In my last travel post, I talked about my first evening in Athens, in which I walked around with a new friend and explored the Acropolis and a number of other ancient sites. The next day I had all to myself, and I vowed to see as much of the city’s history as I could.
My first stop in the morning was the magnificent Acropolis Museum, holding archaeological artifacts from the famed site.
This is actually the second Acropolis Museum; the original one was built on the Acropolis itself in 1874 and was renovated in the 1950s. However, the size of the collection increased as the Acropolis area was further excavated, and it was decided in the 1970s that a new museum was needed. The decision was also motivated by the fact that many of the friezes of the Parthenon were acquired by the British Museum under shady circumstances, and British Museum officials argued that they couldn’t return them because Athens did not have a suitable location to house them.
In the image above, you can see a glass walkway. When the new museum started construction in the 1990s, based on the winning design of the third competition to design the museum, it was discovered that the site held ancient ruins of archaeological significance. A fourth competition to design a museum that could protect the ruins, and the final museum design — opened in 2009 — is built raised above the site! Both outside and inside the museum, one can look down to see the excavations, which are still in progress.
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed throughout most of the Acropolis Museum, with the exception of a few special areas, so I have only a few of the treasures within. I endeavor to respect the rules of whatever museum/church/gallery I visit!
Perhaps the most spectacular artifacts are free to photograph — and take selfies with. These are the five Caryatids of the Erechtheion Temple; as I noted in the previous post, the figures currently on the temple are replicas.
You may notice that there is space left open on the platform for a sixth Caryatid. This is a rather pointed criticism of the British Museum, which acquired the basically stolen statue and has resisted returning it. It is even more obvious to see the absence from an upper level view.
The museum has exhibits on the ground, first, and fourth floors, and has a third level which contains a restaurant and gift shop. The third level has balconies which are a great place to take some photos of other exhibits, such as the Caryatid photo above. As long as you have a good zoom lens, you can take photos of some of the otherwise unphotographable pieces. A small sample:
Some of the highlights, though, are fragments of the older buildings that preceded the still-existing Parthenon. For example, around 570 BCE the Greeks built the Hekatompedon temple, which they demolished in 490 BCE, after victory over the Persians, to build the older Parthenon. The older Parthenon was, in turn, demolished in 480 BCE by the vengeful Persians, which led to the current building. There are remains of the earlier temples in the museum, such as the west pediment of the Hekatompedon temple.
Some of the exhibits are somewhat tragic in their remains. I risked a photograph of the following ship, which poignantly illustrates how much has been lost to history.
The Museum is perfectly situated, by the way, to get great views of the Acropolis and Parthenon on it. Through one emergency exit door, off to the side, I took this photograph.
The top floor of the museum is perhaps the most spectacular, as it holds the surviving marbles of the Parthenon, arranged and oriented in their original position. The top museum floor, therefore, is basically a reproduction of the top level of the Parthenon.
There are three sets of marbles on display: the metopes that were mounted above the columns, the friezes that were set on the walls inside the columns, and the pediment marbles. A sample of the metopes and friezes are shown below.
There are also incredible views of the Acropolis from the marble level.
I ended up eating at the museum for lunch, and picked up a book about the museum, of course.
After leaving the museum, I headed down the road to see a magnificent site that I had viewed the day before from afar: the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Only sixteen columns remain of what used to be one of the largest and most magnificent temples in ancient Greece. The original building was started in 520 BCE and was intended to be a monument that would dwarf the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was being built on the order of tyrants, however, and when those tyrants were overthrown, construction was halted for hundreds of years.The plan was revived in 174 BCE, but nevertheless started and stopped for several more centuries, until the Roman Emperor Hadrian finally ordered its completion in 132 CE.
The final building possessed 104 columns and a massive gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Tragically, after its 600 year construction, the temple lasted only about another 100 years. It was seriously damaged when the Herulians sacked Athens in 267 CE, and left unrepaired afterwards.
After the Herulians, the building was gradually pillaged for building materials over the centuries, until only the 16 pillars, one fallen, remain. But the site is still awe-inspiring, nevertheless. It also possesses one of the best views in the city of Athens; the Acropolis framed by the pillars of the Temple.
I also, of course, couldn’t resist taking a selfie.
The same site contains the Arch of Hadrian, built around the same time as the temple was completed.
The arch contains two dedications, one to respect the past and one to acknowledge the present of the city, at the time. Facing the Acropolis, the inscription reads, “this is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus.” Facing the Temple, the inscription reads, “this is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus.” There are apparently different interpretations of what this means: it could represent a physical division of the old and new parts of the city, or it could indicate that the city that was one Theseus’ is now Hadrian’s.
One tip about visiting cities like Rome or Athens: photograph anything out of the ordinary. You will likely find later that it was a site of really cool historical importance. For example: right next to the Temple of Olympian Zeus I spotted the following statue.
Looking up the statue later, I learned that it is a statue of the poet, politician and scholar Lord Byron (1788-1824), who was heavily invested both financially and physically in support of the war for Greek Independence. Before leading an attack on the occupying Turks in 1824, Byron fell ill and ended up dying soon after. He has been revered as a hero in Greece ever since, and the statue was installed in 1896. Byron, it should be noted, was also vehemently opposed to the stripping of the Parthenon by the dickish Lord Elgin.
After visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus, there was one more major site that I wanted to visit: the Hill of the Muses, also known as Philopappos Hill.
Not only is the Hill of the Muses a lovely park, but it holds a number of sites of archaeological significance. They aren’t as spectacular as the Acropolis, unsurprisingly, but they are worth seeing.
The first of these is the Prison of Socrates, where the famed philosopher was reportedly held before the trial that ended with his death.
Okay, I seem a bit irreverent here, but that’s because there is no evidence that Socrates was ever held here — or even that it was a prison at all, as I understand it. It is nevertheless really cool to see.
Speaking of Socrates, I neglected to mention one of the highlights of my optics workshop on Spetses. The organizers arranged to have actors from Athens do a performance of Socrates’ trial, which was quite powerful to watch.
Okay, back to the Hill of the Muses. At this point, it was about 6 pm, and I was getting exhausted, but there was a monument at the top of the hill I wanted to see. Of course, the trails aren’t well marked, so it took me lots of time and energy to find my way to the top, using some interesting stairs.
At the top of the hill is the Philopappos Monument, built around 116 CE to honor Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos after his death by his sister.
The funny thing? This is the only photo I took of the monument, and it is the back of the monument. This is how tired I was after hiking up this tall hill on a very hot sunny day.
At the very least, I got some nice photographs of Athens from the hill.
The sun was getting low enough in the sky that you could see the reflections of it off the windows of the city.
There was yet one more place on the hill I wanted to visit, and it took a bit more walking to find it.
It doesn’t look like much from this angle — and again, I was so tired that I missed probably the best angle — but this is one of the earliest and most important sites in the history of democracy. The Pynx (“tightly packed together”) was used as early at 507 BCE as a meeting place for Athenian democracy, and somewhere between 6,000 and 13,000 people could attend and listen to the rhetoric.
At this point, I was pretty damn wiped out, and I started downhill to track down some dinner. I stopped to take in another excellent view of the Acropolis, though.
On the long journey down, I took in one more mildly surreal view of Athens.
I returned to Adrianou Street, where I had eaten a meal the evening before, and got myself a glass of wine, some halloumi and some gyros for dinner.
After having some nice food, and getting conned out of a few Euros by an enterprising street con lady, it seemed like I had done enough for one day. It was almost 7:00, and I had walked a LOT. I already knew that I could walk a block to a taxi stand and head back to the hotel for a restful evening.
But I was bugged by a thought from the day before. My new friend and I had contemplated visiting the Acropolis later in the day, when the sun was setting. We had heard that it looks spectacular in the fading light. Since the Acropolis site closes at 8:00, it was the perfect time to test out this theory. But I was tired. But I was also worried that if I didn’t do it, I would forever regret it.
So I walked back uphill to go to the Acropolis to see it in the setting sun. On the way, I took a photo of another cat of Athens, which inadvertently turned out great because it looks like was chained up because it is so fierce.
After buying a ticket from the rather incredulous sellers, I wandered back up to the Acropolis. It really does look beautiful in the increasingly golden light of the setting sun.
I took a photograph for the benefit of twitter to illustrate my actual physical state at this point, though I was in fact pretty happy.
There was also an unexpected bonus to returning to the Acropolis: I realized that I had missed seeing one side of the Erechtheion, which has a pretty spectacular entryway.
While waiting for the goldenness of the light to increase, I found some more Acropocats to photograph.
I also found incontrovertible proof that the kitties of the Acropolis are well taken care of.
There isn’t really much more to say about my stay on the Acropolis, so I will just share a few more photos.
Finally, the staff started chasing us all out towards the exit. Yes, I CLOSED OUT THE ACROPOLIS.
It was a wild, intense day, and I wandered back down the hill and to a taxi feeling like a conqueror. And I found justification for that feeling once I checked my phone that evening.
My visit to Athens wasn’t even yet over; thanks to my really awful flight planning, I wouldn’t be flying out of Athens until the next evening, which meant I had time to visit the National Archaeological Museum the next day. But that is a story for the next post…