For all too many people, ATHENS is a city that happened two-and-a-half thousand years ago. It’s true that even now the past looms large – literally, in the shape of the mighty Acropolis that dominates almost every view, as well as on every visitor’s itinerary. Yet the modern city is home to over four million people – more than a third of the Greek nation’s population – and has undergone a transformation in the twenty-first century.

On first acquaintance, Athens is not a beautiful place – the scramble for growth in the decades after World War II, when the population grew from around 700,000 to close to its present level, was an architectural disaster. But, helped by huge investment for the 2004 Olympics, the city is starting to make the most of what it has, with new roads, rail and metro, along with extensive pedestrianization in the centre. The views for which Athens was once famous have reappeared and, despite inevitable globalization and the appearance of all the usual high-street and fast-food chains, the city retains its character to a remarkable degree. Hectic modernity is always tempered with an air of intimacy and hominess; as any Greek will tell you, Athens is merely the largest village in the country.

However often you’ve visited, the vestiges of the ancient Classical Greek city, most famously represented by the Parthenon and other remains that top the Acropolis, are an inevitable focus; along with the refurbished National Archeological Museum, the finest collection of Greek antiquities anywhere in the world, they should certainly be a priority. The majority of the several million visitors who pass through each year do little more; they never manage to escape the crowds and so see little of the Athens Athenians know. Take the time to explore some of the city’s neighbourhoods, such as PlákaMonastiráki and Psyrrí and you’ll get far more out of it.

Above all, there’s the sheer vibrancy of the city. Cafés are packed day and night and the streets stay lively until 3 or 4am, with some of the best bars and clubs in the country. Eating out is great, with establishments ranging from traditional tavernas to gourmet restaurants. In summer, much of the action takes place outdoors, from dining on the street or clubbing on the beach, to open-air cinema, concerts and classical drama. There’s a diverse shopping scene, too, ranging from colourful bazaars and lively street markets to chic suburban malls crammed with the latest designer goods. And with good-value, extensive public transportation allied to inexpensive taxis, you’ll have no difficulty getting around.

Outside Athens are more Classical sites – the Temple of Poseidon at Soúnio, sanctuaries at Ramnous and Eleusis (Elefsína), the burial mound from the great victory at Marathon – and there are also easily accessible beaches all around the coast. Further afield, Delphi and the islands of the Saronic gulf are also in easy day-trip distance. Moving on is quick and easy, with scores of ferries and hydrofoils leaving daily from the port at Pireás (Piraeus) and, somewhat less frequently, from the two other Attic ferry terminals at Rafína and Lávrio.

Brief history

Athens has been inhabited continuously for over seven thousand years. Its acropolis, commanding views of all seaward approaches and encircled by protective mountains, was a natural choice for prehistoric settlement and for the Mycenaeans, who established a palace-fortress on the rock. Gradually, Athens emerged as a city-state that dominated the region, ruled by kings who stood at the head of a land-owning aristocracy known as the Eupatridae (the “well-born”), who governed through a Council which met on the Areopagus – the Hill of Ares.

The birth of democracy

As Athens grew wealthier, dissatisfaction with the rule of the Eupatridae grew, above all among a new middle class excluded from political life but forced to pay rent or taxes to the nobility. Among the reforms aimed at addressing this were new, fairer laws drawn up by Draco (whose “draconian” lawcode was published in 621 BC), and the appointment of Solon as ruler (594 BC), with a mandate to introduce sweeping economic and political reform. Although Solon’s reforms laid the foundations of what eventually became Athenian democracy, they failed to stop internal unrest, and eventually Peisistratos, his cousin, seized power in the middle of the sixth century BC. Peisistratos is usually called a tyrant, but this simply means he seized power by force: thanks to his populist policies he was in fact a well-liked and successful ruler who greatly expanded Athens’ power, wealth and influence.

His sons Hippias and Hipparchus were less successful: Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC and Hippias overthrown in 510 BC. A new leader, Kleisthenes, took the opportunity for more radical change: he introduced ten classes or tribes based on place of residence, each of which elected fifty members to the Boule or Council of State, which decided on issues to be discussed by the full Assembly. The Assembly was open to all citizens and was both a legislature and a supreme court. This system was the basis of Athenian democracy and remained in place, little changed, right through to Roman times.

Around 500 BC Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire; this in turn provoked a Persian invasion of Greece. In 490 BC the Athenians and their allies defeated a far larger Persian force at the Battle of Marathon. In 480 BC the Persians returned, capturing and sacking Athens, and leaving much of the city burned to the ground. That same year, however, a naval triumph at Salamis sealed victory over the Persians, and also secured Athens’ position as Greece’s leading city-state.

The rise and fall of Classical Athens

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Classical Athens is how suddenly it emerged to the glory for which we remember it – and how short its heyday proved to be. In the middle of the fifth century BC, Athens was little more than a country town in its street layout and buildings – a scattered jumble of single-storey houses or wattle huts, intersected by narrow lanes. On the Acropolis, a site reserved for the city’s most sacred monuments, stood only the blackened ruins of temples and sanctuaries.

There was little to suggest that the city was entering a unique phase of its history in terms of power, prestige and creativity. But following the victory over the Persians at Salamis, Athens stood unchallenged for a generation. It grew rich on the export of olive oil and silver from the mines of Attica, but above all it benefited from its control of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states formed as insurance against Persian resurgence. The Athenians relocated the League’s treasury from the island of Delos to their own acropolis, ostensibly on the grounds of safety, and with its revenues their leader Pericles was able to create the so-called Golden Age of the city. Great endowments were made for monumental construction, arts in all spheres were promoted, and – most significantly – it was all achieved under stable, democratic rule. The Delian League’s wealth enabled office-holders to be properly paid, thereby making it possible for the poor to play a part in government.

The fatal mistake of the Athenian democracy, however, was allowing itself to be drawn into the Peloponnesian War. Defeated, a demoralized Athens succumbed to a brief period of oligarchy, though it later recovered sufficiently to enter a new phase of democracy, the age of Plato. However, in 338 BC, Athens was again called to defend the Greek city-states, this time against the incursions of Philip of Macedon. Demosthenes, said to be as powerful an orator as Pericles, spurred the Athenians to fight, in alliance with the Thebans, at Chaeronea. There they were routed, in large part by the cavalry commanded by Philip’s son, Alexander (later to become known as Alexander the Great), and Athens fell under the control of the Macedonian empire.

The city continued to be favoured, particularly by Alexander the Great, a former pupil of Aristotle, who respected both Athenian culture and its democratic institutions. Following his death, however, came a more uncertain era, which saw periods of independence and Macedonian rule, until 146 BC when the Romans swept through southern Greece and it was incorporated into the Roman province of Macedonia.

Christians and Turks

The emergence of Christianity was perhaps the most significant step in Athens’ long decline from the glories of its Classical heyday. Having survived with little change through years of Roman rule, the city lost its pivotal role in the Roman–Greek world after the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves, and the establishment of Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) as capital of the Eastern – Byzantine – empire. In 529 AD the city’s temples, including the Parthenon, were reconsecrated as churches.

Athens rarely featured in the chronicles of the Middle Ages, passing through the hands of various foreign powers before the arrival in 1456 of Sultan Mehmet II, the Turkish conqueror of Constantinople. Turkish Athens was never much more than a garrison town, occasionally (and much to the detriment of its Classical buildings) on the front line of battles with the Venetians and other Western powers. Although the Acropolis became the home of the Turkish governor and the Parthenon was used as a mosque, life in the village-like quarters around the Acropolis drifted back to a semi-rural existence.

Four centuries of Ottoman occupation followed until, in 1821, the Greeks of Athens rose and joined the rebellion sweeping the country. They occupied the Turkish quarters of the lower town – the current Pláka – and laid siege to the Acropolis. The Turks withdrew, but five years later were back to reoccupy the Acropolis fortifications, while the Greeks evacuated to the countryside. When the Ottoman garrison finally left in 1834, and the Bavarian architects of the new German-born monarch moved in, Athens, with a population of only 5000, was at its nadir.

Modern Athens

Athens was not the first-choice capital of modern Greece: that honour went instead to Náfplio in the Peloponnese. In 1834, though, the new king Otto transferred the capital and court to Athens. The reasoning was almost purely symbolic: Athens was not only insignificant in terms of population and physical extent but was then at the edge of the territories of the new Greek state. Soon, while the archeologists stripped away all the Turkish and Frankish embellishments from the Acropolis, a city began to take shape: the grand Neoclassical plan was for processional avenues radiating out from great squares, a plan that can still be made out on maps but has long ago been subverted by the realities of daily life. Pireás, meanwhile, grew into a significant port again.

The first mass expansion of both municipalities came suddenly, in 1923, as the result of the tragic Greek–Turkish war in Asia Minor. A million and a half “Greek” Christians arrived in Greece as refugees, and over half of them settled in Athens and Pireás, changing at a stroke the whole make-up of the capital. Their integration and survival is one of the great events of the city’s history.

Athens was hit hard by German occupation in World War II: during the winter of 1941–42 there were an estimated two thousand deaths from starvation each day. In late 1944, when the Germans finally left, the capital saw the first skirmishes of civil war, and from 1946 to 1949 Athens was a virtual island, with road approaches to the Peloponnese and the north only tenuously kept open.

During the 1950s, the city again started to expand rapidly thanks to the growth of industry and massive immigration from the war-torn, impoverished countryside. By the late 1960s, Greater Athens covered a continuous area from the slopes of mounts Pendéli and Párnitha down to Pireás. Much of this development is unremittingly ugly, since old buildings were demolished wholesale in the name of a quick buck, particularly during the colonels’ junta of 1967–74 (see George Papandréou and the colonels). Financial incentives encouraged homeowners to demolish their houses and replace them with apartment blocks up to six storeys high; almost everyone took advantage, and as a result most central streets seem like narrow canyons between these ugly, concrete blocks. Unrestrained industrial development on the outskirts was equally rampant.

Growth in recent decades has been much slower, but it’s only in the last twenty years that much effort has gone in to improving the city’s environment. Although Athens still lags far behind Paris or London in terms of open space, the evidence of recent efforts is apparent. What’s left of the city’s architectural heritage has been extensively restored; there’s clean public transportation; new building is controlled and there’s some interesting, radical modern architecture.

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