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This ancient citadel and landmark of Athens contains some of the world’s finest monuments of the antiquity, including the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, with its unusual Porch of the Caryatids. Admission includes entrance to the Acropolis Museum. These are wonderful views over Athens and the ancient Agora.
This 4ha (10-acre) rock rising 90m (300ft) above the plain of the Attica reigns over Athens with timeless majesty. Its name is derived from Greek and means ‘high town’: acro -- highest point and polis – town or city. It also means ‘citadel’.
Stone Age man first inhabited the Acropolis more than 5,000 years ago. Strategically sited near a good, safe anchorage, it was accessible, defendable, commanded surrounding territory and had its own natural springs (more than 20 are known today).
The rock was crowned by a thriving Mycenaean citadel in the Bronze Age, but in the 7th century BC the political and social life of the polis shifted to the agora (marketplace) while the hill was crowned with the temples to various gods, including one to Athena. All were destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC and were left in ruins for many years as witness to the impiety of the Persians. But 32 years later Pericles began to build a new temple to Athena – the splendid marble structure that can still be seen today.
The Acropolis is most beautiful (and best photographed) in the late afternoon light, when the descending sun gives the white monuments a shimmering golden hue.
At this time of day, looking down from the Acropolis, even the roaring concrete forest below can seem magnificent. Such moments will be savored long after any tour of the ancient marbles has ended.
Many people prefer to visit during the cool hours of the early morning in summer days. Few places in southern Europe seems as blazingly hot as the Acropolis. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit the summit at night.
The Acropolis is open every day, though the precise hours are subject to change (do check with tourist office). It is advisable to wear sensible shoes, as the steep marble entranceway can be slippery.
The path up to the entrance generally follows the ramped course of ancient processionals. These climaxed in the Greater Panathenaia, a festival held every four year on the night of the midsummer full moon to honour Athena, protectress of the city.
Imagine, as you ascend, the great procession, which began north of the Agora and wound through the marketplace and up the Scared Way. Taking part were garlanded priests and priestesses, musicians, cavalry troops and young maidens escorting a great ship on wheels carrying the peplos, a sacred embroidered saffron robe to adorn the statue of goddess, Farm lads coaxed she-goats, ewes and heifers up the slope-for sacrifice to the virgin goddess.
This glorious spectacle was rendered on the great frieze which once ran on all four sides of the Parthenon’s inner temple.
The visitors’ entrance is the Beule Gate, a 3rd-century AD Roman addition. The imposing pedestal on the left of the path once supported a bronze four-horse Roman chariot (the Agrippa). From behind this high plinth, there is a superb view of the Agora and the Thisio temple.
Before leaving the Acropolis, savour the view. The temple of Athena Nike faces west towards the Straits of Salamis. Far beyond that are the mountains of the Peloponnesus. To the left are the islands of the Saronic Gulf. Behind the violet shoulder of Hymettos to the east is Cape Sounion.
Below the south wall are bird’s – eye views of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus, while all around is Athena’s favoured city.
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Six Doric columns mark the monumental entrance to the Acropolis. More than a grand gateway, the function of the Propylaea was to generate awe and respect, and prepare lesser mortals for a meeting with the goddess.
Construction began in 437 BC, but was halted five year later by the Pelopon-nesian War and never finished.
The central and largest of the gateways was intended for chariots and approached by a ramp: steps lead up to the four other entries.
As you reach the porch, you’ll see Ionic as well as Doric columns; this was the first building to incorporate both styles (compare the solid majesty of the Doric with the light elegance of the Ionic).
The Pinakotheke on the left side housed a gallery of paintings done on wooden panels, depicting heroic deeds.
This enchanting temple, with a graceful Ionic portio, perches high on a terrace off to the right (southwest) of the Propylaea, and has a glorious panorama of the sea and distant mountains.
Built between 427 and 424 BC by the architect Callicrates, during a respite from the Peloponnesian War, it was devoted to Athena as the goddess of peace and victory.
The temple housed a statue of her which became known as the Wingless Victory herself was always shown with wings. The temple was torn down by the Turks in 1687 to make way for an artillery position; the one which is now standing was later painstakingly reassembled from the rubble by archaeologists during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Passing through the Propylaea, you come out into the great sloping plateau of the Acropolis. Try to imagine the scene 2,400 years ago, when these masterworks of architecture and sculpture were going up. Scores of stone cutters; carpenters, founders and braziers, goldsmiths, ivory workers, painters, dyers, and even embroiderers swarmed over this ground. For the most part they were freemen, not slaves, practitioners of nearly every art and craft then known.
Dominating the immediate foreground was an enormous bronze statue of Athena under another guise – Athena Promachos, the Defender. This statue of the goddess holding shield and spear was created by Phipias to honour the visitor at Marathon.
It’s said that sailors could spot the tip of her helmet as their ships sailed around the gulf from Sounion. That statue stood here for 1,000 years, until it was carted off to Constantinople in the 6th century AD.
The French poet Lamartine called the Parthenon the ‘most perfect poem in stone’ and it is truely the magnificent beauty of the greatest architectural achievement of classical Greece.
The Parthenon – meaning Temple of the Virgin – was dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and justice, protectress of the city. It was designed by the sculptor Phidias using ancient principles of sacred numerology, geometry and architecture, and was executed by master architects Ictinus and Callicrates.
The columns swell gently at the middle, leaning slightly inward, and the floor surface is convex. It is quite astonishing, but nowhere in the temple is there a straight line. One theory holds that this was designed to counteract the optical illusion by which straight lines, seen from a distance, appear to bend. All the subtly curving departures from both true vertical and horizontal give life and rhythmic movement to the stone. What’s more – and this is the architectural stroke of genius – they give the structure a magnificent symmetry.
Aside from its cult functions, this supreme example of the Doric temple symbolized Athenian imperial glory as well as holding the national treasury. Ancient pagan temples were meant to be appreciated from the outside, so the Parthenon’s altar, where live offerings were slaughtered, actually stood outside the building, positioned opposite the eastern façade. Only a handful of privileged persons – priests or high officials – were permitted to enter the sacred cella (inner temple).
Those admitted were able to view Phidias’ masterpiece, the 12m (39ft) high statue depicting Athena Parthenos, Athena the virgin, made of wood and covered with ivory and gold. The great ancient Greek historian Thucydides records its weight as 40 talents (1,052kg) or 2,320lb) which was a conservative estimate. By the 4th century AD it had vanished forever, but you can see a 2nd century AD copy, the Varvakeion Athena, in the National Archaeological Museum – at 1½ the original size.
The decoration of the Parthenon was arguably the most ambitious of any temple the world has seen, with sculptures at three levels. Little of this remains. The renowned ‘Elgin Marblrs’ were removed by the British ambassador to Constantinople at the start of the 19th century with Turkish permission, and are now in the British Museum in London. Since then the Greek government has lobbied long and hard for their return.
Above the plain beam resting on the columns were 92 panels, each sculpted at 1.2m (4ft) square, called metopes, illustrating scenes of ancient conflict. Over the centuries most have been destroyed or removed (12 are in the British Museum). The best one that is still on show here is of a young Lapith, a mountain tribesman from Thessaly, struggling with a centaur.
Two massive triangular pediments, now virtually empty, crown the front and rear ends of the Parthenon. Once they were adorned with some 50 larger – than – life statues representing the legends of Athena.
Across the Acropolis plateau at the northern wall stands the Erechtheion, a temple unlike any other in the ancient world. It originally housed three cults – those of Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus – in one building. Constructed on irregular ground, the sharply different foundations contribute to its amalgamated shape. Built entirely in wartime, this was the last temple to go up on the Acropolis. Construction lasted 15 years, with the dedication being carried out in 406 BC.
This was the site of the legendary contest between Athena and Poseidon. In a corner of the north porch you’ll find an uncovered hole containing a rock with markings. According to some, these were made by Poseidon’s trident; another version relates that Zeus sent a lightning bolt down upon the scarred rock.
The most famous features of the Erechtheion, are the southern Porch of the Caryatids, where six pound, elegant maidens hold up the roof. Though named after a village near Sparta whose girls were noted in antiquity for their upright posture, the Caryatids were actually Athenians. The long tunics are draped in imitation of column flutings, while the fruit baskets on their heads replace capitals. The portico protected a holy place, the tomb of Athens’ mythical founder – king, Cecrops.
Today’s statues are replicas. Five of the originals were taken inside the Acropolis Museum after being damaged by pollution, the decay reaching 6mm (¼in) in depth. The sixth figure was removed by Lord Elgin to the British Museum.
Following Epicharmou street off to the left from Tripodon, you come to a remarkable white-washed village within the city: Anafiotika.
To come with the severe housing shortage experienced in Athens after Greek independence, a law was passed which permitted anyone who built a house – or at least managed to get its roof up – between sunset and sunrise to occupy it.
The first people to quality were two stone masons from the tiny Aegean island of Anafi. They were followed by other Anafiots, also masons, who built and restored houses and churches in their native style.
As a result, this part of Athens resembles a Greek island, and today, the Anafiots living on the heights of Plaka outnumberthe 350 residents on their native Anafi.
The famous plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Arisophanes were first staged here in the Theatro Dionisou beneath the Acropolis, in what is now a rebuilt but crumbling theatre.
The original, 5th-century-BC theatre had seats hacked out of the earth around a circular stone dancing stage, flush with the ground. The semi-circular marble orchestra that you see today was sculptured by the Romans; the carved relief depicting scenes from Dionysus’ life forms the façade of a raised stage. The backdrop of stone, skene, gave us the world scene.
The theatre held about 17.000 spectators. The names of top officials were curved into 67 front-row thrones of Pentelic marble. The place of honour is the lion-footed throne of the high priest of Dionysus Eleftherious.
Juste behind it stands the throne of Hadrian. Before and after a play, Athenians would promenade in the Stoa of Eumenes (Stoa Evmenous), an arched, two-tiered colonnade built in the 2nd century BC; only a section of it remains. It ran more than 150m (1500ft) from the theatre along to the smaller Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
Built by the astronomer Andronikos in the 1st century BC. It once contained an elaborate water clock that was fed by a spring on the Acropolis. Sculptures on each of the eight sides of the octagonal marble tower represent the eight points of the compass and the corresponding wind.
You’ll spot Notos, the south end, pouring water from an urn, while Zephyros, the west wind, scatters spring flowers.
Spread out below the tower are the remains of the Roman Forum (Romaiki Agora). On the far side, the four Doric columns were part of the Gate of Athena Archegetis, which marked the main entrance to the market area. One door support, protected by a rusty iron grille, is inscribed with Emperor Hadrian’s edict taxing olive oil.
Plaka, Athens’ oldest quarter, is the most charming part of the city. Strictly speaking, the whole area south of Ermou Street is Plaka, but the heart lies close to the Acropolis.
The two main thoroughfares are Kidathineon and Adrianou, which intersect just below Platika Filikis Eterias, the quarter’s large, leafy main square.
A mixture of ancient ruins, Byzantine churches and lively taverns are packed into under half a square kilometer. The main delight here is the atmosphere of the winding streets, many of which follow ancient footpaths climbing up towards the Acropolis. Without warning you’ll come upon stunning views of the Acropolis, the Agora, or the distant peak of Mount Lycabettus (Likavittos).
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