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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once at the top, you are rewarded with views like this…
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.
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.
The forum contained porticoes and a basilica as well as plenty of space for market stalls..
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.
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!