We spent our first full day in Athens walking around the Acropolis (the High City). In my head I knew that it was an elevated area with temples on top, but I was totally unprepared for just how elevated the area really is. It is a monumental mesa of limestone right in the middle of modern day Athens. The sheer cliffs of limestone rise about 200-300 feet above the city spread around it. It’s really quite dramatic. If you look carefully between the hallways of apartments you can see it from just about anywhere around the city. It looks a bit out of place from the vantage point of the Plaka and its streets lined with jewelry shops, quaint cafes, and tourist trinket venders. The best venues are from the surrounding hills. We climbed Lykavittos Hill to the East one wind-swept day for spectacular cloud dotted views of the entire Athenian basin. Our favorite views were from Filopappou Hill to the west. In heaven there will be a special corner where Megan and I will get to sit and watch the sunset on the Acropolis from Filopappou Hill. It has the potential for being an incredibly romantic hangout. We had to settle for keeping our kids from falling over the surrounding cliffs. Like I said, someday in heaven…
Neolithic people groups may have lived on top of this mound as far back as 8000 BC. The Mycenaeans who lived in this area around the 12th century BC built a palace, temples, bronze working forges and homes on the site. Homer may have referred to it in the Odyssey as the "strong-built House of Erechtheus." Erechtheus was a mythological king of Athens. An early Parthenon was begun after the victory at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The summit was leveled off by building a retaining wall around the perimeter of the hill with more than 8000 two-ton limestone blocks. The area was then filled in with rubble to level the surface for the construction of this temple. Unfortunately it was never completed. When the Athenian and Spartan armies retreated after the battle of Thermopylae, the invading Persian army dismantled everything on the Acropolis and burned the remains. The Athenians returned to their city, the oracle of Delphi declared the Acropolis to be solely a home for the gods, and around 460 BC Pericles began his famous rebuilding program that has left us with these marvelous structures.
The only real way up the Acropolis is from the west. A processional road though Athens called the Panathenaic Way climbs the mount here. As you approach to the summit you enter in through the ceremonial Propylaia. This was a colonnaded entrance to the temple area of the Acropolis. Right now it is shrouded in scaffolding for restoration work. To the left of the Propylaia you would normally see the tiny temple of Athena Nike (Athena the Victor). Unfortunately it was dismantled for restoration work in 2003, scheduled to be rebuilt by the time of the Olympic games, but remains unreconstructed. Ooops. It is currently just a flat mound of blocks. It was originally built around 427 BC, dismantled by the Turks in order to mount a canon on the location in 1686, reassembled in 1836 by archaeologists, and again disassembled and reassembled in the 1890s to build up its foundation.
Passing through the Propylaia you are overwhelmed by the main attraction, the Parthenon. This is the temple of Athena Parthenon (Athena the Virgin). It’s what everybody thinks about when they think of the Acropolis, and to be honest, it wasn’t that long ago that I finally discovered that one was the hilltop and the other a temple - duh. I can’t believe I just confessed that! It is 228 feet long and 101 feet wide. There are eight 34-foot tall Doric columns at each end and 17 on each of the long sides. It is made of brilliant white Pentelic marble from Mount Pentelicus about 10 miles away. Inside there was/is a smaller enclosed room called a cella where the famous almost 40-foot tall statue of Athena stood. The body was constructed of a wooden frame with gold plating. The face hands and feet were made of ivory and the eyes were made of precious jewels. She wore a long gold dress and a Medusa medallion. In one hand she held a spear and in the other a small statue of Nike, goddess of victory. During the annual Panathenaic Festivals a peplos (saffron colored shawl) was placed on the statue. Sometime around AD 426 the statue was taken to Constantinople and disappeared. Bummer. There’s a Roman replica about three feet tall in the National Museum here in Athens so we know what it looked like. The Parthenon remained in pretty good despite going through several different cultural ownerships and uses. It was used as a church, a mosque, and an armory. It was the armory that did most of the damage. Around 1687 the Turks were using it to store gunpowder during a war with the Venetians. A stray missile ignited the gunpowder and the temple exploded and burned for three days. Restoration of some sort has been going on for a couple of hundred years. The most current effort hopes to restore the Parthenon to its pre 1687 state. That will be very cool. Current problems involve pollution issues (acid rain and car emissions that dissolve the marble) and the much-debated return of stolen statues from the Acropolis that are housed in the British Museum in London. If you really want to get a local excited just get them talking about Lord Elgin and the stolen marble statues. Things get pretty heated.
To the north of the Parthenon sits the much smaller and delicate Erechtheion. The back porch of this structure has the famous Caryatid statues that hold up the roof. The ones in place are replicas; five of the real ones are in the Acropolis Museum and one is in London. This smaller temple was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. Remember the story of how Athens got its name? If not just ask your sixth grader. They should know it. Anyway, on the front porch are several cracks in the marble flooring. These are the cracks resulting from Poseidon striking the ground with his trident to bring forth the beautiful white warhorse. Pretty cool.
The entire summit is strewn with stones, pedestal and capital pieces (Doric, ionic and Corinthian), and restoration equipment. Dozens of people were at work: policing lost tourists, rebuilding columns, and hauling marble up elevators and rail tracks. Groups of tourists ebbed and flowed through the area. It was busy but really quite peaceful. We picnicked beside the Parthenon and took it all in at a leisurely pace. This is what people come to Athens for!