My earlier blog on Athens focused nearly exclusively on the Acropolis, the crown jewel of Athens. As anyone knows who’s been there, Athens offers more riches than I can ever possibly cover in even a second blog posting. So for the rest of this “discourse” I will be focusing on just a few of the ruins and sights that we enjoyed while in Athens. Hopefully, I will get to a third, which will focus on a few of the major sights of the Peloponnese peninsula that we toured. One of the best moves we made was to hire for two days a “driver-guide,” a native Athenian who was incredibly knowledgeable about Greek history, architecture and culture. Through Jordan Daioglou’s knowledge and expertise, we were lucky enough to soak in a fortune of Greece’s varied history and culture. So to the highlights:
The Ancient Agora
The “Ancient Agora” dates to the 6th c. B.C., Greek era of Athens. An agora was a combination marketplace, center for administrative and commercial entities, and a location where citizens could socialize as well as wax political. In Roman times, the agora was also referred to as a “forum,” although in Athens, the Roman Agora is known as…”the Roman Agora.” The Ancient (or Greek) agora is far more interesting. It has a mix of Greek architecture, statuary, ruins, and the most completely intact ancient temple in Greece, the Temple of Hephaestus. Unfortunately, the agora has sustained substantial damage over the centuries from Persian, Goth and Turk invasions, and general pillaging and theft.
In the picture above, the temple is flanked by a male cypress tree on the right and a female cypress tree on the left (the highest boughs on either side). They are easily distinguishable because the female is broader and fuller, whereas the male tree is straight, tall and spiky. I chose this picture to illustrate an interesting tale of the origins of the cypress tree Jordan regaled us with. (There are variations through the ages; this is the most common one.)
The Greek god of the Sun, Apollo, became enamored of a beautiful young man named Cyparissus, and presented the youth with a sacred stag as a gift. Cyparissus loved the deer, which soon became his treasured pet. One day, while hunting alone, Cyparissus accidentally killed the deer. In tears, he begged Apollo to allow him to mourn forever. Apollo reluctantly granted his lover his wish, and turned Cyparissus into a tree so he could stand vigil over the spot where the deer had died and mourn his beloved pet for eternity. And, from the myth, came historical tradition: since ancient times the majestic (male) cypress tree has remained a symbol of mourning, continuously “weeping” (exuding resin) for those who have passed on. And throughout the Greek and Roman world, you will find only male cypress trees planted in cemeteries, and the boughs of the cypress tree are used for wreaths of mourning. According to one site I checked, even the Roman Catholic popes are buried in cypress caskets.
Back to the Temple of Hephaestus. It is on a small hill overlooking the Ancient Agora. Remarkably complete, it nevertheless has sustained damage since constructed in 449 B.C. Hephaestus, known as Vulcan in the Roman pantheon, was the god of fire, the forge and metal workers. He hammered those nasty iron-and-fire thunderbolts that Zeus was forever raining down on disloyal worshipers. There are some beautiful metopes (stone relief sculptures) on the eastern and western walls of the temple. The ones below seemed better preserved.
The Stoa of Attalos
Not without controversy from archaeological purists, the Stoa of Attalos has been reconstructed to illustrate what this beautiful yet functional building once looked like. Part administrative offices, part commercial shops, the stoa also provided an open yet shaded meeting place for Athenians to meet and greet and do business. The columned “porch” was 115 meters/ 377 feet long and made completely of marble; in the lower porch the exterior, fluted columns were of the Doric style, and the interior (unfluted) columns were Ionic. Today, both the upper and lower porches display remains of period statuary, and the interior lower rooms are a small museum. Through the ages there were several stoas in the agora but sadly they have not survived except in pieces. However, the reconstruction of this stoa at least provides modern visitors an idea of their beauty and function.
(If you want to brush up on your architectural column styles, go to
Church of the Holy Apostles
There were other, far less intact remains of temples and buildings in the Ancient Agora. One building that struck my interest wasn’t of either the Greek or Roman eras, but a Byzantine chapel built over some Greek agora ruins.
Constructed in the 10th c. A.D. this chapel, the oldest Byzantine church in Athens, stands over what was once a Greek temple to nymphs. (How’s that for irony?) The chapel’s simplicity, even in the Byzantine style, simply captivated me, as did the interior frescoes. Allegedly, and unfortunately, Turkish occupiers of Athens chose to horribly deface these intricate frescoes.
The Roman Agora is about 100 meters from the Ancient Agora and also worth a visit, but aside from the entry arch (below), the ruins are not as well preserved or reconstructed as in the Greek agora.
Temple of Zeus & Hadrian’s Arch
The magnificent Temple of Zeus was once the largest temple of Ancient Greece. It also took the longest to build – 700 years – and after many starts and stops was finished by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. Sadly, almost all of the 104 Corinthian columns have been destroyed by time or vandals, and only fourteen remain standing; a 15th lies in pieces on the broken marble flooring.
Our guide, Jordan, told us that these temple columns, the tallest in Greece, had been secured together with molten lead pored through a hole bored through the center of each piece as one monster disk was mounted on top of the others already in place. Many of the columns still standing in 1687 were destroyed when the Turks, under attack by the Venetians, tore them apart to remove the lead for bullets and cannon balls.
A remnant of Rome’s domination of Athens stands at one end of the park housing the Temple of Zeus. Hadrian also built this grand archway, decreeing it would mark the end of the “old” city of Athens as well as grandly mark the entrance to the “new” and decidedly Roman city.
We learned there is much misinformation about the origins of modern-day Olympic games and which is the “original” Olympic stadium (there is none existing). Contrary to what many people believe, the Pan-Athenaic Stadium in Athens (pictured below) is not the original, ancient Olympic stadium. Most accurately referred to as the “Ancient Games,” these pan-Greek athletic events were held every four years to honor Zeus, and took place in Olympia, from which the name “Olympic Games” eventually derived. The first stadium on this site in Athens was a 4th c. B.C. wooden arena, and was used for traditionally Greek athletic contests honoring the goddess Athena, hence the name. The wood was replaced with marble in 329 B.C., refurbished in 140 A.D., then left to languish through the years of various occupations.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, various cities and countries around Europe sponsored Olympic “festivals” and athletic events, but the first modern “Olympic Games” (involving only Greek and Ottoman Empire participants) were held in an Athens square in 1859. What was left of the old Pan-Athenaic stadium was restored privately by a wealthy Greek, who also personally funded the Games held there in 1870 and 1875. Another wealthy Greek, George Averoff, then funded a massive overhaul of the stadium for the Olympic games held here in 1896. The stadium was used once again when Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics, for both the archery competition and, fittingly, the end of the marathon.
Named in ancient times as the “Hill of Wolves,” the Lykavittos (also known as “Lycabettos”) is the highest point in the city. Rising out of the sprawl of modern Athens, the hill offers beautiful vistas of the metropolis (when not obscured by smog). We opted not to either hike or take the funicular to the summit where the Chapel of Agios Georgios perches, but stopped just below for a photo op.
Temple of Poseidon
It is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed with ancient ruins in Athens and its environs – there are so many beautiful sights to see. The Temple of Poseidon is worth visiting, if for no other reason,for its stunning location. Perched on a cliff above the cobalt Aegean Sea, this temple to the god of the seas has served as a beacon to sailors for centuries. For ancient Athenian sailors, it was a welcome sign that home was near. The temple was also at one time the centerpiece of a fortress that encircled this hilltop as the southernmost defensive point for Athens.
Nevertheless, the historic importance and beauty of this temple hasn’t deterred generations of individuals from carving their names into the marble columns and base of the temple. Among generals and plebeians alike, the English poet Lord Byron chiseled his name into a column in the early 1800s.
The site of the temple also plays a role in Greek history and mythology, although how much is truth, how much myth, no one can say.
In ancient times the Minoan King of Crete ruled many of the islands and mainland of southern Greece, including Athens. Legend is that King Minos demanded an annual blood tribute from each vassal state: seven boys and seven girls to be sent each year to Crete. Rumor had it that the hundreds of youths brought each year were to be fed to the Minotaur, the king’s son, a mythical half-bull, half-man that roamed in the labyrinth of Knossos, the Minoan royal palace .
One year Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, Aegeus, pleaded with his father to be sent as one of the seven Athenian male youths. Already renowned for his prowess, Theseus claimed he could kill the Minotaur, and free Athens from Minoan tyranny. His father relented, but only if Theseus swore that if he should return in triumph from Crete, he must replace his ship’s black sail with a white one, so that King Aegeus would know his son still lived.
Theseus sailed to Crete, and within a short time, King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell madly in love with him. On the day he was to enter the labyrinth and encounter the Minotaur, she gave Theseus a ball of string, instructing him to tie it to the entrance so he could find his way out again.
Theseus slew the Minotaur, found his way out of the labyrinth, collected his lover and Athenian compatriots, and headed home for Athens. Along the way, they stopped at an island to replenish food and water, and the feckless Ariadne fell in love with Dionysus, the god of wine and partying. Distraught, Theseus resumed sail for home, but as he entered the gulf leading to Athens from the sea, he forgot to hoist his white sail. King Aegeus, who had stood watch at the Temple of Poseidon waiting for his son’s return, saw Theseus’ ship approaching, but with the black — not white — sail unfurled in the wind. In despair, Aegeus threw himself off the cliff into the sea. And thus the body of water at the mouth of the gulf have ever since been known as the Aegean Sea.
And that’s it for now. Stay tuned!
Travel notes: I mentioned our guide, Jordan Daioglou, who was a magnificent tour guide. If traveling to Athens and mainland Greece, I highly recommend you retain him. His website is www.athens-tours.gr or you can reach him at email@example.com.