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The rock of the Acropolis, crowned by the dramatic ruins of the Parthenon, is one of the archetypal images of Western culture. The first time you see it, rising above the traffic or from a distant hill, is extraordinary: foreign, and yet utterly familiar. As in other Greek cities the Acropolis itself is simply the highest point of the city, and this steep-sided, flat-topped crag of limestone, rising abruptly 100m from its surroundings, has made it the focus of Athens during every phase of its development. Easily defensible and with plentiful water, its initial attractions are obvious. Even now, with no function apart from tourism, it is the undeniable heart of the city, around which everything else clusters, glimpsed at almost every turn.
You can walk an entire circuit of the Acropolis and ancient Agora on pedestrianized streets, allowing them to be appreciated from almost every angle: in particular, the pedestrianization has provided spectacular terraces for cafés to the west, in Thissío. On the other side, in Pláka, you may get a little lost among the jumble of alleys, but the rock itself is always there to guide you.
As well as the iconic Parthenon, the summit of the Acropolis is home to the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, as well as lesser remains of many other ancient structures.
Today, as throughout history, the Propylaia are the gateway to the Acropolis. In Classical times the Sacred Way extended along a steep ramp to this massive monumental double gatehouse; the modern path makes a more gradual, zigzagging ascent, passing first through an arched Roman entrance, the Beule Gate, added in the third century AD.
The Propylaia were constructed by Mnesikles from 437–432 BC, and their axis and proportions aligned to balance the recently completed Parthenon. They – the name is the plural of propylon, gateway, referring to the fact that there are two wings – were built from the same Pentelic marble (from Mount Pendéli, northeast of the city) as the temple, and in grandeur and architectural achievement are almost as impressive. In order to offset the difficulties of a sloping site, Mnesikles combined, for the first time, standard Doric columns with the taller and more delicate Ionic order. The ancient Athenians, awed by the fact that such wealth and craftsmanship should be used for a purely secular building, ranked this as their most prestigious monument.
The Panathenaic Way was the route of the great annual procession for ancient Athens’ Panathenaic Festival, in honour of the city’s patron goddess Athena. The procession – depicted on the Parthenon frieze – wound right through the Classical city from the gates now in the Kerameikos site via the Propylaia to the Parthenon and, finally, the Erechtheion. You can see traces of the ancient route just inside the Propylaia, where there are grooves cut for footholds in the rock and, to either side, niches for innumerable statues and offerings. In Classical times it ran past a 10m-high bronze statue of Athena Promachos (Athena the Champion), whose base can just about be made out. Athena’s spear and helmet were said to be visible to sailors approaching from as far away as Sounío.
Close to the Propylaia too are the scant remains of a Sanctuary of Artemis. Although its function remains obscure, it is known that the precinct once housed a colossal bronze representation of the Wooden Horse of Troy. More noticeable is a nearby stretch of Mycenaean wall (running parallel to the Propylaia) that was incorporated into the Classical design.
Simple and elegant, the Temple of Athena Nike stands on a precipitous platform overlooking Pireás and the Saronic Gulf. It has only recently reappeared, having been dismantled, cleaned and reconstructed. Not for the first time either: demolished by the Turks in the seventeenth century, the temple was reconstructed from its original blocks two hundred years later.
In myth, it was from the platform beside the temple that King Aegeus maintained a vigil for the safe return of his son Theseus from his mission to slay the Minotaur on Crete. Theseus, flushed with success, forgot his promise to swap the boat’s black sails for white on his return. Seeing the black sails, Aegeus assumed his son had perished and, racked with grief, threw himself to his death.
The Parthenon temple was always intended to be a spectacular landmark and a symbol of the city’s imperial confidence, and it was famous throughout the ancient world. Yet even in their wildest dreams its creators could hardly have imagined that the ruins would come to symbolize the emergence of Western civilization – nor that, two-and-a-half millennia on, it would attract some two million tourists a year.
The first great building in Pericles’ scheme, it was intended as a new sanctuary for Athena and a home for her cult image – a colossal wooden statue by Fidias overlaid with ivory and gold plating, with precious gems as eyes and sporting an ivory gorgon’s head on her breast. Originally the columns were brightly painted and surrounded by the finest sculpture of the Classical age, foremost among them the beautiful Parthenon frieze and pediments. Also brightly coloured, these are generally held to have depicted the Panathenaic procession, the birth of Athena and the struggles of Greeks to overcome giants, Amazons and centaurs. The greater part of the frieze, along with the central columns, were destroyed by the Venetian bombardment in 1687. The best surviving examples are in the British Museum in London; the Acropolis Museum also has a few original pieces, as well as reconstructions of the whole thing.
To achieve the Parthenon’s extraordinary and unequalled harmony of design, its architect, Iktinos, used every trick known to the Doric order of architecture. The building’s proportions maintain a universal 9:4 ratio while all seemingly straight lines are in fact slightly curved, an optical illusion known as entasis (intensification). The columns (their profile bowed slightly to avoid seeming concave) are slanted inwards by 6cm, while each of the steps along the sides of the temple was made to incline just 12cm over a length of 70m.
To the north of the Parthenon stands the Erechtheion, the last of the great works of Pericles to be completed. Both Athena and the city’s old patron of Poseidon-Erechtheus were worshipped here, in the most revered of the ancient temples. The site, according to myth, was that on which Athena and Poseidon held a contest, judged by their fellow Olympian gods; at the touch of Athena’s spear, the first ever olive tree sprang from the ground, while Poseidon summoned forth a fountain of sea water. Athena won, and became patron of the city.
Today, the sacred objects within are long gone, but the elegant Ionic porticoes survive. By far the most striking feature, however, is the Porch of the Caryatids, whose columns form the tunics of six tall maidens. The ones in situ are replacements: five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum, while a sixth was looted by Elgin – they’re replaced here by casts in a different-colour marble.
Entrance to the South Slope site is either by a path tracking around the side of the Acropolis near the main ticket office, or from below, off pedestrianized Leofóros Dhionysíou Areopayítou close to Metro Akrópoli. A great deal of restoration and excavation work is ongoing here, including the opening up of a new area on the eastern edge of the rock, above Pláka where groups of statues have been gathered together.
The Theatre of Dionysos is one of the most evocative locations in the city. Here the masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed; it was also the venue in Classical times for the annual festival of tragic drama, where each Greek citizen would take his turn as member of the chorus. Rebuilt in the fourth century BC, the theatre could hold some 17,000 spectators – considerably more than Herodes Atticus’s 5000–6000 seats. Twenty of the original 64 tiers of seats survive. Most notable are the great marble thrones in the front row, each inscribed with the name of an official of the festival or of an important priest; in the middle sat the priest of Dionysos and on his right the representative of the Delphic Oracle. At the rear of the stage are reliefs of episodes in the life of Dionysos flanked by two squatting Sileni, devotees of the satyrs. Sadly, this area is roped off to protect the stage-floor mosaic – a magnificent diamond of multicoloured marble best seen from above.
The dominant structure on the south side of the Acropolis – much more immediately obvious even than the Theatre of Dionysos – is the second-century Roman Herodes Atticus Theatre (Odeion of Herodes Atticus). This has been extensively restored for performances of music and Classical drama during the summer festival but is open only for shows; at other times you’ll have to be content with spying over the wall.
Between the two theatres lie the foundations of the Stoa of Eumenes, originally a massive colonnade of stalls erected in the second century BC. Above the stoa, high up under the walls of the Acropolis, extend the ruins of the Asklepion, a sanctuary devoted to the healing god Asklepios and built around a sacred spring; restoration is ongoing, and there are extensive new signs in English.
Above the Theatre of Dionysos, you can see the entry to a huge cave, originally sacred to Artemis. It later housed choregic awards (to celebrate victory in drama contests) won by the family of Thrasyllos, hence the name. The entrance was closed off around 320 BC with a marble facade – this is currently being restored. The cave was later converted to Christian use and became the chapel of Virgin Mary of the Rocks, but an ancient statue of Dionysos remained inside until it was removed by Lord Elgin (it’s now in the British Museum), while the Classical structure survived almost unchanged until 1827, when it was blown up in a Turkish siege.
The Peripatos was the ancient street that ran around the north side of the Acropolis. Access to this side has only recently been opened up so that you can now walk right around the rock within the fenced site, starting above the Theatre of Dionysos and emerging by the entry to the main Acropolis site; there’s also a new entrance from Pláka, by the Kannellopoulou museum.
There are no major monuments en route, but the numerous caves and springs help explain the strategic importance of the Acropolis. In one impressive cleft in the rock was a secret stairway leading up to the temples: this provided access to spring-water in times of war, and was also used in rituals, when blindfolded initiates would be led this way. Nearby are numerous other caves and rock arches that had cult status in ancient times.
The new Acropolis Museum is a magnificent building, filled with beautiful objects, with a wonderful sense of space and light and a glass top storey with a direct view up to the Parthenon itself.
The remains of ancient Athens uncovered during building work can be seen even before you enter, protected under glass flooring that continues past through the ground floor. The displays proper start with a ramp described as the Slopes of the Acropolis, as that is where most of the pottery and other objects displayed here were found. At the top of the ramp are sculptures from the pediment of an early temple that stood on the site of the Parthenon, the Hekatompedon. Their surviving paintwork gives a good indication of the vivid colours originally used in temple decoration.
Statues dominate the first floor: the Moschophoros, a painted marble statue of a young man carrying a sacrificial calf, dated 570 BC, is one of the earliest examples of Greek art in marble. There’s also an extensive collection of Korai, or statues of maidens. The progression in style, from the simply contoured Doric clothing to the more elegant and voluminous Ionic designs, is fascinating; the figures’ smiles also change subtly, becoming increasingly loose and natural.
On the top floor, a fifteen-minute video (alternately in English and Greek) offers a superb introduction to the Parthenon sculptures. The metopes and the frieze are set out around the outside of the hall, arranged as they would have been on the Parthenon itself; the pediments are displayed separately at each end of the gallery. Only a relatively small number are original (see The Elgin Marbles); the rest are represented by plaster copies which seem deliberately crude, to make a point (there are better copies in Akropoli metro station, for example).
On the way back down through the museum are statues from the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, including the original Caryatids. The sculptures from the parapet of the former, all depicting Athena Nike in various guises, include a particularly graceful and fluid sculpture known as Iy Sandalizoméni, which depicts her adjusting her sandal. Don’t forget to check out the café too.
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.
The controversy over the so-called Elgin Marbles has its origin in the activities of Western looters at the start of the nineteenth century: above all the French ambassador Fauvel, gathering antiquities for the Louvre, and Lord Elgin levering away sculptures from the Parthenon. As British Ambassador, Elgin obtained permission from the Turks to erect scaffolding, excavate and remove stones with inscriptions. He interpreted this concession as a licence to make off with almost all of the bas-reliefs from the Parthenon’s frieze, most of its pedimental structures and a caryatid from the Erechtheion – all of which he later sold to the British Museum. While there were perhaps justifications for Elgin’s action at the time – not least the Turks’ tendency to use Parthenon stones in their lime kilns – his pilfering was controversial even then. Byron, for one, roundly disparaged his actions.
The Greeks hoped that the long-awaited completion of the new Acropolis Museum would create the perfect opportunity for the British Museum to bow to pressure and return the Parthenon Marbles (as they are always known here). But despite a campaign begun by the late Greek actress and culture minister Melina Mercouri in the 1980s, there is so far little sign of that happening; central to the British Museum’s argument is that to return them would be to set a precedent that would empty virtually every museum in the world.