Our local guide Panayiotis, or simply Pan, met us fresh and early at our hotel this morning to beat the crowds up to the Acropolis where we were rewarded with sweeping views of urban Athens and a moment of reflection in the Propylaea—the monumental gateway to the Acropolis.
We entered the ancient religious center through this grand gateway that once housed an art gallery and my personal favorite, the petite temple dedicated to Athena Nike, before making our way to the center of the Acropolis. All around us stood the remains of religious life in ancient Athens. We first visited the Erechtheum, a unique two-for-one temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon in honor of the contest between them to be named the patron deity of King Circops’ city-state. In this contest, both were invited to the Acropolis to present their gift to the people. Poseidon, god of the sea, thrust his trident into the ground, unleashing a spring of salt water that formed a small sea now called the Erekhtheis. Nice trick, but not very useful for drinking. Athena then buried something in the ground, which grew into an olive tree—ultimately more practical and to this day the symbol of both Athena, goddess of wisdom, and of Athens.
We then moved on to the iconic centerpiece of the Acropolis: the Parthenon. Unlike the Erechtheum, this temple was dedicated entirely to Athena. Possibly the most recognizable symbol of antiquity, this monumental structure actually stood mostly in tact until 1687 when a Venetian bombardment ignited the ammunition being stored in the structure by the Ottomans. Considering what a throw away world we live in, where a home built more than 50 years ago is considered “old,” it is both awe inspiring to reflect on how this temple withstood over a millennia of human and environmental impact and heart breaking to think of it toppling after its survival. Most of what we see now is reconstruction and, as Pan explained, painstaking efforts are being made to restore the pillars after previous botched restorations using cement threatened to degrade the monument beyond repair. Yet, as we learned, even greater threat than faulty restorations, bombing or pillaging, is our environment. The infamous pollution of urban Athens was decaying the Acropolis until, in preparation for the 2004 summer Olympics, massive improvements in public transit helped to clean the air and lighten the impact on the monument.
Descending from the ancient religious heart of Athens into the commercial heart we next explored the Agora, or market place. We strolled through ancient streets and stopped to linger on the very stones (possibly) where Socrates may have mentored his pupils in the public market. We then made our way to the Temple of Hephaestus—touted as the best-preserved Greek temple in the world. Unlike the Parthenon, which was pillaged, stripped of its fineries and costly materials, converted to a mosque, used as an ammunition warehouse, and ultimately destroyed, this temple was converted to a Greek Orthodox church in the 7th century and remained such until 1834, preserving it in tact. We thought it was so nice that we had to take another group photo in front of it!
After a group lunch near the Acropolis Museum, we had a free afternoon to explore the innovatively designed home to the statues, friezes, and other remaining gems of the Acropolis. The new Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 and houses nearly 4,000 objects. In addition to the impressive collection, the museum was built suspended above an archeological site with glass floors, allowing one to observe working digs (ladies, think twice about wearing a skirt or dress when you visit). There is something powerfully timeless about walking through this super-modern museum built to mimic the Parthenon, suspended above active excavation and surrounded by the tangibles of a civilization that crafted our own. I, for one, could have spent all day there, but evening beckoned and so did the rooftop view of the Acropolis from our hotel, glass of wine in hand–a fine ending to a first full day together.
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