I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry, but Athens is a huge city. Not only is the city big, the buildings within the city are big. It doesn’t have the skyscrapers one might associate with a big city, but the close-knit eight story apartment buildings have a way of hiding anything more than a block away. The Acropolis is set up on a hill above all the buildings, but the numerous ancient sites that spread out before it are easily overlooked if you’re not careful. We had the luxury of several days to explore many of these sites, any of which if on their own would be a major attraction; it’s not easy living in the shadow of the Acropolis.
At the foot of the Acropolis to the northwest lies a smaller limestone mound known as the Aeropagus. There are no recognizable structural remains here, but it was the legal meeting center of Athens. Murder and treason trials were heard and decided here. For Christians this is an important site because in AD 51 the apostle Paul was invited by Athenian intellectuals to share his Christian beliefs with them. A leader from the local temple to Dionysus converted to Christianity and later became the patron saint of the city of Athens.
The ancient Greek Agora sprawls out below the Aeropagus. The first agora was built in the sixth century BC and was subsequently destroyed by the Persians after the battle of Thermopylae. A much grander agora was designed and built under the direction of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens around 449 BC which remained in use until around AD 267 when a band of Scandinavian Goths called the Herulians pierced the Roman empire and sacked Athens. An agora was the modern equivalent of a town square. Everyday items were bought and sold, business deals were discussed and contracts sealed. Socrates and others spent a good deal of time teaching in the center. It was a place to see and be seen by other influential citizens. There were public bathrooms, fountains, and restaurants of a sort. It was all arranged kind of like a swap meet with covered stalls and some in the open air. The Stoa of Attalos is at one end of the Agora. Stoa is a fancy word for a shopping mall. It was a two-story mall where wealthy Athenians did their shopping. Today it is a well-organized museum of items found in the excavation of the grounds around here.
Further to the west of the Greek Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus. It was one of the first buildings Pericles commissioned to be built after the war with the Persians. Ictinus, one of the Parthenon architects, designed it around 449 BC. It is not as elegant or as large as the Parthenon, but is in better shape. There are 34 Ionic columns and a frieze with scenes from the Twelve Labors of Heracles surrounding the structure. And true to the god Hephaestus, the area around it was home to the foundries and metal shops of Athens. It’s really a beautiful and very accessible site.
Just beyond the Temple of Hephaestus is the Keramikos, the ancient cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times. Foundations of the walls that protected Athens as far back as 479 BC can be found here as well the Dipylon Gate where the Panathenaic procession began each year that ultimately ended up on the Acropolis. Along this procession way are the remains of many tombs, some to nobility and others for more ordinary citizens. All of this borders one of Athens' busiest roads. It always makes me wonder what I would find if I were to dig under one of these roads. There’s gotta be stuff under there!
Other than the Areopagus there are at least two other hills worth climbing, one to the east of the Acropolis and the other to the west. Likavittos Hill is to the East and has the best 360° views of Athens. It’s breath taking. Likavittos means “hill of the wolves,” of which there are none today. There are no major ancient ruins on 900-foot summit, but there is a beautiful little Greek Orthodox chapel there called Agios Giorgios. To the west of the Acropolis there is a great green space of trails beneath pine forests to the summit of Filopappou Hill. If you want to take sunset pictures of the Acropolis, this is the place to be. At the summit is a monument to Julius Antiochus Filopappou a distinguished Roman orator around AD 116. From here the views to the west of Piraeus and the Aegean beyond or to the east of the Acropolis are spectacular.