street. Two thirds of the way down Ermou, the entrance to the site is on the right.  It is included in the Acropolis multi site ticket. I’d advise starting with the excellent small museum to help get a better sense of the place, there is also an excellent sign complete with map at the top of the path that descends down into the archaeological area.

The area of the Kerameikos was once within one of the demes just outside the city wall of Athens that was named the Kerameis. It was known as the Potters’ Quarter as it was home to ceramics makers, (the Greek word for clay is kéramos and the English word ‘ceramic’ derives from it.) There is a small river running through the area called the Eridanos that brought in clay deposits. Those breathtakingly beautiful Athenian vases you see in museums were more than likely made here.

It was also (not that the signs at the site will tell you!) the main red light district where pornai, the lowest class of prostitute, who were both male and female and could be hired for the smae price as a loaf of bread or beaker of wine. The makeshift brothels were known by the Athenians as ‘fuck-factories.’

More permanent than both the potters and prostitutes, the Kerameikos was also the site of a great cemetery that started outside the Dipylon Gate and straddled the sacred road that led to Eleusis. Some of the funerary monuments remain in situ, a few are replicas. The originals are either housed in the on site museum or the National Archaeological Museum.


This lion once adorned the Sacred Gate circa 590 BC


This grave relief of a woman dates from circa 350 BC.


This young man is Dexileos, son of Lysanias. He was a cavalry soldier in the Athenian military force who was killed in 394 BC fighting the Spartans near Corinth. He was 20 years old. His family erected this monument to his sacrifice.


Leather sandal soles

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Make up jars

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Mnesimachos must have really annoyed somebody to warrant them making this leaden curse object in his image. He is depicted with his arms bound, lying in a coffin.


Dozens of grave markers surround the museum.


The grave relief of the sisters Demetria and Pamphile…


…and the replica standing here the original was found


A replica of Dexileos


Tombs along the Sacred Way


This (replica) bull is from the grave enclosure of Dionysios of Kollytos


What remains of the Eridanos river


Outside the Dipylon Gate, at the intersection of the Sacred Way and the Street of Tombs, is a sanctuary known as the Tritopatreion. A small wall enclosed the sacred grove dedicated to the anonymous, common ancestors of the Athenians. Newlyweds would often come to the sanctuary to ask the ancestors to bless them with sons.


The Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC. They were defeated shortly after at the Battle of Salamis, but the city, particularly the Acropolis, was in tatters. In 478 BC Themistocles built new fortified city walls using recycled stones from destroyed buildings and nearby tombs. The walls effectively cut the Kerameikos into two sections.


The Sacred Gate in the Themistoclean Wall, looking toward the city. This gate straddled the Eridanos River on the left and the sacred road to Eleusis on the right


This unassuming ancient road was once on of the most important roads in the ancient city. It runs away from the Dipylon Gate and leads to Plato’s Academy. On either side was the Demosion Sema (Public Tomb,) the burial place of Athenians killed in battle and of prominent citizens. Pericles, Solon, Cleisthenes, Ephialtes and Chrysippos are among the famous Athenians known to be buried here.


The scant remains of the once mighty Dipylon Gate, one of the main entrances into the city. The great procession of the Panathenaic Festival started here and led up the Acropolis. The Dipylon was the largest gateway in the ancient world.

Socrates spent a lot of his youth frequenting the rough and ready area of the Kerameikos, conversing with foreign philosophers and learning about what made people tick. It’s pleasant to imagine him here. It’s not too hard to imagine him taking part in the Panathenaic procession, so I decide to follow his route and head to the Agora.

The Acropolis may be the grand edifice that a lot of visitors flock to, but the Agora is where history happened. It was the beating heart of the ancient city, the place where Athenians spent their time and public life took place.

The area was cleared of private houses in the 6th century BC by Peisistratus, converting into to a public area. Destroyed during the Persian sack of the city, it was rebuilt at the same time as the erection of the Themistoclean walls and developed slightly haphazardly after that.

So, following the Panathenaic Way, I used the northern entrance.


The Panathenaic Way, leading up to the Acropolis in the background.

It’s difficult not to get excited by the Temple of Hephaestus on the left. It is beautifully preserved with the cella (the walls of the temple chamber) intact and some decoration left in situ.


The Temple of Hephaestus, God of fire, metalwork, sculptors, artisans and volcanoes. He was the blacksmith of Mount Olympus and crafted the weapons and objects of Gods and heroes.


The pronaos, or portico


Metopes are still visible, most never actually having been started due to workers being diverted to the building of the Parthenon. They were designed to depict the Labours of Heracles and the deeds of Theseus


The rear of the temple with the frieze in tact, again depicting the deeds of Theseus


Looking through the opisthodomos (back room) to the cella (inner temple room) out to the pronaos and to the agora beyond


Construction on the temple commenced in 449 BC and was finally finished in 415 BC. It has survived so completely due to being converted into a Greek orthodox church in the 7th century AD.


This is all that remains of the ancient Athenian state prison. It was here that Socrates would have been forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock in 399 BC. It was situated in a grubby area of the agora, surrounded by marble and metal workers.


Whilst Socrates was alive he loved to visit the shop of a cobbler named Simon for lengthy conversations. This house yielded hobnails and shoe making paraphernalia as well as a cup with the name SIMON scratched into it.


Hardly anything remains of the Tholos (nicknamed the ‘skias’ (sun hat) by Athenians due to the conical roof.) It was built by Kimon in 470 BC and was used by the prytaneis (senators) of the Boule (council of citizens.) During the year, each of the ten tribes sent 50 council members to serve 35/36 days after which a different tribe would take over. 17 members of the Boule had to be present at the Tholos 24/7 and whilst they resided there they were fed at the expense of the state.


The remains of the monument dedicated the the Eponymous Heroes, the ten Athenian heroes who lent their names to the ten tribes created in the reforms of Cleisthenes. Each hero was depicted in a huge bronze statue. Notices were posted beneath, such as criminal charges being brought to court.


This Altar to Zeus was moved from the Pnyx to the Agora by Augustus


The Temple of Ares has not survived like the Temple of Hephaestus behind

The agora would have been buzzing with food stalls, market traders, juries and philosophers. If a visitor wished to step back in time and see one of these buildings as it was, the Stoa of Attalos has been rebuilt exactly as it once would have looked. A Hellenistic building, it was a shady portico that may have housed shops. It now houses a brilliant little museum full of unassuming treasures.

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If an Athenian citizen showed a little too much ambition and was deemed a threat to democracy, the citizens of the city who were eligible (ie, male, freeborn and over thirty) could vote to exile them for ten years. This was called ostracism. Broken pottery sherds were used as tokens. Each voter would scratch the name of the person they wished to ostracise onto the pottery and placed it into an urn. If a man received 6,000 votes or more, hed had to leave the city within 10 days and not return for a decade on penalty of death.

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This ostrakon bears the name of Themistocles, ostracised in 471 BC


This is an automated jury service machine. Volunteers for juries (at least 500 strong for each case) had their name incised on a strip of bronze which they would place in an available slot. White and black balls were dropped in a random order down the side. The colour of ball that fell by each horizontal row of names determined which Athenians served that day.


The tokens used in the jury service machine.


These metal discs were used by jurors. Each juror was given two discs, one with a hollow axle and one solid. They would vote by placing one of the discs into a ballot box. The design means that each juror could keep their vote anonymous by simply covering the axle with his finger. A solid axle represented acquittal and a hollow axle represented condemnation. These are the same kind of discs that would have been used by the jury at the trial of Socrates in 399 BC, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of the city.

There is a steep walkway leading up from the Agora to the Areopagus Hill. Climbing it in the hot early afternoon like I did is perhaps not sensible, but the Acropolis entrance opposite the Areopagus has a cafe. I’ve never been so glad to pay a small fortune for a lemon granita in my life, thankfully the granita drinks here are delicious as well as refreshing.

There are two ways to reach the top of the Areopagus, a steep, narrow ancient staircase hewn into the rock thousands of years ago, or a metal staircase complete with handrails. Unless you have sturdy walking boots or a subconscious wish to break your ankle, use the metal staircase.


Looks harmless, but I saw three people fall over trying to climb to the top…

Once at the top, you are rewarded with views like this…


The Acropolis from the AreopagusIMG_8158


The name of the hill means ‘Rock of Ares.’ Ares was the God of War. He was supposedly tried by the other Olympian gods on this spot for the murder of Poseidon’s son. Originally used as the meeting place Council of Nobles, after the Solonic reforms the hill continued to be used as a judicial court. Aeschylus even used the Areopagus as the setting of the trial of Orestes, charged with murdering his mother Clytemnestra.

In the 4th century BC a famous courtesan named Phryne was the centre of scandalous trial here. The story goes that she was charged with a capital crime and was defended by one of her clients, the orator Hypereides. He thought he was going to lose the case, so he marched over to Phryne and removed her dress. Apparently, having gazed upon her beautiful body, the jury acquitted her. A woman so beautiful must surely be beloved of Aphrodite, perhaps the jury did not want to arouse the anger of the Goddess of Love.

Saint Paul delivered a sermon here as described in Acts 17:16-34. He succeeded in converting some of the people who had gathered to listen, including a judge named Dionysius who, according to the Acts of the Apostles, become the first Bishop of Athens.

The rock surface is slippery, uneven and borderline perilous. It’s also usually strewn with litter, but don’t let this stop you, but remember to wear sturdy shoes and watch your step.


The Agora, seen from the Areopagus

It’s a short walk back down the hill to Plaka where I’m heading to the Roman Forum, built under Julius Caesar and Augustus. Athens was made part of the new Roman province of Achaia in 146 BC and there are some lovely Roman ruins in Athens.

Entrance to the forum is through the Arch of Athena Archegetis.


Gate of Athena Archegetis


The forum contained porticoes and a basilica as well as plenty of space for market stalls..


The ‘Agoranomeion’


A public toilet block with communal benches.


Offices within the Southern Portico


There was a large Propylon entrance gate at the Eastern end


The main draw for tourists is the Tower of the Winds.

It is a giant clock. There was a clepsydra (water clock) within the tower, sundials on each side, and a weathervane on the roof. Reliefs around the top show the direction the wind is coming from with depictions of the eight deities of the wind directions.

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This evening I have scheduled a tweet-up with Victoria (@pinkbarbouni) so that she can introduce me to Athenian cafe culture with lots of cake. It’s a wonderful end to the day and I’d like to thank Victoria for being so lovely and welcoming!

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