Tuesday, December 6, 2016

194. The Acropolis crowns Athens

The crowning glory of ancient Athens is, of course an extremely rocky outcrop of about 3 hectares rising 150 metres above the centre of the city, atop of which is located the ancient citadel known as the Acropolis of Athens. The site contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most famous being the Parthenon.
 The Northern aspect of the Acropolis

But before I climb the hill, I need to do a bit of research about the ancient site, and a visit to the Acropolis Museumadjacent to the hill – is the best place to start.

This modern museum focuses on the findings of the archaeological site of the Acropolis, and the museum was built to house every artifact found on the rock and on the surrounding slopes, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece. The museum was founded in 2003, and opened to the public on 2009. Nearly 4,000 objects are exhibited over an area of 14,000 square metres.
 King Sauromates III
of the Bosporan Kingdom

The first museum was on the Acropolis; it was completed in 1874 and underwent a moderate expansion in the 1950s. However, successive excavations on the Acropolis uncovered many new artifacts which significantly exceeded its original capacity.

An additional motivation for the construction of a new museum was that in the past, when Greece made requests for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the United Kingdom ( which acquired the items in a controversial manner ) it was suggested by some British officials that Greece had no suitable location where they could be displayed. Creation of a gallery for the display of the Parthenon Marbles has been key to all recent proposals for the design of this new museum.

As construction work neared completion, the operation to move the historic artifacts the 280-metre distance from the Acropolis rock to the new museum started in October 2007, took four months, and required the use of three tower cranes to move the sculptures across the distance without mishap.

Prokne and her young son Itys
whom she kills to take revenge on her husband
who dishonoured her sister ... !!!

The collections of the museum are exhibited on three levels. On the first level there are the findings from the slopes of the Acropolis. The long and rectangular hall whose floor is sloping, resembles the ascension to the rock.
On the same floor there are also the artifacts and sculptures from the other Acropolis buildings such as the Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea and findings from Roman and early Christian Athens.

 Caryatids of Erechtheon
( sculptures of females taking the place of columns )


The use of glass panels on all four exterior walls of the Museum allows the natural light to flood into the galleries to illumine the artifacts as it would have seen on the ancient temple.

The top level of the Museum sits at a different angle to the lower levels to achieve the same orientation of the ancient temple on the Acropolis. The spacing of the columns of the Parthenon hall is the same as that of the ancient temple. The 48 columns in the Parthenon hall mark the outline of the ancient temple and form a colonnade for the display of the Parthenon marbles.

The Metopes of the Parthenon are a series of marble panels, originally 92 in number, on the outside walls of the Parthenon, forming part of the Doric frieze. The metopes of each side of the building had a different subject, and together with the pediments, Ionic frieze, and the statue of Athena Parthenos contained within the Parthenon, formed an elaborate program of sculptural decoration. Fifteen of the metopes from the south wall were removed ( stolen ... ??? ) and are now part of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, while others have been destroyed over the centuries.

 An economic decree from Athens
to their ally Methone

In each section of the Museum there are excellent descriptions, not only of the artifacts but also about the various “eras” of the Acropolis. Also I sat through a very good documentary focused on the history of the Rock – so after a couple of hours of reading and looking and listening, I came away with my head spinning with ancient history and well prepared for my ascent to take place a few days later. 

So choosing my day carefully when Google weather told be that there would be sunshine and no wind, I set off early for the northern entry gates which I hoped offered an easier climb ...


At 8am there was only a handful of other earlybirds. The lazy tourists were still in their hotels globbling down their free breakfasts - and no tourist buses out of  the depots yet - bliss ... so we made our way past the ticket collector and up the marble path through the olive grove ... 


To the first lot of steps leading up to the entry Propylaea.

While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was Pericles in the fifth century BC who coordinated the construction of the site's most important buildings including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike. A temple to Athena Polias, the tutelary deity of the city, was erected around 570–550 BC.

Though it was not built as a fortified structure, this monumental gateway was a way of controlling entry into the Acropolis. It was important that people not ritually clean be denied access to the sanctuary and also runaway slaves and criminals could not be permitted into the sanctuary where they could claim the protection of the gods. The state treasury was also kept on the Acropolis, making its security important.

Today the massive gateway serves merely as a means of controlling the hordes of tourists that clamber over the rock every day of the year.

But before we can enter, we have to make way for the passing of a unit of the Presidential Guards leaving the Rock . ( Don’t know what they were doing before we arrived – maybe some sort of ceremony raising the Greek flag …).

Construction of the Propylaea began in 437 BC and was terminated in 432, because of the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, and as a result, it was never completed.

The Propylaea survived intact through the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods and during the period of the Duchy of Athens, it served as the palace of the Acciaioli family, who ruled the duchy from 1388 to 1458. It was severely damaged by an explosion of a powder magazine in 1656, foreshadowing the even more grievous damage to the Parthenon from a similar cause in 1687.

Today the Propylaea has been partly restored -
and looks truly magnificent in the glow of the early morning sun ...

Once through the gateway and onto the plateau and over the rocky and extremely uneven ground the next building is the Erechtheion ...

Dating back to 421–406 BC the Erechtheum was one of several shrines originally in the area. . The temple has two porches, one on the northwest corner borne by Ionic columns, the other, to the southwest, supported by huge female figures or Caryatids.

The eastern part of the temple was dedicated to Athena Polias, while the western part, serving the cult of the archaic king Poseidon-Erechtheus, housed the altars of Hephaestus and Voutos, brother of Erechtheus. Little is known about the original plan of the interior which was destroyed by fire in the first century BC and has been rebuilt several times since.

The entrance, facing east, is lined with six elegant Ionic columns.

During the same period, a combination of sacred precincts including the temples of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Cecrops, Herse, Pandrosos and Aglauros, with its Kore Porch (Porch of the Maidens) or Caryatids' balcony was begun. Between the temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon, there was the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia (or the Brauroneion), the goddess represented as a bear and worshipped in the deme of Brauron ...

But today, some 2500 years later, all that remains of those temples is just rubble and some foundation stones. 

On the southern tip of the Acropolis a look-out perches on the edge of the rock, hanging over the suburbs of Athens and draped in the Greek flag which can be seen from many parts of the capital ...

and what an amazing vista ... 

The other great rock of Athens – Mount Lycabettus
which I scaled in my last blog post …

Looking towards the Southeast to the Temple of Olympian Zeus 
and beyond to the Panathenaic Stadium …

And down to the Theatre of Dionysus then across to the Acropolis Museum …

 And then - there she is - in all her ancient glory  
The Parthenon 
wowee – how amazing to be standing in the presence of such fame …

The Parthenon is a former temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron. Construction began in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power. It was completed in 438 BC although decoration of the building continued until 432 BC. It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, generally considered the zenith of the Doric order. Its decorative sculptures are considered some of the high points of Greek art.

The Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and western civilization, and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. The Greek Ministry of Culture is currently carrying out a programme of selective restoration and reconstruction to ensure the stability of the partially ruined structure.

The Parthenon itself replaced an older temple of Athena, which historians call the Pre-Parthenon or Older Parthenon, that was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 480 BC. While a sacred building dedicated to the city's patron goddess, the Parthenon was actually used primarily as a treasury. For a time, it served as the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire. In the final decade of the sixth century AD, the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

After the Ottoman conquest, it was turned into a mosque in the early 1460s. On 26 September 1687, an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the building was ignited by Venetian bombardment. The resulting explosion severely damaged the Parthenon and its sculptures. From 1800 to 1803, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed some of the surviving sculptures with the alleged permission of the Ottoman Empire. These sculptures, now known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles, were sold in 1816 to the British Museum in London, where they are now displayed. Since 1983, the Greek government has been committed to the return of the sculptures to Greece.

A major fire broke out in the Parthenon shortly after the middle of the third century AD which destroyed the Parthenon's roof and much of the sanctuary's interior. Heruli pirates are also credited with sacking Athens in 276, and destroying most of the public buildings there, including the Parthenon. Repairs were made in the fourth century AD. A new wooden roof overlaid with clay tiles was installed to cover the sanctuary. 

The Parthenon survived as a temple dedicated to Athena for nearly one thousand years until Theodosius II decreed in 435 AD that all pagan temples in the Byzantine Empire be closed. At some point in the fifth century, Athena's great cult image was looted by one of the emperors and taken to Constantinople, where it was later destroyed, possibly during the siege of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD.

The Parthenon was converted into a Greek Orthodox Christian church in the final decade of the sixth century AD to become the Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary). Christian icons were painted on the walls and many Christian inscriptions were carved into the Parthenon's columns. These renovations inevitably led to the removal and dispersal of some of the sculptures. Those depicting gods were either possibly re-interpreted according to a Christian theme, or removed and destroyed. The Parthenon became the fourth most important Christian pilgrimage destination in the Eastern Roman Empire after Constantinople, Ephesos, and Thessalonica. 

Some of the financial accounts for the Parthenon survive and show that the largest single expense was transporting the stone from Mount Pentelicus, about 16 kilometres from Athens, to the Acropolis.

In 1456, Ottoman Turkish forces invaded Athens and laid siege to a Florentine army defending the Acropolis until June 1458, when it surrendered to the Turks. The Turks may have briefly restored the Parthenon to the Greek Orthodox Christians for continued use as a church. Some time before the close of the fifteenth century, the Parthenon became a mosque. Despite the alterations accompanying the Parthenon's conversion into a church and subsequently a mosque, its structure had remained basically intact.

In 1687, the Parthenon was extensively damaged in the greatest catastrophe to befall it in its long history. As part of the Great Turkish War (1683-1699), the Venetians sent an expedition to attack Athens and capture the Acropolis. The Ottoman Turks fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine – despite having been forewarned of the dangers of this use by the 1656 explosion that severely damaged the Propylaea – and as a shelter for members of the local Turkish community. On 26 September a Venetian mortar round, fired from the Hill of Philopappus, blew up the magazine, and the building was partly destroyed. The explosion blew out the building's central portion and caused many of the walls to crumble into rubble.

Only a few of the sculptures remain in situ; most of the surviving sculptures are today ( controversially ) in the British Museum in London as the Elgin Marbles, and in the Athens Acropolis Museum, but a few pieces are also in the Louvre, and museums in Rome, Vienna and Palermo.

The Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and western civilization, and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments.

In 1975, the Greek government began a concerted effort to restore the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures. After some delay, a Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments was established in 1983. The project has attracted funding and technical assistance from the European Union. An archaeological committee thoroughly documented every artifact remaining on the site, and architects assisted with computer models to determine their original locations. Particularly important and fragile sculptures were transferred to the Acropolis Museum. That restoration continues today – and probably for many decades to come. Maybe one day this majestic building will be returned to its former glory.

Below the walls of the Acropolis is the Theatre of Herodes Atticus

2000 years after it was built, it is still used today for concerts and plays  

After nearly two hours wandering the Rock with only a handful of fellow-tourists, and with an almost flat battery in my camera, it’s time to bid farewell to the gods and head off in search of caffeine ... and just in time too ...

… it must be close to 10am ‘cause here come the tour groups …

Definitely time to leave …

Descending down the steep path and looking back up at this massive architectural wonder, it’s over-whelming to consider the labour and the huge quantity of material that has gone into its construction.

One final view if the Acropolis perched on that huge rock
as I make my way back into the world of today …