Athens: Ageless and Still Stunning

The Parthenon on the Acropolis at Twilight

The Parthenon on the Acropolis at Twilight

Athens is timeless, a stunningly beautiful series of images from more centuries than most people even want to contemplate. Even now, after my fourth or fifth visit, I’m awed by the magnificence of its ancient buildings. Many of Athens’ iconic buildings, such as the Parthenon, above, were constructed in the 5th c. B.C., others before, others after. The following posting is going to be shorter than usual on words, but have so many more pictures, as I feel the beauty of Athens, even poorly captured by camera, speaks more succinctly than whatever I can put into words. Everyone gravitates to the Acropolis first, the flat-topped mount in the heart of Athens upon which the Parthenon, the city’s ancient testament to its namesake, the Goddess Athena,still presides — despite 15 centuries of wars, desecration, explosions, theft and neglect. However, I would recommend to the novice in Athens that they go first to the New Acropolis Museum, and learn as much as they can about the Acropolis, its construction and its restoration, before actually trek up the hill itself.

The New Acropolis Museum

The New Acropolis Museum

It’s an incredibly well-done museum, opened in 2009, with exhibits and film in English and Greek. Many of the remaining, original metopes (3/4 “relief-statues”), friezes and statuary have been removed from the Acropolis to the Museum to preserve them. You can also hire a private guide to take you through either or both the museum and the Acropolis itself. (Tours by Locals has some great guides; whether you choose them or another guide source, read carefully about the difference between “driver-guides” and state-licensed “official” tour guides. Both serve their purpose.) However, if you’ve read up on your Greek history and have a particularly good guide book (I favor the Lonely Planet series as a     start), then you could be okay on your own. The walk up to the Acropolis is steep and the marble pathway can be very uneven and slippery, so beware of stylish and dysfunctional footwear. But it’s worth the climb.

Approach to the Acropolis monuments through the Propylaia, 437 B.C.

Approach to the Acropolis monuments through the Propylaia, 437 B.C.

To the right, at the top of the Propylaia is the exquisite temple of Athena Nike, which was recently reconstructed for about the second or third time.

Temple of Athena Nike, 425 B.C.

Temple of Athena Nike, 425 B.C.

And finally, the Parthenon. It’s been under repair/reconstruction/preservation for over 30 years, so it’s hard to avoid having scaffolds and cranes in the pictures.

Reconstruction or repairs to Parthenon

Reconstruction or repairs to Parthenon

To the left is a beautiful temple, really three temples, called the Erechtheion. It’s actually the most sacred spot on the Acropolis. The founding of the city actually began here, according to myth. In short, both Poseidon (God of the Seas) and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom, among other virtues) vied for the city. Poseidon struck his trident into the rock of the Acropolis and a saltwater spring gushed forth. Athena waved her hand (presumably) and an olive tree sprouted and grew from the rock. The people chose Athena as their patron goddess. However, not wanting to totally offend Poseidon, the citizens of Athens dedicated a temple on the left of the Erechtheion to Poseidon. On the right is the famous porch of the Caryatids (or maidens), and in the center, is the temple where the inner sanctum was the holiest spot in Athens

Erechtheion - Most sacred spot on the Acropolis

Erechtheion – Most sacred spot on the Acropolis

Porch of the Caryatids,Erechtheion, begun 421 B.C.

Porch of the Caryatids,Erechtheion, begun 421 B.C.  These Caryatids here are reconstructions.  Five of the original six statues are in the New Acropolis Museum; the 6th is in the British Museum.

And about the stolen artwork, in short: Periodically there is a big brouhaha between Athens and the British Museum about the fact that a former British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, spirited off to London several marble Parthenon friezes as well as one of the Caryatids from the Acropolis. The British refuse to return them, saying they paid for them. The Greeks are totally dissatisfied with this response, since Lord Elgin paid the Ottoman Turks, who then ruled Athens (along with much of Greece). The matter is unresolved and remains a sore point with Greeks, Athenians in particular.

Ancient Entrance to the Parthenon -  from the East. With few exceptions, all ancient temples in Greece are entered from the east.

Ancient Entrance to the Parthenon – from the East. With few exceptions, all ancient temples in Greece are entered from the east.

Two theaters flank the southern slope of the Acropolis. The Odeon is still used today for concerts, and the Temple of Dionysus has sadly disintegrated.

Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus, 161 A.D.

Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus, 161 A.D.

Theater of Dionysus, 6th c. B.C. (SE corner of Acropolis)

Theater of Dionysus, 6th c. B.C. (SE corner of Acropolis)

 Cat finds friends.  Feral cats abound on the Acropolis. (No, I didn't pet it, Mom!)

Cat finds friends. Feral cats abound on the Acropolis. (No, I didn’t pet it, Mom

The Parthenon itself has sustained considerable damage beyond the ravages of time, art thieves, and the pillaging of marble and stone for building houses. Athens was in the hands of the Turks for a few hundred years, much to the consternation of the Christian (Western European) world. When the Venetians laid siege to the city, attempting to wrest Athens back into Christendom, they actually shot at the Acropolis and its temples. At the time, the Parthenon was used by the Turks as a munitions arsenal. Of course, once hit, the arsenal exploded, gouging the inner sanctums and columns of the Parthenon.

Destruction of the Parthenon when Turkish arsenal exploded in 1687

Destruction of the Parthenon when Turkish arsenal exploded in 1687

There is a great deal more to Athens than I can ever possibly cover in a single blog posting. So, I think I’ll end here, with just one more picture of the Parthenon, this time at full dark:

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