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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.
Work began in 447 BC and lasted nine years. Marble from Mount Pentelikon (16km or 10 miles northwest of the city), famous for its pure, milky-white grain, was quarried specially for the temple. It has acquired its present honey colour with the passage of time.
Only the roof and doors were made of wood. The Parthenon is 70m long and 30m wide (228ft by 101ft). Its 46 exterior columns each rise 10m (34ft), and are constructed of about a dozen fluted marble drums placed one above the other.
Although the building itself was largely left in its natural marble colour, archaeological evidence shows that the decorative elements were pained in vivid reds and blues. During the 6th century AD, under Byzantine power, the Parthenon became the Church of Saint Sophia (Sophia, like Athena, means ‘wisdom’). In 1205 AD, Frankish crusaders captured the Acropolis and turned into a Catholic cathedral.
Then the Turks, in the 15th century, used it first as a mosque (the Erechtheion was taken as the military commander’s harem) and then as a munitions store, as which it was badly damaged by Venetian shell fire in 1686. Restoration work on the Acropolis began after Greek independence in 1833, and has continued ever since.
The harmony and power of classical Greek temples came not from inspiration alone, but from the application of the ancient principles of number and form, known as sacred geometry. There were some definite rules: the height of a Doric column had to be 5½ times the diameter of its base; and that of an ionic column 10½ times.
Another key proportion in the Doric temple was 4:9. This is the ratio between the breath and length of the Parthenon, between the shorter side and ceiling height of the inner precinct, and between the diameter of the 46 outer columns and the distance between any two of them.
The same ratio applied to the Propylaea which, if completed, would have been as wide as the Parthenon is long).
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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.
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’.
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 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.
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.
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).
The Monument of Lysicrates (Mnimion Liskratous) dates from the 4th century BC. The six Corinthaian columns support a dome built from a single block of marble.
On top stood a bronze tripod awarded to a boys’ chorus in a drama competition staged in 334 BC. The frieze depicts Dionysus transforming Etruscan pirates into dolphins. In the 17th century, Capuchin monks incorporated the monument in their monastery (which later burned down).
In 1810 Lord Byron stayed there and wrote poetry sitting between the columns.
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