The Acropolis was home to one of the earliest known settlements in Greece, as early as 5000 BC. In Mycenaean times – around 1500 BC – it was fortified with Cyclopean walls (parts of which can still be seen), enclosing a royal palace and temples to the cult of Athena. By the ninth century BC, the Acropolis had become the heart of Athens, sheltering its principal public buildings, which remained there until in 510 BC the Oracle at Delphi ordered that the Acropolis should remain the province of the gods, unoccupied by humans.
Following the Persian sacking of Athens in 480 BC, a grand rebuilding project under the direction of the architect and sculptor Fidias created almost everything you see today in an incredibly short time: the Parthenon itself took only ten years to finish. The monuments survived unaltered for close to a thousand years, until in the reign of Emperor Justinian the temples were converted to Christian worship. Over the following centuries the uses became secular as well as religious, and embellishments increased, gradually obscuring the Classical designs. Fifteenth-century Italian princes held court in the Propylaia, and the same quarters were later used by the Turks as their commander’s headquarters and as a powder magazine.
The Parthenon underwent similar changes from Greek to Roman temple, from Byzantine church to Frankish cathedral, before several centuries of use as a Turkish mosque. The Erechtheion, with its graceful female figures, saw service as a harem. A Venetian diplomat described the Acropolis in 1563 as “looming beneath a swarm of glittering golden crescents”, with a minaret rising from the Parthenon. For all their changes in use, however, the buildings would still have resembled – very much more than today’s bare ruins – the bustling and ornate ancient Acropolis, covered in sculpture and painted in bright colours.
Sadly, such images remain only in the prints and sketches of that period: the Acropolis buildings finally fell victim to the ravages of war, blown up during successive attempts by the Venetians to oust the Turks. In 1687, laying siege to the garrison, they ignited a Turkish gunpowder magazine in the Parthenon, and in the process blasted off its roof and set a fire that raged for two days and nights. The process of stripping down to the bare ruins seen today was completed by souvenir hunters and the efforts of the first archeologists (see The Elgin Marbles).