Monday, May 10

Unfathomable history

We spent our last day in Athens touring an eclectic series of historical sites. Our first stop was the Temple of Zeus. It was once the largest temple in Greece, consisting of 104 Corinthian columns, 17 metres high. Today, only 15 of these columns remain, including one that toppled over during a storm in 1852. The temple’s construction began in the 6th Century, but a lack of funds and ongoing problems with an unstable foundation meant that it wasn’t completed until 131AD.

Hadrian was ruling Athens at the time of its completion. In his typical egotistic manner he installed an enormous statue of himself inside the temple, next to an equally large statue of the temple’s revered deity. Nearby, Hadrian also erected a monumental arch. It neatly divided the city’s ancient Greek quarter from his modern Roman zone. Today, the arch is in a state of poor repair, fenced off from visitors and looking rather forlorn.

Our next stop was the Panathenaic Stadium, the world’s only stadium built completely from marble. It was here in 1896 that the Olympic Games of the modern were first held. The stadium you see today is a faithful reconstruction of an earlier Roman stadium completed during the reign of Hadrian in 139AD. The 2004 Games also used the venue for archery competitions and the Marathon finish. The locals still use it for crowds to welcome home triumphant sporting teams and other prominent individuals.

The venue offered a very informative audio tour during which we learnt that the earlier Roman stadium was actually a redevelopment of Greek venue; the Lykourgos Stadium, built in 330BC. However, the most interesting factoid was an explanation for the word ‘stadium’. The length of the interior track, 185 metres, is an ancient measure known as a stade. We completed our tour by posing on the track for an imaginary roaring crowd of 68,000 people.

Our final stop of the day took us across town via Parliament and Syntagma Square to the National Archaeological Museum. Syntagma, the site of deadly riots four days earlier, was almost empty except for a large flock of pigeons and two traditionally costumed presidential guards. Their costume of ballooning kilts and pom-pom shoes is based on that of freedom fighters that fought in the mountains during the nation’s 19th Century War of Independence.

The national museum was everything we expected. Highlights included the dramatic dark bronze statue of Poseidon with outstretched arms. It dates from 460BC. Equally impressive were the rows of famous Attic black-figured pottery. However, the most surprising exhibit of day for me was the Antikythera Mechanism. This heavily corroded series of bronze cogs and wheels was recovered from a Roman shipwreck in 1900. It proved that the Romans had mastered the manufacture of intricate clockwork devices more than a thousand years before Western Europe.

The device calculated the movements of the moon and the sun across the zodiac using a hand crank. Experts believe it could predict the precise hour of an eclipse on a specific date, and possibly the position of planets on any given day. I recall learning about this device as a child and thus was delighted to unexpected see it with my own eyes for the first time. The advanced sciences of the ancient world continue to astound and astonish me. Visiting Athens proved a very humbling experience indeed.

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