Monday, May 10

The Acropolis

We spent most of our first full day in Athens exploring The Acropolis. Without doubt its one of the world’s iconic ancient sites and home to the instantly recognizable Parthenon. The history here is multi-layered and on full display. Incredibly, people have lived on this marble outcrop for more than six thousand years. However, most of its familiar structures arrived in more recent times. The Parthenon, for example, was completed in 438BC, a mere 2,460 years ago.

We made our way up the 150 metre rock face via its southern slope. Here can be found several impressive ruins including the Theatre of Dionysos amphitheatre. In its time this was the largest such complex in ancient Greece, sitting 17,000 over 64 marble-clad tiers. Today, only the bottom 20 tiers have survived, including many of the marble thrones that encircled the terrace’s base. Further along is the recently restored Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a Roman amphitheatre that was once fully enclosed by a wooden roof. It was built in 161AD, more than four hundred years after its neighbouring Greek arena.

A slow climb took us up to the dramatic colonnade gateway that guards entry to the summit of the Acropolis. The Propylaia as its known is an impressive sight. It was completed in 432BC after five years of construction. The structure stood undisturbed until the 17th Century when a lightning strike exploded gunpowder recklessly stored in its main hall by the occupying Ottoman Turks. Most of its marble pillars and portions of the roof have been subsequently restored.

Restoration work continues today across the Acropolis site funded in large part by UNESCO. For example the Temple of Athena Nike that stands to the right of the Propylaia was clad in scaffolding the day we visited as was the entire northern façade of the Parthenon. Incredibly, computer-controlled carving tools are sculpting replacement marble pieces that fit perfectly with the surviving ancient marble. It’s the ultimate 3D jigsaw puzzle.

The Parthenon itself is every bit as magnificent as you’d imagine it to be. The current structure was built on the site of at least four earlier temples. Built entirely of white Pentelic marble, it’s the largest Doric temple ever constructed in Greece. I was astonished to learn that the entire building and its marble artwork was completed in only nine years. It was officially opened in 438BC. Much like it neighbouring marble gateway, the structure suffered at the hands of the Turks when a single cannon shot fired in 1687 exploded gunpowder stored inside.

The Parthenon shares its summit location with another impressive structure, the Erechtheon. This is a multi-facaded marble temple, built on several levels on the northern rim of the Acropolis. It’s most famous façade consists of six marble maidens, the Caryatids, who support a small porch roof balanced on their heads. The sculptures you see on site are copies. The originals are now on display in the new Acropolis Museum. You can see the museum and a huge swathe of the expansive Athens’ skyline from a dramatic observation terrace built into the eastern wall of the Acropolis.

Mid-afternoon we made our way back down the hill to visit the Greek Agora, or meeting and administrative district of the ancient city. The site includes three main structures; the restored colonnaded Stoa of Attalos, the red brick Church of the Holy Apostles and the dramatic Temple of Hephaestus. This temple is the best preserved Doric temple in Greece; a mini version of the Parthenon. We were told by a guide that it’s often used to portray the Parthenon by period dramas that film in Athens.

Our final stop of the day was the Acropolis Museum. It’s an architectural masterpiece, designed to house artifacts from the Parthenon and its marble neighbours. It’s also a rather blunt political statement. The top floor of the museum has been reserved for displaying the Elgin Marbles, intricate marble friezes that once adorned the top of the Parthenon. They were removed by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador in 1801 and are currently displayed in the British Museum (see an earlier photo taken in London below).

For decades the UK refused to return these ‘stolen’ artifacts claiming Greece had nowhere safe and climate-controlled in which to preserve them. Of course, the new museum now makes a complete mockery of this claim. The British refuse to return what rightfully belongs in Greece. I add my voice to others who believe it’s time for the British to hand them back.

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