14th May 2014
My final day in Athens. I have saved the iconic for last as I plan to see the Acropolis this morning.
The lovely staff at my hotel agree to keep my bags for the day after I check out. I’m happy I chose a chain hotel and I don’t even regret the proximity to Omonia Square, the warm welcome I’ve received from everyone here has been worth it.
I’m up early, I plan to be the first one through the gates at the Acropolis.
On the metro I am admittedly distracted by how much I don’t want to go home. There is so much about Athens to love. Even the metro stations play music on the platforms, something you’d never get in London. I’ll also miss the 70 cent journeys, which make me increasingly resentful of the ridiculously prices charged by TfL at home.
My favourite part of the Athens metro system has to be the mini museums. At various stations archaeological finds have been found during construction. Where other cities may have bulldozed such finds out of the way, Athens has kept them, preserved in situ, with signs explaining what the remains consist of. I doubt the locals notice much, but it’s a nice touch that I appreciate.
Emerging at Akropoli station, it’s a pleasant walk down the pedestrianised Diontsiou Areoagitou street towards the Acropolis entrance. I’ve so far seen it thronged with people, it’s wonderful to be here so early in the morning and be practically alone.
I’m excited for today. The first (and until now, last) time I was on the Acropolis I was ten years old. My family were staying on Kefalonia and my parents had booked us on an overnight coach tour to the capital. My memories of the trip are a little hazy, but I’d never forget the Parthenon. My mother still remembers the tour guide asking the group if anyone knew any of the Greek myths and being amused that a precocious little girl began reciting them back to her. Now, having grown up a little and read dozens more books I’m more in love with ancient history than ever and I’m looking forward to appreciating my surroundings from an adult perspective.
I’m still incredibly early, even though the Acropolis opens at 8am. I therefore attempt to sneak a peek into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which never seems to be open for tours, only performances.
The back of the skene (background behind the stage area) is easily viewed, marking this out as a theatre built with Roman influence. Greek theatres rarely had any permanent buildings behind the performance area, letting the landscape provide most of the scenery. Over time small buildings were constructed to allow for costume and prop changes, but it was the Romans who really kicked skene building up a notch. The fact that it was built by Herodes Atticus will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited archaeological sites in Greece or Italy either, as he was an illustrious builder.
Born in Marathon in 101 AD, Herodes Atticus came from a Greek family with a political background in Athens and Rome. He was educated in Greece and Italy, becoming a great politician himself. He was Archon of Athens in 140 AD and Consul of Rome in 143 AD, naming several emperors among his close friends. He had a penchant for building wherever he went. Already on this trip I’ve seen the stadium at Delphi which was rebuilt for the final time by Herodes Atticus, as well as a nymphaeum I saw a couple of years ago at Olympia.
Heading up the path to the Acropolis entrance, I’m still really early, so I take the opportunity to climb the Areopagus again when it is practically empty. Only one other person is up there, we share a conspiratorial smile.
One of the unexpected bonuses of being the first to arrive at the Acropolis is that I get to witness the Greek soldiers perform the ceremonial raising of the national flag above the city, which they do every morning and return to take it down each evening.
I’m smug to be literally the first tourist following them up, greeted by the virtually empty Acropolis.
People started to inhabit the Acropolis about 6,000 years ago, being easily defendable. Buildings and temples started to crop up but the entire hill, along with the city below, was razed by the invading Persians in 480 BC. The Athenian statesman Pericles ordered the destroyed buildings on the Acropolis to be rebuilt, bigger and grander than before. He moved the treasury of the Delian League (a group of city states who had allied with each other to fight off the Persians) from Delos to Athens and essentially used the ‘keep the Persians out of Greece’ fund to pay for his elaborate building project whilst asserting greater and decidedly imperialistic dominance over the other members of the League.
Pericles employed the very best architects and craftsmen to build his grand vision. Mnesicles was chosen to design the Propylaea, Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects of the Parthenon and the designer of decoration was the superstar sculptor, Pheidias. Pheidias also personally created the huge statue of Athena that stood within the Parthenon.
Critics, (of which there were many,) condemned the building programme as unnecessarily expensive, a misappropriation of the defence budget and as a vain display of egotistical arrogance on the part of Pericles. One complained that Pericles was “dressing up Athens like a painted whore.”
Nevertheless, jobs were created for thousands of labourers, skilled and unskilled alike.The results were undeniably impressive.
The Propylaea was the only gateway to the Acropolis, the steep gradient of the slopes leaving only one side of the hill suitable for an ascent up to the flat top of the Acropolis. It is built with the same Pentelic marble as the Parthenon. There were two wings, the one on the left acting as an ancient art gallery.
On the right, as you approach the gate, there is a bastion on the defensive wall that is crowned with a small but beautiful temple to Athena Nike. The temple was erected in thanks for victory over the Persian invaders and housed a wooden statue of the Goddess that was saved from their destruction of the city. Honey cakes and flowers would be left as small sacrifices at the altar within.
The altar to Athena Nike dates from 566 BC, the year of the inaugural Panathenaic Festival. The temple was build to house it during the middle of the Persian Wars (490-480 BC,) and was remodelled and rebuilt later by Kallikrates in 425 BC.
Once through the Propylaea the Parthenon looms on the right and the Erechtheion on the right.
The Erechtheion was completed in 406 BC on the site of an earlier temple and various shrines. The necessity to preserve these sacred areas, situated over various levels, resulted in a multi-level temple with several dedications.
It stands on the site of the home of Kekrops, the half-man half-snake mythical king of Athens. Legend records that Poseidon and Athena both wished to become patron deity of the city. Athena suggested that they both present the city with a gift and Kekrops would judge the contest and choose who was most worthy. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and a spring appeared which he named the Erectheis Sea. The citizens were thrilled with the source of water until they tasted it and realised that Poseidon, God of the Oceans, and made it salty. Athena created an olive tree that would produce olives for eating, oil for cooking, heating and lighting and wood for building. Kekrops duly declared Athena the worthy victor for her practical gift and the city is named after her to this day.
The pinnacle of the Periklean building project is obviously the Parthenon. Designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates, the temple building was finished in 438 BC after 9 years of construction. The decorations were concluded six years after that with the pedimental statues by Pheidias. The temple is the largest Doric temple to ever be completed in the Greek world (two would be attempted to dwarf it in Sicily, both would never be finished.) It was built to replace an older temple that was razed by the Persians, Perikles ensured that this new temple would be larger, grander and far more beautiful.
The Parthenon famously has no straight lines in the architecture. Instead, every line is a graceful, subtle curve. This creates an optical illusion that each line is perfectly parallel when seen as a whole.
The temple housed a gigantic chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena designed by Pheidias and completed in . At 12 metres tall, it was an entire 3 metres taller than the Athena statue just outside the Parthenon. The statue would be the downfall of Pheidias. The enemies of Perikles tried to hurt him through his friendship with Pheidias, whom they charged with stealing gold designated for the decoration of the statue and that Pheidias was blasphemous enough to create portraits of himself and Perikles in the decoration on the shield of the statue. Whilst he was able to prove he stole no gold, Pheidias was thrown into prison for impiety. Some believe he died there, although some scholars now theorise that he was exiled to Elis, where he completed an even bigger chryselephantine statue of Zeus which would later be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Historians can’t seem to decide which statue was completed first, shedding no light on the fate of Pheidias which will apparently remain a mystery.
The temple, along with all other pagan temples within the Byzantine Empire, was closed by decree of Theodosius III in 435 AD. The cult statue was removed along with the bronze Athena Promachos to Constantinople where it too was eventually destroyed. The temple was then converted into a Christian church in the 6thC AD, undergoing some structural changes. Ottoman Turks invaded Athens in 1456 and the building soon became a mosque, complete with minaret.
The Venetians were next to attack Athens in 1687. The Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On the 26 September the Venetians fired mortar rounds from the Hill of the Muses toward the fortified Acropolis. One scored a direct hit on the Parthenon, igniting the powder stores and destroying much of the building which had, up until now, managed to survive practically intact.
The Venetians eventually gave up and left and the Ottoman Turks remained, their power eventually declining in the 18thC. In 1801 the Sultan allowed the British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, to collect statuary from the ruins and transport them to the UK, a decision of which the legality has been debated furiously ever since.
When Greece gained independence in 1832 all traces of the mosque and other medieval structures were slowly removed from the Acropolis. In 1975 a grand scheme of restoration began, which is finally nearing completion. Fallen stone blocks are being slowly rearranged and moved back to their original positions, rebuilding as much of the Parthenon as possible from what remains.
Visitors descend the Acropolis down the southern slope with another set of gorgeous ruins.
The Theatre of Dionysus is one of the earliest theatres in the Greek world, dating from the 5thC BC. Originally a set of wooden benches surrounding a beaten earth orchestra, it is believed that stone seating was installed and the seating area enlarged in the 4thC BC.
An ancient festival to Dionysus was refounded here in 534 BC by the tyrant Peisistratus and rapidly grew in importance. Theatrical plays were performed here in competition in the month of Elaphebolion (late March.) Over five days the festival celebrated the God of Wine, Dionysus. After processions and sacrifices, the plays were performed. Three writers would each produce a three tragic plays and a satyr play for some bawdy relief. Comic plays were introduced in 487 BC allowing five comic playwrights to submit a single play and compete for a separate prize. In 449 BC a prize was introduced for best dramatic performance.
The first recorded winner is a man named Thespis who entered the winning tragedy in the inaugural 534 BC Dionysia. He performed in his own play and is apparently responsible for characters having their own lines rather than having the chorus explain events to the audience. Thespis would become so famous that all actors would forever be known as thespians in his honour.
It’s very special to stand in the same theatre where Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles all debuted their tragedies that are still being performed regularly two and a half millenia later.
Aeschylus won in 484 BC with an unknown tragedy, in472 BC with The Persians, in 467 BC with Seven Against Thebes, in 463 BC with The Suppliants and again in 458 BC with the Oresteia.
Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which only seven have survived. It’s believed that Sophocles won the Dionysia about 18 times and never came lower than second. His trilogy of Theban plays following the life of Oedipus were not written for a single festival, but spread out over several years.
Euripides only won on five occasions but has nevertheless secured his place in theatrical history with Alcestis, Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women, Orestes and The Bacchae which won Euripides a posthumous first prize in 405 BC.
It’s amusing to imagine Euripides watching tight lipped from the cavea seating as the comic poet Aristophanes skewered him in at least three comedic plays. It must have been quite the experience to be a renowned tragedian and have to sit through watching yourself as the character in a comedy written to poke fun at you whilst thousands of Athenians laughed to see your satirised and parodied.
If it was any consolation to Euripides (and it probably wasn’t,) Aristophanes was infamous for taking aim at prominent Athenians in the thirty comedies he penned. Plato accused him of slandering Socrates so badly in The Clouds that he considered the play instrumental in Socrates’ trial and subsequent execution.
Tragedians and comedians alike used their plays as a platform to discuss politics and current events, offering morality tales and provoking discussion. Playwrights helped shaped Athenian history, right here in this theatre.
The festival continued for around 300 years.
After a break in the shade for lunch, I decided to head to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and enormous structure that took a mammoth 638 years to complete. The Arch of Hadrian marks where the ancient road led from the centre of Athens to the sanctuary.
The temple was probably started by Peisistratus or his son, Hippias in the 6thC BC. They never got near to finishing it and in the Classical period it was deliberately left uncompleted to warn against hubris. In the 3rdC BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to continue with the building work when Athens was under Seleucid control. Under the Romans, Sulla stole two columns in 86 BC and sent them to Rome to incorporate into the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. Hadrian finally managed to complete the temple in 131 AD. The temple didn’t stay pristine for long, being seriously damaged in the Herulian sack of Athens in 267 AD and there are no signs that attempts at repairs were made. The temple turned into a medieval quarry and remnants are scattered amongst the walls of many a medieval Athenian church.
None of the tourists surrounding me seemed to bother with the lower half of the site which includes sanctuaries erected along the banks of the Ilissos river. A shame, as the ruins are quite atmospheric and the area was a popular haunt of Socrates. It was a notorious ‘pick up’ spot in Athens for men seeking men, and whether Socrates indulged in homosexual activities with men he met here or not (and he probably did,) he definitely enjoyed spending considerable time here striking up philosophical conversations.
Final stop of the day before my flight home is the Panathenaic Stadium.
A stadium has stood on the site since about 565 BC, rebuilt in marble in 329 BC by Lycurgus and enlarged by Herodes Atticus in 140 AD bringing the spectator seating area to a capacity of 50,000.
The ruins of the stadium were rebuilt in 1870 and used in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Olympic events were also held here in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
It’s fabulous seeing a building in situ, looking as fresh as it did to ancient eyes.
With a heavy heart, the time has come for me to reluctantly return home to the UK.
I’ve fallen in love with Athens, no longer the smoggy, congested mess that I vaguely remember from the mid nineties. I will be back…