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Wander around the sprawling ruins of the ancient marketplace, where democracy and philosophy had their beginnings.
The museum within holds a large collection of pots, coins, household objects and pottery fragments (ostraka), on which the Athenians wrote names of prominent men they wanted to vote into exile. Also here are a huge bronze shield taken from the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War and a klirotirion, and unusual device for relegating public duties by lot – and important feature of ancient Athenian democracy.
While the Acropolis was the spiritual centre of ancient Athens, the Agora – sprawling beneath the northern walls – was the heart of daily life. Barbarian invaders razed the complex in the 3rd century AD, but as you wander through the rubble and foundations of the ancient marketplace, it takes only a little imagination to conjure up the shops, market stalls, state offices, law courts, mint, public archives, schools, library, gymnasium, concert hall, temples and altars of the old city centre, and hear the echoes of robed and sandalled citizens debating the issues of the day.
Agora’s spiritual legacy lives on: politics (as understood in the West) and philosophy (based on free and rational discussion) came into being on this very spot. Socrates held his famous dialogues here, at the shop of a shoemaker who, long before Plato, started to write down and publish a number of the sage’s conversations. Later, Socrates’ search for ‘truth’ fell foul of the authorities, and he was tried and condemned to death in 403 BC. Recent excavations have identified the prison cell in which he consumed the deadly potion of hemlock.
The huge gallery dominating the marketplace is a replica of the Stoa of Attalos (stoa Attalou), built by the king of Pergamon about the middle of the 2nd century BC in homage to Athenian culture. It was rebuilt from attic marble and limestone in the 1950s by the America school of Classical Studies in Athens, the organization that has carried on the Agora excavations since 1931.
Near to this 115m (382ft) long painted portico, or stoa the philosopher Zeno founded the school of the Stoics. Here St Paul argued with the most sceptical audience he met in the course of his travels.
When athens was the centre of art, philosophy and politics during the classical age; among those who walked the Agora are: Ictinus and Callicrates, architects of the Parthenon, and the sculptures Phidias and Praxiteles.
Two of the three great tragic poets were from Athens – Aeschylus (Oresteia) and Sophocles (Oedipes Rex). Euripides (the Trojan women) was born on an island in the strait of salamis on the day of the great Persian defeat. Aristophanes (the Wasps, the Birds), creator of Greek comedy, was also Athenian.
Herdotus, whose accounts of the conflict between Europe and Asia blended legend and fact, has been called the ‘father of history’. Later Thucydides, (History of the Peloponnesian War), established an objective ‘science’ of history.
The Philosopher-orator Socrates was seen almost daily in the Agora, earnestly engaging fellow citizens in dialogues and ‘truth’.
His student, Plato, recounted the master’s teachings in The Republic and Dialogues. A political and religious philosopher, Plato founded the Academy, the world’s first university. Aristotle studied at Plato’s Academy before tutoring Alexander the Great in Macedonia. This renowned philosopher later established a rival school in Athens, the Lyceum.)
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This terraced hillside is the location of the Acropolis Sound and Light performances. The Pnyx – meaning ‘tightly packed space’ – is where the free citizens of 5th-century BC Athens met in democratic assembly.
At that time, the rocky platform here was the site of the Stone of Vima, an ancient Speaker’s Corner, where people gathered to hear the likes of Pericles, Themistocles and Demosthenes hold forth.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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