We decided to go to the Acropolis early today, to avoid the heat and crowds, so we take the Metro subway to the station near the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the rock. From there we can look up and see the Parthenon on top and the ongoing archaeological work above the theater at the foot of the old fortress.
Theater of Dionysus below the Acropolis
The theater of Dionysus was built into the natural hollow of the south slope of the Acropolis. Originally a place to honor the god Dionysus in dance and song, in the fifth century the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were performed on the orchestra floor for 30,000 Athenians. By the middle of the fifth century there was scenery in the background, usually in the form of a building. The theater changed many times over the years and was largely rebuilt by the Romans.
The word “acropolis” means high city. Originally it was a fortress, a place of protection where the townspeople could rally to fight off raiding tribes from other areas. It was the location of the king’s palace during Mycenaean times, but later it was dedicated to religious and community activities. During the second half of the fifth century BCE, under the leadership of Pericles and the artistic supervision of Phidias, the Athenians built their sanctuary to Athena on the old acropolis site.
Model of the Acropolis as it looked when first built
Hiking up the limestone plateau to the entrance, we realize that we are not beating the crowds. There are hundreds of people from dozens of different tour groups milling around the entrance gate. We walk up the Sacred Way to the Propylaea, the building through which one enters the Acropolis. Scaffolding around and through the structure indicates the extent of restoration work being done.
A lot of restoration is being done at the Propylaea
Crowds of visitors are herding through the Propylaea by tour guides, scarcely taking the time to appreciate its beauty and significance as the first major “public” building ever built. Most are intent on seeing the main attraction, the famous Parthenon, which some people consider the most perfect building ever constructed. Perfection was the goal of the sculptors and architects.
Brilliant design of the Parthenon continues to be studied
Looking at the building one is impressed by what appears at first to be a very linear and regular design of the Doric order. However, when modern engineers took measurements they made a shocking discovery: there are no straight lines in the design of the Parthenon. Instead, almost every aspect of the structure is subtly irregular and imperceptibly curved.
Parthenon irregularities create an illusion of perfection
No two neighboring capitals are the same size, diameters of columns are unequal, and the spaces between them are irregular. There are no vertical or parallel lines anywhere in the building. The columns all lean towards the center of the building, as do the walls. Some parts of the temple lean forward and some parts lean backward. The genius of this design is that it creates the illusion of perfection.
Having survived more or less intact for well over two thousand years, the Acropolis buildings finally fell victim to the demands of war. In 1684 the Turks demolished the temple of Athena Nike to gain a brief tactical advantage, then three years later the Venetians, laying siege to the garrison, ignited a Turkish gunpowder magazine in the Parthenon and in the process blasted off its roof. Surpassing this destruction, at least in the minds of today’s Athenians, was Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon’s frieze in 1801; he later sold it to the British Museum.
Parthenon frieze sculpture, now in the British Museum
In addition, the 19th century iron clamps and supports used to reinforce the marble structures became rusted and warped, causing the stones to crack; earthquakes dislodged the foundations; generations of visitors have slowly worn down the Parthenon’s surfaces; and, more recently, smog from automobile exhaust has been turning the marble into dust. The good news is that much work is being done to preserve and restore the Acropolis monuments.
Restoration workers continue to repair Parthenon damage
We can not stand long in one place because we are continuously pushed and shoved by crowds intent on encircling the Parthenon. We turn and walk north, beyond the foundations of the old temple of Athena, to the Erechtheion, where both Athena and Poseidon-Erechtheus, the city’s old patron, were worshipped. It is built upon the site which, according to myth, the two gods had contested possession of the Acropolis. The contest was to be based on who could give the most valuable gift to the people. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident, causing water to gush forth. However, since Poseidon is a sea god, the spring water was a bit salty. Athena gave the people an olive tree, which provided food and oil, a much more practical miracle. And so the city bears her name.
The Erectheion stands near the Parthenon
Much work has been done here to restore the temple. Some walls have been reconstructed with old and new blocks, and broken pieces have been repaired. The elegant Ionic porticoes are especially beautiful to see, particularly the north one with its fine decorated doorway and frieze of marble. On the south side, in the Porch of the Caryatids, the Ionic line is transformed into six maidens (caryatids) holding the entablature on their heads. These are replicas: five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum, and a sixth was taken by Elgin.
Porch of caryatids (maidens) on the Erechtheion temple
We cannot visit the Acropolis museum because the air conditioning is shut down, and so we walk along the edges of the fortifications and see the sights of the city below. Finally leave the sacred precinct and hike down the west side of the Acropolis, past the low hill of the Areopagus and into the ancient agora district near the Plaka district.
We stop in the shade near the Thession, which was mis-named in modern times. It is actually the temple of Hephaestus, god of metallurgy and fire. This part of the ancient agora was where the metal-working shops were located … hence the association with Hephaestus.
Temple of Hephaestus in the ancient agora
It is a pleasant place to rest and eat our bag lunch. There are not nearly as many visitors here as on the Acropolis, and almost as interesting. After lunch, we visit the Church of the Holy Apostles (built in 1,000 CE), the concert hall built by Agrippa in 15 BCE and the restored Roman stoa. Then we decide it is time for a Greek tradition: an afternoon nap.