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Walking through Athens, the Acropolis

Home -> Europe -> Greece -> Travelogue Greece -> 05 May 2014

Monday 05 May, walking through Athens, the Acropolis

We wake up early because we want to see a lot today and after breakfast we quickly get on our way. We are staying in the Rio Athens hotel near the Karaiskakisquare where there is a metro station. The metro system is less extensive than, for example, that of Paris but well-organized and we are close to the transfer stations so we can be reasonably fast everywhere. We buy 2 day tickets (& euro; 4 each) with which we can travel throughout Athens.
We first visit Syntagma Square, the largest and busiest square in Athens, but today we find modern Athens somewhat less interesting. The metro station is fun though: it looks like a museum with all the exhibits and information about the area.
View of the AcropolisWe walk to the Acropolis through the popular district of Plaka and from a distance we can see which direction to go. Athens is a big city with a number of hills and the Akropoli (as the Greeks call it) is 156 meters high and the place where the oldest settlements were built. As the city expanded, people also went to live in the surrounding plains and in the heyday of Athens (6th to 4th century BC) the Acropolis became the religious center of the city.
In the Mycenaean period (roughly from 2,000 to 1,200 BC) there was already a castle here, but the remains that are still visible today date back from after 480 BC. when the Persians found it necessary to destroy the city.
Dionysos theater in Athens Dionysos theater in AthensWe start our walk in the southeast corner and first pass through the Theater of Dionysos at the foot of the hill, the oldest theater building in the world and according to some the cradle of the Greek tragedy. It offers place for about 17,000 people and the acoustics are amazing in the open air. The theater is an example for the dozens of other theaters from antiquity that have been distributed throughout Europe (such as those in Trier).
There is so much to see on the Acropolis and we have taken so many pictures that we can not all show them here. Via the Asklepieion we walk to the Odeion of Herodes Atticus. The Asklepieion was a kind of healing home, the forerunner of a hospital. Asklepios was a demigod concerned with healing and medicine and when in 429 BC. the plague broke out in Athens and a large part of the population died, it was decided to build this temple. There were special bedrooms for the sick in which non-venomous snakes crawled around, the snake that you can still see on the rod of asclepius. Sleep could heal the sick or they would have dreams that were then explained by the priests that would use that as the basis of which a diagnosis and treatment was established. The priests, however, were not very impressed by the scientific approach to medicine that Hippocrates practised, the founder of modern medicine.
The Odeion of Herodes Atticus The Odeion of Herodes AtticusIn the 2nd century AD another theater was built on behalf of the wealthy Herod Atticus and was initially for music performances only. Now it looks like an open-air theater but originally it was an enclosed building with a roof. About 5,000 could be seated in it. Nowadays, performances are played in the summertime, including ancient Greek tragedies.
Monument of FilipapposFrom the Acropolis we see in the distance the Filoppappou hill, also called the hill of the Muses with the monument of Filipappos, a Roman consul from the 2nd century
Greece never was one country in antiquity but consisted until 338 BC. of city-states (a polis) that fought a lot of wars among themselves. In 388 BC they were captured by Filippos II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great and in 146 BC. Greece became a Roman province.
The Niketemple on the Acropolis The Propylaea on the AcropolisWe climb up a bit further and through the Nikè temple we arrive in the walled area at the top, the real Acropolis. This temple was built in the 5th century BC. and is best known for the Elgin Marbles, unique friezes with representations of the war with Persia which were shipped to the British Museum by Lord Elgin. They have now been replaced by replicas, but Greece would like to have them back (and rightly so). Behind the temple we enter the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis. It reminds me a bit of the colonnades that we have seen in Karnak.
View of Athens from the Acropolis View of Athens from the AcropolisFrom the Acropolis we have a magnificent view over the city of Athens. Almost 40% of the 11 million inhabitants of Greece live in or around Athens, which has been the capital of the country since 1833. It is city where democracy was invented more or less in the 6th century BC. and introduced by the statesman Clisthenos although a famous predecessor, Solon had laid the foundations for this to limit the oppression of the majority by a small group of nobles.
But compared with what we nowadays mean by democracy, it was rather limited: only male, free citizens were allowed to participate in the discussion and to make decisions.
The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens The Parthenon on the Acropolis in AthensThe most important building on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the temple for the Virgin (Parthenos) Athena. Athena, the goddess of wisdom but also of war, was the patroness of the city. Its construction began in 490 BC. but was destroyed after 10 years by the Persians. In 447 BC. the city started to build a new temple made of white marble that unfortunately suffers a lot from the air pollution in Athens. Nowadays an extensive restoration programm is going on where missing parts are replaced with marble from the original quarry.
Almost not Athena but Poseidon had been the protector of the city. Athena and Poseidon (the god of the sea) battled to give the city their own name and Zeus, the supreme god, decided that they should offer the city a gift and that the people themselves could choose which was the best gift and who therefore would become patron or patroness. Poseidon hit a well and a water source on such a high hill is of course very convenient, if only the water wouldn't have been salty and undrinkable. Athena was smarter (she was known for that) and planted an olive tree: it created shade in the heat, gave nutritious olives and also provided oil for cooking food and burning lights. On the Acropolis still grows an olive tree that is supposed to be a descendant from the original tree. The present olive tree, however, was donated by Princess Sophie of Prussia, the later queen of Greece, at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens The Parthenon on the Acropolis in AthensThe Parthenon is seen as a unique symbol of ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and the beginning of western civilization. For the ancient Greeks it was mainly a temple to thank the gods for the victory over the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the original statue, an almost 12 meters high representation of Athens in full armor while giving the victory (Nikè) to the Greeks. The Greek geographer Pausanias wrote a description in the 2nd century and smaller copies have been preserved so we know how it looked like. It must have been quite impressive and was made by the famous sculptor Phidias.
The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens The Parthenon on the Acropolis in AthensOf course, the building has had many other destinations over the centuries: it became a church in the 6th century and a bell tower was built next to it, which the Turks used as minarets in the 15th century and they made a mosque of the Parthenon. In 1674, detailed drawings of the Parthenon were made which are very useful for the restoration because in 1687 there was a considerable explosion when the Venetians realized that the Turks had a large ammunition storage there and bombarded it.
Remains of a temple at the foot of the Acropolis Temple of the Olympian Zeus in AthensWhen you walk along the 6 meter thick walls of the Acropolis you can also see all kinds of temples and antiquities such as the temple of the Olympic Zeus, the Olympieion. There are still 15 columns standing on the original 104 which are each about 17 meters high. The construction started in 515 BC. but was only completed by the Roman emperor Hadrian in 125 AD.
According to the myths, Deucalion had already built a temple here at the gorge, so that the water drained away after the great flood.
On the AcropolisThe surface of the more or less flat top of the Acropolis is 3 hectares and there is a lot to see so we can walk around for a while in the warm sun. It is impressive to remember that 5,500 years ago people already lived here and 2,500 years ago an almost modern civilization had its center here and that our cultural ancestors walked around in this very place. How would our civilization have looked when not Athens but, for example, a military state like Sparta, had gained the upper hand (which it also had in some periods).
Inside the Parthenon The Erechtheum on the AcropolisA very beautiful monument on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion that was dedicated to several gods and where King Erechtheus would have been buried. The pillars in the form of women are called the Caryatids after the women of Karyae, a Greek city that had chosen the side of the Persians. After the victory over the Persians, the men were killed and the women taken as slaves and here they must symbolically bear an eternal burden. The images here are replicas and the originals are in the Acropolis museum (and one still in the British Museum for which a spot is kept free in Athens).
Temple of Hephaistos, AthensIn the east we see in the distance the temple of Hephaistos, the Hephaisteion one of the best preserved temples in Greece. The temple is a so called a Doric peripteros which means that the whole building is surrounded by Doric columns but to be honest, I forget that kind of details very quickly, it does not interest me enough. That is more Teije's thing who wants to know everything about history and preferably looks at every bit of antiquity and reads every sign. What I find interesting is to discover that the temple has been preserved so well because it was later used as a church.
View from the Areopagus Hill Orthodox church in AthensWe have been around the Acropolis now and walk down through the Areopagus. Well, down and up again because this rock is also more than 100 meters high. Here stood the highest court of Athens and Ares, the god of war, would have been tried here by the gods for the murder of a son of Poseidon. In the 5th century the court was only used for murder cases but at the bottom of the hill there was a temple where murderers could hide from being tried.
For the Bible connoisseurs: here the apostle Paul gave his famous speech for philosophers at the altar for the Unknown God.
The Stoa of Attalus in AthensFrom the Areopagus we descend to the agora, the administrative and trade center of every Greek city. But there were also temples and stoa's, colonnades that were closed on three sides. In the distance we see the Stoa of Attalus from the 2nd century BC. In the fifties of the 20th century it has been completely reconstructed and now it is a museum. We will soon go there, but first we look for a cafe, because on the Acropolis and the Areopagus there are (rightly) no restaurants or terraces.
Taking a break in Plaka, Athens View from the terrace on the AcropolisWe have been walking for hours and our feet (and my back) have earned a good break. At the bottom of the Acropolis lies the old district of Plaka with nice squares and narrow streets and mainly focused on tourism because finally all visitors to the Acropolis will have to pass by. It does not cost us any trouble to find a terrace where we can relax for half an hour with a cold drink.
The Stoa of Attalus in AthensAfterwards we walk to the old agora where there is still a lot to see but I am a bit tired of looking at monuments. Teije continues to enthusiastically photograph them and looks around at the ancient Greek agora and the nearby Roman agora, but I want to see something else than just remnants of structures and so I enter the agora museum that is located in the stoa of Attalus. Here you can see all kinds of finds from the agora from 4,000 BC. until the time of the Turkish occupation.
Detail on the Agora of Athens Oil lamp in the Stoa of AttalusThe building is 116 meters long and Teije imagines how here in the past philosophers used to walk back and forth while their supporters and students were floating around them. One detail that he realizes later: this building was originally from the 2nd century BC. so great heroes like Plato, Socrates and many others have never walked here, they lived centuries earlier. But it is a beautiful museum with many impressive statues and decorations of buildings below, while the smaller objects are exhibited on the upper floor.
The Plaka district in AthensIt is already at the end of the afternoon when we take a short walk through the district of Plaka on the way to a metro station. There is much more to see and do in Athens but for today I have seen enough antiquities. The pleasant atmosphere in this district is also fun to experience even if it is very touristic. People have lived here for thousands of years and it is now the only neighborhood in Athens where all pipes and cables are required to be buried underground in accessible tunnels. They will undoubtedly have combined this with archaeological soil research.
The port of Piraeus The port of PiraeusTo round off the day we can choose from dozens of possibilities, but we decide to take the metro to the port of Piraeus. The old city of Athens was about 6 kilometers away and thus relatively safe from attacks from the sea, but the port offered them a great advantage for overseas trade and having its own war fleet. Nowadays, the port is the most important and busiest of all Greece with ferry connections with numerous islands and a mooring for cruise ships. It is a coming and going of mainly taxis that bring people to and from the boats.
Then we return to the district where our hotel is located and we look for a restaurant to eat something. It was a tiring day but ery impressive what we have seen.
Tomorrow we will leave Athens again and we realize that one day in Athens is far too short but we have seen what we wanted to see. The rest will have to wait for a next visit.
In the evening there is another downpour, but fortunately we are just inside the hotel when it erupts.


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