Athens and Ancient Greece

Hurray Shoulder Season!

This trip is a little bit of a change. We usually go away in the winter, but this time, we decided to travel in the Fall. We chose to visit Greece and Turkey (Istanbul), and Fall is the shoulder season. Hopefully, this would mean that the places we go to are not too crowded, but that the attractions and features are still open.

Our first stop was Athens, where we stayed for six days. As we usually do, we stayed at an AirBnB just a couple of blocks from the historic center. More on our AirBnB experiences through the trip on another post. But for now, I’ll just say that everything was within walking distance and, as a bonus, and probably the most important reason we chose this place was that we could see the Acropolis from our balcony. I tell you, that sight could never get old.

This was our view of the Acropolis from our terrace, albeit taken with my zoom lens. Nevertheless, it was an amazing sight. We just could not tire of it.

This was our view of the Acropolis from our terrace, albeit taken with my zoom lens. Nevertheless, it was an amazing sight. We just could not tire of it.

Which is the Acropolis and which is the Parthenon?

I know… Perhaps everyone else knows this, but I just didn’t… Had to look it up. The Acropolis is the site: it means “the high point”, and it turns out there are other Acropolis’ across Ancient Greece… just not THE Acropolis. The Partenon is the main monument. This was Athens, so we were definitely going to spend the first couple of days going to the main sites we wanted to visit. Acropolis and the Parthenon were first on our list, of course. We headed there on Friday morning, trying to beat the crowds. Being here during the shoulder season, we expected less visitors everywhere. It still felt like there were lots of people. I can’t imagine what it must be line in July and August.

The site is impressive, that’s all I can say. Its one of those places that you can’t really fully describe, or even really translate in photographs, although I tried my best. It is difficult for me to conceive of something having been built for 2500 years. Being from Canada I’m used to everything being so new by comparison.

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A little bit of background

The Parthenon was built in the 5th century BC, between 447 - 438 BC. I was astonished: 9 years to build this structure, 2500 years ago! Twenty-two thousand tons of marble was taken from Mount Pentelicon about 20 km away. The marble was originall pure white, but it contains traces of iron which has oxidized to a warm yellow colour. Each column is composed of several “drums” carved and stacked one on top of the other. 

The Parthenon was embellished with a frieze of sculptures that ran across all four sides. Inside the Temple a statue of Athena, over 12 meters high, composed of carved ivory and gold. 

The Temple was used for nearly one thousand years as a religious center, and was converted to a churched by the early Christians in the 5th century CE. In the 15th century, the Turks converted the building to a mosque. In 1687, the Temple suffered its most significant damage as a result of a attack by the Venetian on the Turks. The latter had been using the Parthenon to store gunpowder. The explosion brought down the interior walls as well as the ceiling of the structures. 

Further damages were due to misdirected attempts at preserving parts of the artwork, first by Morosini, who tried to bring down a large piece of the pediment with a makeshift device, letting the piece fall to the ground and smash to pieces. Later, in the 18th Century, Lord Elgin got permission of the Sultan to have copies made of the sculptures on the Parthenon, and was given permission to remove pieces that might be of interest to him. He took that to mean he could take away 14 “metopes” (rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze), which he had transported back to England. 

The detail work on parts of the structure can be seen in some of these pieces that are still waiting to be reintegrated into the structure.

A visit of the Acropolis is not complete without going to the Acropolis Museum, where you can look at the collection of statues and carvings that were part of the Parthenon. Many of the original pieces are in the British museum with reproductions in the Acropolis Museum. I don’t really understand the full depth of the issue, but it seems that there are those who believe the British “stole” these artifacts from Greece, except that it was under the Turks at the time, and they were putting little importance on the structure. Therefore, others say that the taking of these artifacts to England was in fact saving them for posterity. Whichever side is right, and I suspect there is some right and some wrong on both sides... Also, many of the original pieces of the Parthenon were removed and are kept in the museum to protect them from further damage, and reproductions are used in the structure itself. In any case, it is impressive to see the craftsmanship that was already developed in [Ancient] Greece.

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A few examples of the sculptures that adorned the frieze of the Parthenon and that are not on exhibit at the Acropolis Museum.

There is an extensive restoration project underway for the entire Acropolis. There were other restoration efforts made early in the twentieth century, but much of that work was done incorrectly and had to be redone. The current project started in 1975 and is expected to take another twenty years or so before it is completed. Interesting, given that the original construction took only nine years, 2500 years go. For more information about the reconstruction of the Acropolis, visit: http://www.greece-is.com/healing-parthenon-inside-mammoth-restoration-project/ and https://www.culture.gr/en/service/SitePages/view.aspx?iID=2580

We got the “combined” pass, so here we go to the other sites!

Ancient Agora: Attalos Museum, Temple of Hephaestus

The Ancient Agora, also known as the Greek Agora, was completed in 415 BCE. It is one of the best preserved temples from Ancient Greece in Athens. The Agora site itself was built over a range of about 400 years, from 500 to around 100 BC. The Green Agora was the main meeting place for commerce and political activities. 

A partial view of the Ancient Agora, with the Parthenon on the Acropolis in the background.

A partial view of the Ancient Agora, with the Parthenon on the Acropolis in the background.

A statue of Emperor Hadrian, 117-138 AD which stands in the Agora

A statue of Emperor Hadrian, 117-138 AD which stands in the Agora

Temple of Hephaestus

This temple is part of the Ancient Agora and is one of the best preserved ancient temple in Greece. It was built in 450 BC.

Temple of Ephaistos
Architectural detail - top of the columns

Architectural detail - top of the columns

Architectural detail inside the Temple

Architectural detail inside the Temple

Roman Agora and the Tower of Winds

Built in 1st century B.C., by Julius Caesar and Augustus. It was an open-air courtyard surrounded by colonnades on all four sides. It became the main market of the city, while the (Ancient) Greek Agora became more of a museum.

The Tower of Winds is believed to have been built in the 2nd century B.C. As an water clock on the inside, sundial on the outside and a weather vane, on top. The name comes from the personification of the eight winds carved on the sides of the building.

 Roman Agora
Tower of the Winds

Temple of Zeus

The construction of the Temple of Zeus took over 600 years, starting in the 6th century BC, it was completed by Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. Even in its ruined state, it is impressive. The 16 remaining columns, each 17 meter high, hardly gives a sense of what the original must have looked like, with its 104 columns. 

Just near the site sits Hadrian’s Arch, which was built by the Athenians to honour Emperor Hadrian.

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Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos

Earliest tombs date back to the Bronze Age (2700-2000 BC) and the cemetery was used continuously until approximately 600 AD. There is a museum where a number of funeral monuments are displayed.

Kerameikos
Kerameikos

One in particular caught my eye, with the following inscription.

 

Grave relief of Ampharete with her grandchild

“I hold here the beloved child of my daugher,

which I held on my knees when we were alive

and saw the light of the sun,

and now, dead, I hold it dead”.

430-420 BC


 

Bringing them to life

As I said earlier, it is difficult for me to conceive of anything having been built for thousands of years, so imagining the people who lived at that time is also a stretch. Seeing where they were, and oddly enough, visiting the cemetery, actually brought them more to life for me.

Closing off this first blog post from Greece

I knew very little about Ancient Greece before this trip. Having visited these sites, I now get a better appreciation for the knowledge and technological skill and expertise that were held at that time. I only skimmed over very quickly, and even with just a few days here, I learned a lot and it has made me curious to learn more about that period in history.

I hope that, for those of you who have been to Athens already, that this brought back some memories. For those of you who have not yet been here, it may have given you a little taste for it.