Why you should visit the Acropolis in Athens
Time stands still on the Acropolis, the ancient citadel of shrines and temples at the heart of Athens. The Parthenon has stood here for 2,500 years, the crowning glory of classical Greek architecture
All around the Mediterranean world, the graceful ruins of temples and amphitheatres stand testimony to the glories of ancient Greece. But nowhere captures the spirit of that great civilisation with the intensity of the Athenian Acropolis.
Most of the ruins here today—including the Parthenon, the greatest Greek temple of all—date from the age of Pericles, a golden era for Athens, but the history of the Acropolis goes back at least another millennium in time.
In around 1500 BC the Mycenaeans, a dominant force in Greece from about 1600 to 1100 BC, first built a palace on the massive bare plug of limestone that would later become the site of the Acropolis. The city of Athens gradually grew and spread around its base.
The legend goes that Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, and the sea-god Poseidon vied for the honour of becoming the city's patron god. Zeus invited them to make gifts to the city.
Poseidon thrust his trident into the rock and produced a salty spring. Athena touched the ground with her spear and an olive tree grew. The rest of the gods declared Athena the winner, and the Acropolis became her shrine. By the sixth century BC, it was packed with temples.
In 460 BC, following a war with the Persians during which Athens was sacked, the city emerged into a golden age under Pericles. On his initiative, Athens underwent a grand rebuilding programme.
All the most important surviving buildings on the Acropolis—the Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaia, the Erechtheoin, the Parthenon—were constructed and adorned by the leading architects and sculptors of the Periclean Age.
Greatest among these were Ictinus, chief architect of the Parthenon, and the sculptor Phidias. The Acropolis that they and others created has influenced grand architecture ever since, from the schemes of the Romans for their own eternal city overlooking the Tiber, to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the Madeleine Church in Paris.
Dedicated to Athena
Visitors enter the Acropolis by the western Beulé Gate (built in Roman times). The first building of significance is the diminutive Temple of Athena Nike (Athene of Victory), built between 432 and 421 BC.
Designed by the architect Kallikrates, the temple perches on a delicate plinth and has four Ionic columns along the front and back. Relief sculptures illustrate battle scenes and the assembly of the all-powerful gods.
The Athenian architect Mnesicles started construction of the monumental entrance gates known as the Propylaia in 437 BC. The soaring colonnades through which people entered the Acropolis are formed from columns of Pentelic marble.
Even in it's present state, the entranceway has the power to impress. The Propylaia had two side wings, the northern one serving as a picture gallery that was decorated with either frescoes or hanging paintings.
On the northern edge of the Acropolis, the Erechtheion is famous for its marble maidens, or caryatids, that support the porch. The present statues are replicas of the originals; dressed in peplos gowns, they hold vessels in libation to the goddess Athena.
Like many Greek temples, the Erechtheion was planned along symmetrical lines, but ended up asymmetrical. It was named after Erechtheus, an ancient king of Athens, and was the focus of the annual Panathenaic procession in honour of Athena, the highlight of the most important festival in the Athenian calendar.
"Within the temples are marks said to be those left by Poseidon's trident; the olive tree outside is a reminder of Athena's riposte"
Within the temples are marks said to be those left by Poseidon's trident; the olive tree outside is a reminder of Athena's riposte.
Between the Erechtheion and the Parthenon stood the bronze statue of Athena Promachos ('Athena who fights on the front line'), created by the sculptor Phidias as a memorial to the Persian Wars. It stood nine metres (30ft) tall, and when the tip of the gilded spear in Athena's hand glinted in the sun, it could be seen by sailors rounding Cape Sounion, 30 miles (50km) away, as they headed for the port of Pireaus.
A plaque at the Belvedere vantage point in the Acropolis's northeastern corner commemorates a more recent event. On the night of May 30, 1941, during the German occupation of Athens, two Athenians tore down the Nazi flag, inspiring the Greek resistance movement. The Greek national flag is raised on this spot each day by infantry soldiers in memory of the uprising.
Dominating this hilltop site, the Parthenon temple is the focal point of the Acropolis and mercilessly upstages the other buildings. One of the largest Greek temples ever built, it was constructed of fine white marble quarried from Mount Pentelicus, 10 miles (16km) away.
Although massive, The Parthenon seems to soar, an effect brilliantly achieved by optical illusion.
The ground plan seems simple: 46 Doric columns line the outer edges; an inner set of columns originally lined a large front chamber and a smaller back room. But this simplicity is deceptive.
To counteract the optical effects caused by straight lines, the Parthenon's designers introduced various refinements. To the human eye, straight-sided columns appear narrower in the middle than at the top and bottom—the Parthenon's columns bulge slightly in the middle so that they appear straight.
"The Parthenon's columns bulge slightly in the middle so that they appear straight"
The corner columns are thicker than the rest to compensate for an apparent loss of mass when seen against the sky. The stylobate (floor plinth) is not flat but curves down at either side to give an illusion of flatness and perhaps to allow water to drain away.
Every piece of stone was individually shaped, giving the building an organic vibrancy. The Greeks had used optical trickery elsewhere, but under the supervision of architects Ictinos and Callicrates and the sculptor Phidias, it was brought to perfection.
Treasury of the virgin
The building was not designed for worship, but as the treasury, or naos, of the Delian League, the association of Greek city-states that had fought the Persian invaders. The League's wealth was stored in the smaller back room, while the front chamber was home to Phidias' oversized, gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos, "The Virgin".
Although the statue vanished in the fifth century AD, copies and descriptions give an idea of what it looked like. Standing 10m (33ft) tall, the crowned Athena held her spear and shield with her left arm and a winged figure of Victory in her right hand.
"Only priests, the ruling elite and important visitors were allowed inside the Parthenon"
Only priests, the ruling elite and important visitors were allowed inside the Parthenon. The public could only peer in through its large open doors, perhaps catching a glimpse of the vast gleaming statue inside.
Decline of fortune
The Parthenon was completed in 432 BC and remained in good condition for about 700 years. The Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC. Being admirers of Greek art, they studied what they could not plunder and deed their own Monument to Agrippa near the Propylaia.
In the 6th century, the Parthenon was turned into a Christian church, then after the Ottoman conquest of 1458 it became a mosque. In 1687, the Parthenon suffered its greatest disaster.
With Athens under seige by the Venetians, the Ottomans turned it into an arsenal. Bombared by Venetian cannon, the stored gunpowder exploded. Columns toppled; sculptures were scattered.
More than a century later, the British ambassador to Ottoman Athens, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, picked his way through the ancient ruins. The Ottomans had no interest in these broken marbles', so Bruce shipped half of them back to Britain. In 1816, he sold them to the British Museum, where they have remained ever since.
The New Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 and here the treasures that still remain in Greece are on display in pristine galleries. Other sights include the Greek theatre of Dionysius and the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
A walk through the woods brings the visitor to the Rock of Areopagus, a low hill to the northwest of the Acropolis where St Paul once preached. From here you can look out across the city and watch the sun set over the great crucible of Western civilisation.
Banner credit: Rawf8
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