For Mike and I, the Great Greek Adventure started when, towards the end of 2018, we were contacted by two lovely friends who we originally met in Tijax Marina in Guatemala in 2013. John and Jerie told us they were coming to Europe for three months and that they wanted to start their trip by visiting us, and Greece, for just over three weeks.
Thus the planning – and therefore the adventure – began and over the next few weeks an itinerary developed which would take in the many archaeological and other historic sites as well as cities, towns and villages and mountains, lakes and coast.
I decided it was impossible to write about everything we did and saw in one blog post so this one covers the five days we spent in Athens at the start of our trip.
Athens history dates back to Neolithic times but is most remembered for its “Golden Age” which lasted from 479BC when the Persian Empire was defeated and its oppressive rulers ejected from Athens to 404BC when Sparta gained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian Wars which had started in 431BC. This may seem to be a short period of time to call a golden age but it was a time when Athens was the principal city of Ancient Greece. The most famous of Athens’s monuments – the Parthenon – dates from this period, as do most of the other buildings which make up the Acropolis.
For a city dedicated to the goddess Athena who, according to myth, had beaten Poseidon in a contest to have the city built in their honour, only the best architects, materials and craftsmen would do. Unsurprisingly time, earthquakes, invading armies, pilfering, poor early renovation techniques and visitors footsteps have taken their toll and only remnants of its former glory remain – but they still manage to amaze.
The word Parthenon means “virgin’s apartment” and was the largest Doric temple in Greece and the only one completely constructed, aside from its wooden roof, of white Pentelic marble.
The Metopes, square carved plaques, variously commemorated the Olympian Gods fighting the giants, Theseus leading youths into battle, the sacking of Troy and the contest of the Lapiths and Centaurs.
Little of the Pediment sculpture remains….
….. and, similarly, a significant part of the most famous frieze depicting the Panathenaic Procession was destroyed or damaged by the Turkish gunpowder explosion in 1687.
Sadly and, in my opinion wrongly, much of what now remains of that frieze is in the British Museum, Lord Elgin having taken it along with one of the six Caryatids – the large columns supporting the south portico of the Erechtheion.
The other five are in the Acropolis Museum [which we didn’t actually visit] and the ones seen “on site” are plaster casts. It must have been tempting to make the casts whole but much better, I think, to replicate what now remains of them.
It was in the sanctuary of Erechtheion that the deity contest took place and Athena won it by producing the Olive Tree.
This tree is, reputedly, a cutting of the original tree, the cutting having been taken during WW2 to protect it from the Germans. Not sure how it was supposed to have been protected from all the other marauders and pilferers! But it makes a nice story.
Scattered around the site are column bases and capitals.
The one immediately above shows the hole in the top into which a chunk of wood was placed which fitted into a corresponding hole in the bottom of the next tier of the column. Damn clever eh.
On the slopes of the Acropolis are two theatres. Completely restored and still used for performances is the Roman Theatre…..
…. but whilst the view was much more impressive from that one I found the Theatre of Dionysos far more interesting. It was the world’s first theatre, built by the Persians. Group singing and dancing contests were held annually and, on one occasion an artist left the group and took centre stage for a solo performance. As all you Thespians out there know, his name was “Thespis”.
Decorating the “Hyposkenion”, which was the support for the “Proskenion” [raised stage] were characters from the myth of Dionysus and his cult. Satyrs and Silens played a supporting role in all that Dionysus did and here two, of an original three, Silens can be seen doing just that.
Most of the theatre seats were made of Piraeus limestone….
…. but priests and other officials had front row thrones made of Pentelic marble.
Some, as you can see, had their names carved on them and the centre seat was reserved for the Priest of Dionysus and had a canopy to shade him from the sun during performances.
In 338BC all the city states of Greece were captured by the Macedonians, of whom you will hear more in the next blog, and they, in turn were defeated by the Romans. At this time Athens entered her second important phase from around 180BC to 529AD and during this period various Roman Emperors, whilst on the one hand spiriting away some of the Classic artwork to Rome, on the other built most of the rest of the iconic sites of Athens.
In AD132 Hadrian built an arch to commemorate the completion of the Temple of Zeus, another work undertaken at his behest, 700 years after it was begun and then abandoned by the Persian Peisistratos.
The largest structure constructed under Hadrian’s direction was the Library.
Very little now remains and a current occupant of the site was more interested in the grass than the stonework.
There are two “agora” – the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora which were the centre of Athens life.
The Roman Agora houses the “Horologian of Andronikos Kyrrhestes” – better known as the Tower of the Winds….
….which we found quite fascinating.
The roof is perfectly preserved and consists of 24 marble slabs around a circular keystone. Difficult to photograph so I hope you get the gist.
On each of the eight exterior walls were incised lines which corresponded with an equal number of sundials and the eight main winds were portrayed above.
Apeliotes was the Greek deity of the south-east wind. As this wind was thought to cause a refreshing rain particularly beneficial to farmers, he is depicted carrying fruit, flowers and grain draped in a light cloth.
We couldn’t work out exactly how the water clock worked…
…. but there was some form of hydraulic mechanism which used varying amounts of pressure to power it.
We hope that any waste water was then directed to clear out the latrines.
A sign told us they drained into the main river running through Athens – bet that was lovely in the hot summer!
The Ancient Agora, bigger and more impressive, contained several remarkable buildings.
Built to commemorate the teaching by St Paul in the Agora, the exterior patterns imitate the Islamic “Kufic” style of brickwork.
The exterior of the Stoa of Attalos has undergone considerable renovation but it was quite amazing to think that this, and every other “stoa” in Ancient Greek cities, was a prototype for the shopping arcade.
At the other side of the site and originally surrounded by metal workshops and foundries was the Temple of Hephaistos.
The Metatopes on the north and south sides of the temple depicted the labours of Theseus, and these, on the east side, are some of the twelve labours of Hercules.
Not surprisingly there are several museums in Athens and we had to make choices about which to visit. The small museum in the Ancient Agora contained some fascinating information about some of its artifacts…
… and the private collection at the Benaki museum some outstanding exhibits. [Sorry Gill, I didn’t take a photo of the bibles.]
But, no cultural trip to Athens would be complete without a visit to the National Archaeological Museum. Just wow.
We did lots and lots of walking from site to site and museum to museum but our favourite walk was in the late afternoon round the base of the Acropolis along the popular promenade. The highlight was standing on the rocky outcrop just below the Acropolis on Aeropagus hill. Amazing views.
Our final “not to be missed” event was the Sunday Changing of the Guard which takes place in front of the Parliament Building.
Whilst the guards change on the hour, every hour, on Sunday a whole platoon marches down accompanied by a band.
The spectacularly costumed Guards are called “Evzones” and they are actually guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – with the names of battles in which Greek Troops lost lives inscribed along the wall.
So, all in all, a brilliant time in Athens – the place where Europe apparently starts and where I was, for now, still European!