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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).
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.
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.
Beside the Mitropolis cathedral is the tiny and lovely Agios Eleftherios, the ‘little Mitropolis’, which is affectionately known as Our Lady Quick-to-answer-Prayers. It was built 800 years ago from much earlier columns and beams.
Over the main door, a 4th-century BC pagan frieze has been nearly obliterated – stamped with the Latin cross by later Christians.
However, if you look carefully you can still see the wheels of the ship bearing Athena’s robe in the Panatheniac procession. This is all that’s left of the known artistic rendering of the famous ship.
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.
The Mitropolis, Athens’ cathedral, was completed in 1855 having been built from the remnants of over 70 demolished churches, including a zodiac calendar. On Good Friday evening, the famous candlelight procession takes place here.
The impressive interior, allegedly inspired by St Mark’s in Venice, is bedecked with splendid marble pulpit, floor and columns, huge candelabra, and religious paintings shining with silver revetment. Every inch is covered ic colourful geometric paintwork and mosaics. To the right of the entrance, a silver ossuary bears the sacred remains of Gregory V, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople; the ossuary on the lfet holds the relics of a 16th-century martyr.
The cathedral is open in the morning, and also from around 5pm to 7 or 8pm and can be found Pandrosou, which ends in the spacious Platia Mitropoleos.
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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