It would be a platitude to say that Athens is an ancient complex city. It is probably the oldest city in Europe with evidence of habitation going back about 7000 years. It is considered the birthplace of Western Civilization where schools of Philosophy were born which still underpin European thought today. All the contenders for oldest city in the world have geographical features that are central to their longevity and explain why early humanity gathered in these areas. Still central to the layout of this city is the Acropolis, first inhabited in Neolithic times, built on top of a rocky hill that rises 150 metres above the surrounding countryside with 3 hectares of habitable area; plus a view of the Aegean Sea. It has been the centre of defence for the early settlers and their descendants as well as evolving into the centre of religious worship during Athen’s long history. It is also the centre of Greek Tourism in the 21st century.
Due to this long complex history, it is not the simplest city to float into and stay for a couple of days, checking out the old city in order to take a few selfies with mysterious ancient structures in the background. There is too much to see and understand. Dare I suggest that to get the best out of Athens and you haven’t studied much history, its time to do a bit of research before you land at Piraeus off the cruise ship (or the airport!).
Athens also needs in its visitors a lot of imagination as well as patience. Its famous sites have already been built, destroyed by invaders and rebuilt numerous times. There will probably never be a time when scaffolding and cranes are not jarring the view of the Acropolis’s most famous building, the Parthenon, where workers will always be labouring to add another purpose-built stone to another carved beam for the roof in order to ensure it won’t fall down in the near future. They do this painstaking work of restoration while thousands of tourists wander around each day, wondering why the work is so slow in ensuring that its appearance hasn’t been returned to its golden age appearance of 2500 years ago. The image below is a conceptual view of old Athens from the Acropolis Museum, before modern scaffolding.
This article is a short contribution towards making the reader’s visit to Athens slightly more comprehensible. I would suggest a minimum of three days to get a good start at understanding and enjoying the scarred beauty of this wonderful city. I have suggested some traditional walking routes around the ancient centre that will cover most of the must-see sites.
We have stayed at two different hotels in Athens at different times. Our favourite was a three-star hotel in the middle of the Plaka district (Hotel Plaka) with a roof top bar where we spent our evenings enjoying the light fade over the Acropolis and the silhouettes of sunset climbers on its neighbouring hill, the Areopagus. I have used this hotel (blue triangle on map below) as our starting point. The first ‘walk’ discussed below can be done in a day…the time it will take will depend on how distracted you get at the sites listed below.
Walk #1 from Hotel Plaka
- The Areopagus
- The Acropolis
- The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
- The Dionysus Theatre
- The Acropolis Museum
- A Walk back through the Plaka
Walking from our hotel in the Plaka was a very easy walk up to the huge rocky outcrop that sits northwest of the Acropolis. After escaping the streets, it is a very straightforward walk up a path that leads to the Areopagus and then a modern set of stairs takes you up to the surface of the rock. It was in use as a place where Council Elders of the city gathered and had important discussions about the laws of the city. After the fifth century, it lost much of its authority but still tried cases of murder and religious issues.
One of the links with Western Christianity that goes back two millennia is that Paul of Tarsus visited Athens on one of his long journeys and met with the Athenian Leaders on the Areopagus. The occasion was written up in St Luke’s ‘Acts of the Apostles’ and this short extract gives an indication of the event.
‘Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also were conversing with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”Others said, “He seems to be advocating foreign deities,” because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. They took hold of him, and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you? For you bring certain strange things to our ears. We want to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the strangers living there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.’
Modern tourists come to visit the Areopagus for the 360 views of Athens and to take the gorgeous photos available of the nearby Acropolis and its buildings. It is a short walk from here up to the main entrance to the Acropolis.
At the end of this article there is an appendix giving a history timeline of the Acropolis for those who want to get a sense of the dates involved in this site. For those who don’t wish for such detail, be aware that 21st century Greece is trying to restore the Acropolis to its short-lived appearance during the classical Age of Athens in the fifth/fourth centuries BCE, approximately 2500 years ago. Here is a potted summary of what has rained down on the Acropolis since then.
- Buildings destroyed by fire (twice)
- The Parthenon converted to other uses by Byzantine Christians and Turkish Muslims
- Used as storage place for dynamite (Yikes!)
- Bombarded and the Parthenon partially destroyed by the Venetians.
- Vandalised by the British who decided that half the Parthenon frieze sculptures would be safer if they were chiselled off and sent by sea to London. Predictably a ship with 16 of the boxes of statues sank off the island of Kythera and the cargo had to be salvaged.
As you visit this famous site, give it a break for having suffered so much over so long a period.
The photo above is a view of the first buildings after you enter the Beule Gate and begin the walk up to the Acropolis platform; the small temple on the right is that of Athena Nike. ‘Nike’ means victory and it was built in 420 BCE and the Athenians prayed here for victory against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The first temple built here was destroyed by the Persians and the current temple to Athena Nike was built over the remains.
The name ‘Propylaea’ is a general term for any monumental gateway but this one is the original. It was commissioned by Pericles who organised his friend Phidias to be the architect. It is the same Phidias who designed and built the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Phidias is also credited with designing two statues of Athena for the Acropolis. Both the diagrams here have noted the presence of Phidias’s 30 foot high bronze statue (Athena Promachos) in the background standing between the Propylaea and the Parthenon. It was a landmark for returning Athenians for a thousand years before the Byzantine Emperor around 423 CE transported it to Constantinople, apparently for its protection. It must have been a sturdy statue as it lasted another 600 years before it failed to survive the chaos of a drunken Constantinople crowd in 1203 CE.
Before doing the circuit around the Parthenon, the next famous structure is to your left with extensive views over Athens. It is the Erechtheion, also designed by Phidias and also replacing a previous temple destroyed by the Persians. It was dedicated to both the Goddess Athena and the God of the Sea, Poseidon. It is one of the few temples to have been restored in the first century CE after it had been destroyed by Sulla’s troop, the self-funded Roman General who modern history remembers as the evil Roman who was resisted by Spartacus and his rebellious slaves. The Erechtheion is particularly famous for its Porch of the Maidens, the roof held up by six draped Caryatids.
The Parthenon is the ‘Tour de Force’ of the Acropolis. Wikipedia summarises its reputation succinctly; “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.” Phidias supervised the construction of the Parthenon as well sculpting the many statues that decorated this Temple to Athena. It was erected over the foundations of the incomplete Temple (the ‘pre-Parthenon’) that was burnt down by the Persians in 480. Late 19th century excavations confirmed the presence of this previous structure, the image here from Wikipedia shows the relationship between the two temples. The older temple is shown in black.
The Parthenon was a Temple to Athena but it was never a place of worship to the Goddess. Inside was another great statue, Athena Parthenos. Like the other great works of Phidias, this statue is long gone but a visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has a statue that is suggested is a reasonable copy, albeit much smaller, of the original Athena Parthenos.
The walk around the Parthenon is a great life event so enjoy, despite the scaffolding (latest restoration project due to finish in 2020) and the large number of tourists. It is easy to note the progress of the restoration; the replacement stones that are holding together the old sections are in white marble. There are a number of other structures on the Acropolis to visit and a lot of old stones waiting patiently for the day they too will restored to the great jig-saw puzzle that is the Acropolis. Also take some time to scan the great views of Athens that can be found from the walls of the Acropolis. The view captured below shows Lycabettus Hill in the distance. If you have time during your stay in Athens, you can visit this hill and take the funicular ride up to the top. There is an open-air theatre up there that has played host to many famous artists over the years.
3. Odeon of Herodes Atticus
As you are walking out of the Acropolis, exit down the pathway on the south-west side as you head for the gate. From the pathway before you head down the main steps, you will see below you on the left the Odeon of Herodes Atticus built into the side of the Acropolis. This theatre was built in 161 CE by a Greek named Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife. It originally had a roof built from Lebanon cedar and seated 5000 people. The image above shows the Odeon today; it was renovated in 1951.
Just as an aside, it seems that the beautiful buildings of the Acropolis have all been destined to have catastrophic events in their extended ‘lives’, similar to the great artist and architect Phidias whose genius is still being remembered today after 25 centuries since his enemies had him arrested, placed in gaol where he died ignominiously. In 267 CE, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus was destroyed and left in ruins by the Heruli Barbarians who had also made short work of the masterpieces higher up on the Acropolis. The image on the right above shows a photograph of the Odeon in 1888, still in a ruined state after the passage of 1600 years.
The image above shows the external walls of the Odeon with the roof of the Parthenon in the background. The illustration on the right captures the overhead view of the Odeon with the Acropolis buildings stretching out in the background.
4. Dionysus Theatre
The earliest photograph from history that has survived hails from around 1826. The above photograph is from 1866, capturing an amazing image of the Acropolis and surrounds before the restoration of the ancient buildings (Note the wide gap in the Parthenon west wall, a reminder of the bombardment of the Venetians in 1687). On the far left can be seen some of the superstructure of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and on the right can be seen sections of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. However, if you look for the next site on our walking tour in the above photograph, the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, you will struggle to spot any evidence of the earliest excavators looking for traces of the ancient theatre.
On this site on the side of the Acropolis it has been known since the 17th Century that the first theatre in the world was constructed as long ago as the 6th century BCE. It was apparently moved from the Odeon in the centre of town to this site when the bleachers collapsed during performances as part of the Dionysus festival. From 1846 and for most of the 19th century, the remain of the theatre were excavated. The theatre we see today are the remains of a Roman redesign. With the end of the Roman Empire, the theatre fell into ruin and slowly disappeared under the dust of history that still covered much of it in 1866. The photo below left shows the theatre as it is today. The image on the right is a reconstruction of the Theatre of Dionysus when it could house 16,000 spectators. It is on this spot that the Greek Tragedy was invented, both on stage and in the history of the site itself.
5. Acropolis Museum
See separate Article…Visiting the Acropolis Museum.
It is probably after a lengthy visit to the Acropolis Museum that most visitors will seek refreshment or a decent meal so it is at this point in the walk, the careful tourist will decide on a swift return to their hotel, or a swift walk down hill to a Plaka Restaurant.
6. A Walk back through the Plaka…choose your own route!
The image below gives an idea of what the Parthenon would have looked like around 1700 CE when a small mosque was built in the middle of it, 13 years after the Venetians had bombarded the Acropolis.