Visit: 15th February 2015
Athens. A city rich in history; one that has been inhabited for at least the last 7000 years, and an important place since the Mycenaean era (forerunners of Classical antiquity) of around 1400 BC. Despite the city being littered with important archaeological finds, UNESCO limits the designation to the Acropolis – an ancient citadel located on a rocky outcroup in the centre of the city.
I went with Natalie to Athens for a long weekend that included what turned out to be Valentine’s Day. Our trip gave us two and a half days, which turned out to be quite sufficient for seeing the city’s main sites, both WHS and not. I was also keen to gorge on Greek food, particularly the cheeses and olive oils for which the country is known.
We visited Athens at a time of ongoing uncertainty as to the country’s fiscal future. As of today’s standpoint it is still unclear whether Greece will be able to come to an agreement with the troika of the IMF, ECB and Eurozone to extend its debts or whether the radical new left wing government will lead the country into a chaotic Grexit from the single currency and indeed the EU. For what it’s worth my guess is that an accommodation will be reached that involves the troika giving ground and Greece’s day of fiscal reckoning being again postponed, but I have of course no real confidence in that prediction! It was interesting walking past Syntagma Square – the site of Greece’s parliament – to see the protesters with their banners decrying the troika’s de facto chief, Germany’s Angela Merkel, for her insistence that the Greeks continue to walk the path of austerity.
After an unsuccessful attempt to visit the National Archaeological Museum on the afternoon of our arrival, the first sight we really saw was on Sunday morning, when we started by visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Athens offers a very reasonably-priced ticket that for €12 allows you entry to ten different sites, including the Acropolis.
The Temple of Zeus stands as the tallest of all of Athens’ temples, and – though less well-preserved than the Parthenon – it still retains its majesty. The Corinthian columns stand 17 metres tall and are made from Pentelic marble. The temple took a long time to build, being constantly interrupted by changes of government and moves from tyranny to democracy and back again. It was eventually completed under the authority of the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD 132, to whom was dedicated a triumphal arch that stands nearby. Through the arch you can see the Acropolis.
Walking up to the Acropolis from its south slope we passed the Theatre of Dionysus. This open-air theatre was dedicated to the god known to the Romans as Bacchus – the patron of wine and drama. It was in this theatre that the works of Sophocles and Euripides would have been premiered, and you can still sit on the marble benches. It was quite an amazing place to be.
Carrying on up the hill we passed another theatre – the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. A more recent build, dating from 161 BC, this is a larger amphitheatre at which performances still take place – in 1962, for example, it hosted Frank Sinatra.
In addition to the Parthenon, the summit of the Acropolis houses several buildings. They include the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. One of the most interesting features of this building is the Porch of the Caryatids, in which six supporting columns were sculpted in the shape of female figures. Although not obvious to the viewer, the Caryatids supporting the temple now are but replicas – the originals having been taken to the nearby Acropolis Museum (actually one of them is in the British Museum, having been removed there by Lord Elgin along with half of the Parthenon Marbles in the early nineteenth century).
The Parthenon itself is not just a pretty building – it has been central to the identity of Athens for dozens of centuries. Dedicated to Athena, a daughter of Zeus, it was built as a demonstration of Greek supremacy following the defeat by the Hellenic city-state alliance of the Persians in the fifth century BC. The architect Phidias revolutionised Greek temple design by increasing the length and width of the Parthenon beyond anything seen before. Inside sat a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena – the grandeur of which we cannot even begin to imagine.
The two centuries or so following the victory over the Persians are known as the Classical era, and saw the invention of democracy and the lives of notables including Aristotle, Plato and Euclid. Modern Western politics, art, literature, science, maths and philosophy owe much to this period, comparable in my mind with the Renaissance. UNESCO cites the Acropolis as being “the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site”.
The newly-built Acropolis Museum stands near the foot of the hill, in which is housed various statues found across Greece but particularly in Athens and on the Acropolis. The highlight is on the top floor, where you will find one half of what we in Britain call the Elgin Marbles. I have heard it said as a justification for hanging onto our half that the Greeks cannot be trusted to look after them properly. After having seen the Acropolis Museum I think we can dismiss that argument. Whatever your views on the merits of keeping them/giving them back (I sit on the fence), it cannot be denied that the Greeks have done a good job at presenting them. Whilst they have not exactly kept the marbles in their original location (i.e. attached to the Parthenon up on the Acropolis) they have attempted to arrange them in a rectangular shape that corresponds to the shape of the Parthenon, which I think is a good idea. In place of the parts that reside in the British Museum the Greeks have put plaster casts, including what for my money is the finest part, and one that is still in London – the horse’s head.
Another stop on the tourist trail around Athens is the Ancient Agora. This designated public building was the centre of political and public life in Athens, making it an important site of pilgrimage for any democracy junkie. The Agora is surrounded by ruins of many other buildings that had civic purposes, including the Stoa of Attalos, which now houses another museum. There, I was interested by the steles (essentially public notice plaques) on which democratically-enacted decrees were inscribed and in this way disseminated to citizens.
On Monday – our final day – we had only to visit the National Archaeological Museum. An older institution than the new Acropolis Museum, the NAM is really the archetypal classical museum – chock-full of marble statues and other artifacts from across the Hellenic lands.
Highlights include this amphora – an excellent example of a work from the Geometric age (the oldest age of Ancient Greece) and the occasional surviving bronzes, such as the male below that is thought to be Paris holding the Apple of Strife (now missing). The horse and rider below struck me as looking almost contemporary – yet it was pieced together by archaeologists from pieces found in a shipwreck.
It was notable that every bronze statue seemed to have been discovered in the sea. I believe this is because those bronzes that remained on land (i.e. most of them) were inevitably melted down for recasting as weapons during the years following the decline of the Greeks.
Certainly the most curious piece in the museum that was discovered in a shipwreck is the Antikythera mechanism. This device, found 1900 by sponge fishermen, is sometimes labelled the world’s first computer. Much work has gone into determining what its purpose was and how it worked, and the conclusion is that it seems to have been an astronomical device used for predicting eclipses. The precision engineering of the many cogs and the sophistication of the device’s purpose has led it to be considered by some as an “OOPArt” – an ‘out-of-place artifact‘ whose discovery challenges the conventional understanding of development at the time by being ‘too advanced’ for the period from which it came.