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Athens May/June 2022. Sometimes sleep is not important; sometimes the reward for getting up really early is worth it.

We leave the apartment at 7.00am after a quick breakfast of chicken left over from last night’s dinner. We arrive at 7.30; we’re first in line by a few seconds. We chat with an American couple in the soft early morning light, waiting for the gate to open at 8.00. And then it does, and we’re off up the hill. The American couple are young and fit; I haven’t a hope of keeping up with them, but no matter, I’m fast enough, and Don catches me up at the top along with all the others in line behind us.

We’re actually at the less optimal gate, and I’m momentarily disappointed that I’m not the actual third person on the site, but in the end it makes little difference. It’s a big site, and even with those that arrived ahead of us by coming up the shorter route from the main gate, it’s still largely empty. We are at least an hour ahead of the hoards on the tour buses. We have time, and space, to explore this most iconic symbol of both ancient, and modern, Greece. Who can think of Greece without thinking of the Acropolis and the Parthenon?

It’s impossible to walk the streets of the Plaka (the old town of Athens) without getting teasing glimpses of it, seen here above the arches of the Roman theatre of Herod Atticus.

We’d climbed Philopappos Hill in time for sunset the evening before. And there it was, the Parthenon, bathed in golden light, sitting atop the Acropolis; an ancient structure on a hill that’s been in use for thousands of years; surrounded by a city that evolved because of it. The Acropolis commands attention, dominates the landscape; the city feels like waves, like water, filling the valley around it, almost ephemeral, paying obeisance to it. This rocky limestone outcrop that cannot be ignored, arises alone in the middle of a valley surrounded by hills. The sight takes my breath away. No wonder the ancients worshipped it and built their temples and treasury there. Whichever hill you climb in the Athens region the Acropolis will dominate the scene.

After a mad uphill scramble we arrive at last to the ancient entrance.

A few more steps and there it is, rising before us along with the rising sun.

Up close it is absolutely as magnificent as you would expect it to be; those clean Hellenic lines and perfect proportions soothe the eye and the mind. Looking at it is peaceful, easy; even with the restoration scaffolding nothing can distract from its elegance.

The ancients naturally viewed the Acropolis as the best place to be forewarned of approaching marauding hordes since it gives a commanding view of the area; thus in Neolithic times (up to c.1700 BCE) it was a fortress and military base. Acropolis means upper city and many ancient Greek towns were built around an acropolis, a place of refuge; there were still dwellings on the Acropolis of Athens as little as 150 years ago. And of course the most sacred buildings were up there too.

By Mycenaean times (up to c. 1000 BCE) the Acropolis had become a religious centre dedicated to the worship of the Goddess Athena. An oracle declared it a place only for the gods so it stopped being inhabited by people. [My sceptical mind thinks that that “oracle” must have been a priest or priestess, and one day they looked around and decided “there’s too much rabble here, I want the place for myself.”]

The three major buildings that stand today were built during the classical period (500-330 BCE) on the remains of earlier temples. Two of the buildings are temples – the Erechtheion and the Temple of Nike. The Parthenon is regarded as a temple; certainly it was, but it was more than that. It was designed to house a giant statue of the goddess Athena and was a temple in her name; but it was also a tribute celebrating Greek victories over the Persians; and it was a treasury storing tariffs paid by other Greek city-states, thus making it a quasi-religious government building for the people. There were wars – with the Persians and others – consequently also during this time the Acropolis once again became a place of refuge.

Some rapid(ish) changes: during early Christian times (c. 500 CE) it was converted into a church by the Byzantines and dedicated to Saint Sofia; in 1205 the Franks turned the hill into a fortress and residence for nobles and the Parthenon became a Catholic Church; with the Ottoman conquest in the 1400’s it became a mosque; and later became a storehouse for Turkish gunpowder.

Oh, and the Venetians were there too, attacking the Ottomans. In 1687 they bombarded the Acropolis from below. A cannonball hit the gunpowder and blew it up. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. I thought the Parthenon was kind of falling apart because it’s, you know, over 2000 years old. It never occurred to me that it became a storage shed for gunpowder and that someone lobbed a bomb at it.

And of course there was vandalism. And theft. Many of the pediment sculptures were lying on the ground when, in the early 1800’s Thomas Bruce, 7th earl of Elgin decided he’d like to have them. Entitlement much? He had them shipped to England where they remain to this day, housed in the British Museum.

With independence in 1830 Greece finally set about the task of restoration and conservation.

It’s likely that the pediment on the east end of the Parthenon (and much else) was destroyed in the explosion, and by earthquakes. All that remains are some horses that look very uncomfortable, and a man who looks surprisingly relaxed.

For a better idea of what it would have looked like, in the Acropolis Museum there is a reconstruction of the east pediment.

Taking our time exploring the site we are quickly drawn to the classical perfection of the Caryatids.

Caryatids are female supporting sculptures that replace mundane columns. How do you explain beauty? The ancient Greeks seemed to know exactly the proportions that would resonate with the heart.

They are actually replicas. The originals are in the Acropolis Museum to preserve them.

The building is the Erechtheion,

which sits on the most sacred site of the Acropolis. According to mythology this is the spot where Poseidon and Athena had their competition as to who would be patron of the city. Well, we know who won that battle. Poseidon offered salt water. Um, no thanks. Athena offered the olive tree.

The Erechtheion lies in the northeast corner of the original temple on the Acropolis that was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE. At that time the Parthenon was not considered holy, but the Erechtheion was.

By this time it’s getting hot, and we are parched. We sit for a water break on a small flat slab of grey stone next to a low wall – the only spot we can find in the shade. After a while we’re told to move by one of the guards because, as she explains, it’s “dangerous.” The guards then erect a rope barrier on posts to prevent anyone else from sitting there. It looks so incongruous: a single low slab about eight inches high, just big enough for the two of us to sit on, surrounded by a barricade. It certainly makes it look special.

So we wander on, to the east end of the site and a view towards Lycabettus Hill of early morning foggy smoggy Athens.

Turning again we discover the guard cat hard at work,

and look back at the expanse of Acropolis Hill, the site of so much activity for so many years, from Neolithic times until the present, human activity for several millennia written in its bare earth.

As we leave, looking down we see the Roman Theatre of Herod Atticus, built in 161 CE and still in use today for classical concerts and ballet,

and we see the Temple of Nike perched high above. Beneath it the crowds are beginning to arrive.

The Acropolis has been a citadel, a sacred home of the gods, a religious centre, an ammunition storage depot, a refuge, and now a tourist attraction. And despite bombardment, earthquakes, vandalism and theft, it still stands, as tantalizing as ever, as the unimpeachable symbol of the rich history of Greece.

Of course having visited the Acropolis we must also go to the Acropolis Museum, in a bright shiny new building that could easily house the Elgin marbles if only the British Museum would agree to return them to their rightful owners. Apparently secret deals are afoot, and the first could arrive back in Greece this year.

A few of my favourite pieces in the museum:

One day, after exploring the neighbourhood of Anafiotika, we follow a path quite high up on the side of Acropolis Hill. We don’t know where it goes, we don’t even really know where we are, just that we’re up above the city a little and we’re following our feet. On our left as we walk are the dwellings of Anafiotika with their high impenetrable walls spilling greenery over the sides. On our right are views out over the city. And then we see this!

They are buildings in the Agora of Athens, which sits beneath the northwest slope of the Acropolis. The Agora is as old as the city itself. Originally residential, in the 6th century BCE it became a public space used for gatherings and assemblies. Public and civic buildings were constructed, including the temple that had attracted us to the site.

The Temple of Hephaestus was a temple for ordinary citizens, the workers of the community, the people who made things. It was here that Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, and Athena Hergane, the patron of craft and weaving, were worshipped.

From the entrance near the centre of the large site we make our way slowly along and up to get a closer look. Apparently it’s the best preserved temple in Greece, and the only building of the many that were in the ancient Agora that remains largely intact.

We generally think of the word agoraphobia as being a fear of open spaces, but it can also be a fear of enclosed spaces such as public transport, or a fear of crowds. Which brings me back to the Agora. If the Acropolis was the place of ritual and ceremony and the spiritual heart of the community then the Agora was the marketplace; the centre of commercial activity; the gathering place. It was the ancient equivalent of the city square or the town hall, and was the hub of political and social life. Here was the place to hang out, to see performers, to conduct business, to listen to philosophers. Sadly, due to attacks, earthquakes, and periods of abandonment, little remains.

But there is the impressive Stoa of Attalos named for a Pergamon king. In its day it was the equivalent of a modern shopping mall. Here you can see its position relative to the Acropolis. 

The building is a restoration carried out by the American School of Classical Studies in the mid 1950’s, and houses the museum of the Agora. This whimsical guy is my favourite piece from the museum.

Mainly there’s a lot of old marble busts and bodies which I imagine are gold for classical scholars but not so much for me. I am, however, captivated by the geometric patterns of the long rows of columns and their shadows.

I have some mysterious affinity with ancient Egypt. When I explored the ruins and temples there I was completely enthralled. From Abu Simbel to the Valley of the Kings, to the Pyramids, I was at times squealing with excitement, and at others moved to tears. I was not moved that way by these sites of ancient Greece. Who knows why? Possibly because I was pretty travelled-out at the time. The Temple of Hephaestus was interesting and the Stoa quite fabulous. And I’m glad I finally got to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and that I saw it in its very best light; first from a distance at sunset from the top of Philopappos Hill when it was bathed in golden light, and dominating the landscape in a way that was quite unexpected; and again in the morning before the crowds, the Parthenon silhouetted by the bright early morning sun. For all that I wasn’t as moved as I was in Egypt, it was still really very special. Every time I caught a glimpse of it from the Plaka I’d catch my breath, hardly able to believe I was here at last in Greece.

Next post: more from Athens – a Byzantine church, the public market, and the fabulous changing of the guard in Syntagma Square. After that I’ll swing back over to Australia.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.