Writer's Life

Conquering the Acropolis of Athens

A (Very Brief) History of Athens, Greece 

Athens, Greece is the oldest capital in Europe. The highest hill in the city, The Acropolis, consists of a flat-topped rock over one-hundred-fifty meters high with three incredibly steep sides. An easily defended fortress and military base from both land and sea, it only became a religious center dedicated to the worship of the goddess Athena much later during the rise and fall of the Mycenae civilization near the end of the Bronze Age. For the next four hundred years, Greece plunged into a dark age when little is known. What we think of as Ancient Greek civilization began around the fifth century BCE (Before the Christian Era). It ended with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE when the Greek city-states began fighting among themselves. Greece became part of the Roman Empire less than two centuries later. It wasn’t until 1830 that Greece became independent from Rome. 

Modern Athens 

Every first-time visitor to Athens must visit its Acropolis. I’d been here before and don’t remember the crowds being so intense. The buildings, mostly in ruins, have only undergone major restoration efforts since the 1970s. However, I didn’t notice much improvement since my last visit in 2015. The word acropolis comes from two Greek words, acro meaning high and polis for city. The Acropolis, the upper or high city, served as a religious center of ancient Greece. The lower city is called the Agora, a public open space used for assemblies and full of shops, restaurants, and hotels. (The Greeks are fond of demonstrations. More on this later.) Most Greek cities have an acropolis, but Athens has by far the most famous. Our hotel sat nestled below the Agora’s wide pedestrian walkway, and quite close to the spectacular Acropolis Museum, the repository of many of the ancient relics found in the high city. 

On our first full day in Athens, we made our way up the steep slope over stony roads that were tough on the feet and hard on lungs not used to steep climbs. The way would be treacherous in a rainstorm. (More on slippery wet marble sidewalks later.) 

As we waited for our leader to buy our tickets (and catch our breaths), three full tourist buses from the cruise ships showed up. This served merely as a preview of the crowds to come.  

One enters the Acropolis through the Propylaea, a monumental gateway used to separate the religious from the secular parts of the ancient city. Nowadays, it also serves to control the flow of tourists in and out of the site. Social distancing became an impossibility with the size of the hordes, but people were basically friendly and often let others cut ahead of them in line without much complaint.  

A striking view of the Parthenon greets you at the top. Originally built to worship the goddess Athena, it has served many other purposes. It became a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the sixth century. When the Ottomans conquered Athens in the fifteenth century, it became a mosque. In 1687, when it served as a munitions dump for the Ottomans, a Venetian bomb blew it up. After fifty years of restoration, no end seems in sight. As an aside, beginning in 1801, England’s Ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin looted over half of the ancient Greek statuary from the Parthenon and other Acropolis buildings and sent them to Britain. He insisted the Ottomans who controlled Greece at the time gave him permission. History may not support his claim. They were sold to the British Government, and they now reside in the Elgin Room of the British Museum. Greece wants them back. The museum has thus far declined to do so.  

Another Acropolis structure, the Erechtheion, is named after a mythical Athenian King. Two things make it interesting, the porch of the Caryatids and the story of the olive tree. The Caryatids are sculptures of lovely young women that serve as pillars to hold up the roof. The ones on-site are just copies. Acid rain and pollution were destroying the marble that makes up most of the buildings of the Acropolis. The new Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 and houses a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to local archeology. One of the original ladies resides in a London museum, the others are in the Acropolis Museum. 

Now to the story of the olive tree. In mythology, Poseidon and Athena battled for the patronage of what would become Athens. (Guess who won.) Poseidon drove his trident into the ground and created a saltwater spring. (Some say it was a horse.) Instead, Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis. The Athenians chose what they considered the more useful gift, and Poseidon went away mad. So, Athens gets very little rain, but olives feed its people. The original olive tree is no longer, but the one in the photo represents Athena’s gift to humankind. 

The Temple of Athena Nike is the last of the major structures on the Acropolis. Athenian soldiers came there to pray for victory in war. Nike means victory (not expensive sports shoe) in Greek. Athena often chose not to listen. Her temple was destroyed and had to be rebuilt many times. When the Spartans won a decisive battle over the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War, they set up their own hegemony over the region, but the Athenians destroyed the Spartan fleet, which crippled their military efforts. Later when the Ottomans took over Greece, they turned the temple into a munitions dump. (War –a Greek tradition with few peaceful interludes.) 

Lord Elgin didn’t stop with just looting marbles from the Parthenon. A frieze on the southern wall of this temple consisted of fourteen blocks, each side with a different scene. Thought to depict a battle between Greeks and Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, Lord Elgin took four of them in 1801. They reside in the British Museum. One of them has been lost, and the remaining nine were moved to the Acropolis Museum when the concrete floor in the temple began to crumble. Restoration is still ongoing, but I doubt the originals will ever return to the Acropolis. They are much safer and easier to view up close in the climate-controlled museum. 

As you may have noticed from my previous blog entries, our tour group travels on its stomach. Tired and hungry from our Acropolis trek, my traveling companion and I had dinner across the street from our hotel in a cute bistro with unusual food and what would prove to be a great change from double-fried French Fries slathered in cheese sauce and Greek salad. We sat outdoors and dined on pumpkin salad with quinoa, porcine cheek sausage, and moussaka. We ate dinner at 6 PM, at least two hours earlier than any true Greek would consider appropriate. Afterward, we climbed up to the roof terrace of our hotel to admire the views. 

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