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South of the National Garden, the site of the Olympieion encompasses both Roman monuments and the ruins of ancient buildings that once lined the river Ilissos.
The stream itself now runs underground through the city. As was only fitting for the mighty ruler of the gods, the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Stile Olimpiou Dios) was the largest in ancient Greece. It was begun in the 6th century BC by the tyrant Peisistratus, but was only finally completed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 132.
The temple included 104 Corinthian Columns, each 17m (56ft) high and more than 2m (7ft) thick. Today only 15 remain, and there’s no trace of the two gold and ivory statues installed by Hadrian: a giant one of Zeus and another only slightly smaller, of himself.
To mark the separation of his own Athens – which he fondly called ‘Hadrianopolis’ – from the ancient city of Theseus, gateway – Hadrian’s Arch (pili Adrianou) – was erected facing the temple.
Note: Whenever you see an arch, you can be sure that it is not classical Greek. The Romans introduced the arch a few centuries later.
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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.
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).
After you’ve admired the temples, visit the Acropolis Museum, sitting unobtrusively in a hollow at the southeast corner. Every exhibit in the cool interior was found on the site.
The first three galleries contain pre-classical works of the 6th century BC. Ancient Greek sculptures are admired as the first to portray the human form in a natural, though the human form in a natural, though idealized way.
They also produced some splendid animals. See, for example, the collection of Four Horses (570 BC) in room no. 2, especially the two in the centre with their hands turned shyly towards and another.
Also this room is the outstanding Moschophoros – a marble statue of a man carrying on his half shoulders as a votive offering. Note the symmetry of the calf’s legs and the man’s arms, as well as the tension in his muscles and the detail of his hair.
In rooms 4 and 5 you have a chance to study the evolution of the enigmatic smile and almond-shaped eyes that characterize the archaic period. The Man on Horseback (560 BC) is a fine example, even though the head is a copy (the Louvre has the original). Most of the statues in these rooms are kore young women), which stood in the temples as handmaidens to the gods wearing a heavy shawl, or peplos, over her tunic, is superb.
Most famous is no. 674, also known as the Almond-Eyed Kore. Dating from about 580 BC, this enchanting work captures the spiritual ideal in human form. After Persian invaders ran riot through the temple in 480 BC, this kore and other ‘violated’ statues were ritually buried by the Greeks, and lay undiscovered until 1885. The head of the ‘Blonde Youth’ (which was named after the yellow colour that once covered his hair) and the statue of the Kritios Boy are examples of the archaic to the classical age of sculpture. Both originate from around 480 BC and show stirrings of individual property.
Room 7 and 8 display parts of the Parthenon frieze and other fragments of sculpture. Watch for the splendid gods – Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis – awaiting the arrival of the Panatheniac procession. The relief of a winged goddess taking off her sandal from the temple of Athena Nike, illustrates the incredible skill with which Greek sculptors captured the relation between dress and the body.
The museum’s final display is the original Caryatids from the Erechtheion – now safely protected behind glass and special lighting.
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.
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.
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