In my last travel post, I described a little bit of the island of Spetses in Greece, where my second optics workshop took place. As the workshop schedule didn’t include any crucial talks on the last day I was originally planning to be there, I opted to head back a day early to Athens. I was also, admittedly, a little anxious about the logistics of getting back, since it required another lengthy boat trip.
I need not have worried, though. The boat back was a high-speed catamaran with a blessed name, and the trip passed quickly and in comfort.
I arrived at my Athens hotel in the early afternoon but had to wait until around 3:00 to check in. Once I did, and took a bit of a rest, I took the complimentary hotel shuttle to Athens’ most famous and historical landmark: the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is practically the definition of “history.” The name derives from the Greek words akron (“highest point”) and polis (“city”), and refers to the entire complex that stands on a rocky outcrop some 500 feet above the modern city of Athens. The site has an incredibly long history, and was occupied as early as the Mycenaean period of Greece (1900-1100 BCE), if not earlier. The most important era for the site was the Golden Age of Athens (460-430 BCE), during which the Greek statesman Pericles ordered the construction of the most significant monuments that survive today, including the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, of which I will say more momentarily. Arguably, this main period of Acropolis history ended with the rise of Christianity in the era of Constantine the Great around 300 CE.
By a lovely stroke of good fortune, it turned out that another hotel guest and passenger on the shuttle was a fellow STEM academic! We got chatting after we both got lost trying to find the main entrance to the Acropolis (things aren’t always well-labeled), and ended up spending the afternoon and evening together seeing the sites.
From the main entrance of the Acropolis, the first structure one sees, and passes through, is the Propylaea, the monumental gateway into the complex.
Construction on the building began in 437 BCE and ended in 432 BCE, and was left unfinished due to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, though what existed of the building was in regular use for centuries. Something I missed, somewhat nondescript among the massive columns of the Propylaea, is the Pedestal of Agrippa, the remains of a monument built in 178 BCE to commemorate the victory of Eumenes II of Pergamon in the Panathenic Games chariot race.
Passing through the Propylea, we finally were before one of the most famous monuments in the world and all of history: the Parthenon!
It is almost impossible to convey the awe and excitement I felt standing in front of this amazing structure. This temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, was built over the years 447 BCE to 438 BCE. It is in fact the second Parthenon on the site, as the first one was leveled in 480 BCE, only a few years after its construction had begun.
In 1456, Ottoman Turks invaded Athens, and conquered it two years later. The Acropolis was converted into a mosque. It remained as such for several hundred years, and in fact remained largely unmodified and undisturbed from its original form in its new role.
Tragedy struck, however, in 1687. During the Great Turkish War, the Venetians attacked Athens, with the goal of capturing the Acropolis. In the conflict, the Turks were storing gunpowder in the Parthenon, and a mortar shell struck the building on September 26, igniting the powder, blowing the building apart and killing 300. After that, the building fell into further decline due to neglect and being stripped for building material. When an independent Greece gained control of Athens in 1832, the Parthenon was in terrible shape, as the oldest surviving photograph of the building shows.
Finally, in 1975, the Greek government began a large-scale restoration of the building, and the Acropolis as a whole, and it has made incredible progress as the photos I’ve shared will attest. However, it appears that restoration work has slowed or nearly stopped in recent years, presumably due to the country’s financial struggles.
Did I mention that there are cats on the Acropolis? Well, there are! I was delighted to run across a few precocious felines among the stones.
The views from the Acropolis are also spectacular. With a good camera, one can get great images of many of the other historical sites in Athens.
The other major building at the top of the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, a temple that was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. It was built between 421 and 406 BCE, also at the order of Pericles.
The most eye-catching part of the Erechtheion is the Caryatid Porch.
A Caryatid the term for a sculpted female figure that serves as an architectural support replacing a pillar; the Porch on the Erechtheion has six of them.
This is one of the rare times in my life when I came face to face with a genuine monster from Dungeons & Dragons; the “Caryatid column” appeared in the first edition D&D Fiend Folio back in 1981! They are magical constructs like golems.
The Caryatids at the Erechtheion are in remarkable shape, and there’s a good reason for that: they’re replicas! Like many antiquities, the originals suffered at the hands of “collectors” over the centuries. One of the six was removed by Lord Elgin of Britain in the early 19th century, and is now in the British Museum. The dickish Elgin attempted to remove a second, tried to saw it into pieces when initial attempts failed, and shattered it. He left the pieces behind. In 1979, the originals were removed and replaced with replicas; the originals now rest at the New Acropolis Museum (which I would visit the next day, and in the next blog post).
From the peak of the Acropolis, one can look down upon the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a theater built in 161 CE by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife. It is used for rock concerts in modern times, and in fact Sting performed the evening we were there. We opted not to walk down to the Odeon on that visit, but we could get a great view of it from above.
I would, on a whim, return to the Acropolis the next evening, but on this day, we opted to visit a few more ancient sites. On the way out, we passed another Acropocat.
Our next stop was way downhill and North of the Acropolis. We got a little lost along the way — did I mention that the paths aren’t well marked? — and started to get a little pessimistic.
Fortunately, after checking the map and asking for help, we finally made it to our next destination: the Roman Agora.
As the name suggests, this area was constructed by the Romans around 15 BCE, and it became the main market of the city, taking over for the area known as the ancient Agora used by the Greeks (which we would visit next).
On the West side of the Roman Agora is the Gate of Athena Archegetis, built in 11 BCE by Julius Caesar and Augustus for the Athenians.
The most magnificent structure at the site, however, is the Tower of the Winds, which was built sometime between 200 BCE and 50 BCE.
Remarkably, this tower is considered the world’s first meteorological station. In ancient times, it possessed a weathervane on the top and a waterclock in its interior; the sides of the tower still possess the lines of sundials. The eight friezes of the tower represent the eight wind deities, of which I present a sample below.
The ruins of one other significant building remain on the site, and it was perhaps my favorite: the Vespasianae. Basically, the building was the public toilet. It was a square building, with toilet seats lining the walls. The holes in the seats dropped right down into a channel circling the foundation that was flushed out of the city. It was apparently a common meeting place for Athenians.
At this point of the day, it was starting to get a little late, but there was one more site nearby worth seeing: the Ancient Agora of Athens, slightly West of the Roman Agora. It was used for multiple purposes, including residences, markets, and assemblies, for a period of some 5000 years.
The highlight of the Ancient Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus, which is the most well-preserved ancient temple in Greece.
Construction on the temple began in 449 BCE, again part of Pericles’ grant building agenda for Athens. It apparently did not get completed for three decades because resources were diverted to the construction of the Parthenon. It remained in good condition through the centuries for the same reason that many ancient monuments survived — it was converted into a Christian church sometime around 700 CE.
There are other intriguing ruins in the area. Among them: the remains of a statue of the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 CE.
Another set of cool sculptures were part of the entrance to the Odeon of Agrippa, a large concert hall originally constructed around 15 BCE. Several of the statues are shown below.
There was more to see at the Ancient Agora, but at this point we were tired and it was getting late. After taking a few more photographs, we went to look for a place to grab a drink and a snack.
We grabbed some food at a restaurant on Adrianou Street, a touristy but charming area with lots of food and vendors. While eating, we were treated to the sight of a momma cat encouraging her kitten to come out among all the people. Overall, it was a fantastic day, and I made a new friend during it, which made it extra great!
It is really amazing how many truly important historical sites are packed into such a small area. In fact, on Adrianou Street we were right next to another site of stunning importance. But I would not figure that out until I returned home from the trip! I will discuss it in my next travel post, when I describe the next day of my Athens explorations.
It looks fascinating. Thanks for your report.
As an aside, John D Rockefeller Jr. played an important role in the restoration of the Acropolis back in the 1930s. He was a big preservationist. He also funded the restoration of the cathedral in Rheims. He turned the old Virginia capital, before Richmond, into colonial Williamsburg and preserved a strip of land on the Hudson Palisades running from George Washington Bridge to the New York State border. The Cloisters, in upper Manhattan, was where he put the parts of various churches and abbeys that weren’t need for restoration work. (That’s a joke, but the museum there is full of pieces of old religious buildings.) He also built a series of fantastic resorts around the world including what is now Jenny Lake Lodge in the Grand Tetons and the Mauna Kea on Hawaii. Thanks to his old man, he had lots of money. To his credit, he spent it on a lot of nice things.
P.S. Oops, forgot to mention Rockefeller Center in NYC.