It is difficult to estimate the importance of the Akropolis to the ancient Greeks. The religious significance of this sheer-sided rock, 90 m above the town, was paramount, and the enduring images of the temples represent the principles of freedom and democracy in the present day. You can see Akropolis from most parts of the city, particularly at night when it is beautifully lit, which only adds to the feeling that this small area is still the essence of the city. The name Akropolis derives from the Greek words acro meaning highest point and polis, meaning town.
A path leads to the summit of the Akropolis, a relatively
flat plateau around 320 m by 130 m
Used for strategic purposes throughout the Mycenaean
and Archaic periods, the rock had water supply and superb views of the
surrounding area. The first religious structures appeared at the end of
the 6th century BC, when the summit became a sanctuary and the town was
founded on lower ground below. These early temples were destroyed by the
Persian forces of Xerxes in 480 BC. Following this, new defensive walls
were constructed that included elements of the ruined old Temple of Athena
and the old Parthenon.
Once through the Propylaia, the sacred way leads on to the Akropolis plateau proper. In Classical times, a 9 m statue of Athena Promachos (the Defender) dedicated to Athenian exploits during the Persian Wars stood immediately beyond the entranceway. This was taken to Constantinople during the Byzantine era. Make your way left along the southern flank of the Propylaia to view the Temple or Athena Nike (Athena of Victory). The Akropolis had been a sanctuary to Athena Nike, since the 5th century BC, and following the sacking of the site by the Persians a new smaller temple, or naiskos, was commissioned and designed by Callicrates. Six elegant columns support a pediment with decorative friezes depicting the gods on Mount Olympus and heroic battle scenes of Greek warriors fighting barbarians. The temple, built on the remains of an older Mycenaean wall, offers excellent views across the surrounding landscape, and this location was prized by the Ottomans, who tore down the structure to build a defensive battery. The temple has been painstakingly reerected using rubble found underneath the battery when it was removed in the 1830s. It has now been dismantled to enable the columns to be strengthened.
The Parthenon is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. The series of columns supporting pediment and frieze is Athens to many visitors, and would have been also to travellers in ancient times. However, they would have seen a structure with a veneer of splendid colour and decorated with magnificently carved sculptures; not to mention a strong wooden roof now lost to posterity. What remains is the bare Pentelic marble used in the construction and the refined lines and form that make it an architectural masterpiece.
The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena and means Temple of the Virgin-Athena in her guise as protector of the city, goddess of wisdom and justice. It also housed the national treasury, bringing together the spiritual and secular power of ancient Greece. At least four other Parthenons have been built on the site, in fact the base of the present temple indicates that its predecessor was wider. Designed by architects Callicrates and Iktinus, work began in 447 BC and the temple was dedicated in 438 BC with a huge celebration, the Panathenaic Festival, that involved thousands of people and live animals were sacrificed at an altar on the eastern facade. This festival then took place every four years during the Pagan era and continued until the 5th century AD. Converted into a church in the 6th century, the cella (inner temple) had frescoes painted on its walls and upper galleries where women worshipped. A bell tower was added by the Byzantines who named it Aghia Sophia, also meaning wisdom. Later, under Ottoman rule, the bell tower became a minaret and the church was converted into a mosque.
Later, the Parthenon was used as a powder magazine. In September 1687, Venetian forces threatened Athens and one of their mortars hit the Parthenon, igniting the powder inside. The resulting explosion badly damaged the structure and many other ancient buildings on the site. The centre of the Partherton was totally destroyed along with many columns and priceless carved friezes. Subsequent "licences" granted by the Ottomans to European nobles saw many prize friezes disappear to archaeological collections around Europe, including the Elgin marbles (ornately carved pediments) that were taken to London by Lord Elgin. Restoration of the temple has been almost constant since 1834.
Today it is not possible to walk among the columns and through what
remains of the inner temple. This echoes the rules of ancient Greece,
when only the highest priests could enter the cella. There they would
be able to worship an ivory-and- gold-covered wooden statue of Athena
said to be 12 m high which has long since been lost. Walk around the
70 m by 30 m exterior to really appreciate the grace of the columns.
There are no straight lines anywhere in the building, the graduated
curves simply create the illusion of the vertical and horizontal.
Beyond the porch is the eastern facade. Here a row of Ionian columns mark the entrance to a rectangular inner sanctum of the new Temple of Athena. The walls of the interior were removed duringthe Byzantine era and the north corner (column and pediment) was removed by Elgin and taken to London with the "Elgin marbles."
A large north porch balances that of the southern Porch of the Caryatids. This sits on high foundations as the ground level falls steeply on the northern side. Much of the building here dates from the time of the Roman Empire, a devastating fire destroyed the earlier temples to Zeus and Poseidon. Marks on the ground in the porch area suggest that this building was once struck by lightning. A hole was left in the ceiling of the temple since the belief at the time This triple-headed demon was that a lightning strike is a prized display in the should never be closed off Akropolis Museum from the sky. Ancient Greeks believed that the Akropolis was guarded by a giant snake that lived under this temple. Pilgrims would buy honey cakes for this snake and leave them at the temple entrance for it to enjoy.
The west wall was restored in the early 20th century after it fell
down in 1852. The reconstruction recreates the temple of the Roman era.
The Akropolis Museum in the southeast corner of the plateau was opened
in 1934. It was designed and built so as not to spoil the skyline or
compete with the temples and it cannot be seen from the streets of the
city or from the sacred way as you enter through the Propylaia. Much
of the fine stat- uary and carved friezes still present when Ottoman
forces left have been displayed here along with four of the original
Caryatid statues from the Erechthefon. The museum displays pieces of
the omate decorative pediment that adorned the temples, and dedications
to Athena herself found in the inner sanctuary. The whole collection
is breathtaking and proof if it were needed of the immense wealth and
influence of this ancient site. Each room has something of note but
look for the pediment of a lion tearing apart a bull, dating from the
6th century BC in room 1. Pediment depicting a triple-headed demon,
and a kouros (male statue) named The Calf-bearer, a young man carrying
a calf to ritual slaughter at the temple, are both displayed in room
2. Kritikos Boy and Blond-haired Boy, two sculptures carved in the "severe"
style fashionable around 480 BC, are displayed in room 6. Panels from
the Ionic frieze that decorated the Parthenon are in room 8 and the
original Caryatids can be found in room 9.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus was one of the last great building projects of ancient Athens. The vast auditorium was completed towards the end of the 2nd century AD in typical Roman style. During Byzantine times it was used as a dye works, and the Ottomans used it for defensive purposes. However, excavations began in the 1850s and the Odeon is once again holding spectacular summer performances.
On the southeastern flank of the Akropolis are the vast remains of the Theatre of Dionysus, hacked out of the earth in the 5th century BC and upgraded in the 3rd century BC. In Roman times a long colonnaded stoa and promenade linked the two theatres, but only scant remains can be seen today. The theatre was the birthplace of the dramatic and comic art and formed the social and political heart of Athens during its "golden age." The premiers of several major pieces by Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were performed here, and the Athens assembly also met here late in its history. The whole auditorium held 17,000 people, but most interesting are the carved front row thrones for VIPs, including one with lion's-claw feet that was reserved for the priest Dionysus Eleutherios. The particularly fine bema of Phaedros (carved stage) depicting scenes from the life Dionysus, god of wine and merriment, is of Roman origin. Surrounding the theatre are remains of several other buildings including an Asclepieion (place of healing) and Odeon of Pericles. These are currently being worked on by archaeologists.
To the west of the Akropolis stands another small range of hills now
cut by footpaths and covered in trees offering cooling shade in the
heat of summer. This area, reached by crossing Odos Rovertou Gali and
walking up behind the Dionysus restaurant, offers splendid views across
to the Acropolis (it's the best place for afternoon overviews), and
the Sound and Light Show auditorium is located here for this reason.
Several archaeological sites can be seen and the area is much less crowded
than the Akropolis itself. You'll also see the 16th century church,
Ayios Dimitrios Loumbardhi, nestling under the woodland canopy.
On the Hill of the Nymphs north of the Pnyx you'll see the Neo-Classical lines of the original Athens Observatory, founded in 1842. Perhaps the most popular point for visitors lies in the south where at the highest point, Hill of the Muses or Philopappos Hill, is the Monument of Philopappos, a high-ranking nobleman in Roman times. Its convex facade has a sculptured frieze depicting Julius Philopappos riding a chariot and performing his duties in the Senate. It is from here that you'll get the best views of the Akropolis, so don't forget your camera or video recorder!
On the north flank of the Akropolis is the hill of Areopagos, found
close to the right of the main Akropolis ticket office. With views across
the city below it is a popular spot for photographs, however it also
has a long and illustrious history. Tradition states that this was the
site of the orig- inal Agora of Athens, and the original council of
the city was known as the Council of Areopagos. Later it held courts
of law, and justice was dispensed here. In AD 51 St. Paul addressed
a crowd of Athenians from the hill with his ser- mons of Christian faith.
He met with a hostile response from the Pagan population, but did convert
Dionysus who later became the patron saint of Athens.