“Acropolis” or “ακρόπολη” (akró + poli) means “high city” in Greek. There is evidence that the Acropolis of Athens — other cities such as Corinth also have acropolises (awkward word – but try “acropolitan”!) — has been inhabited since the early neolithic period, and a Mycenaean megaron (“great hall”) palace stood here upon the Acropolis of Athens during the late Bronze Age.
Certainly the Acropolis seems an unassailable high rock. In fact, it was never conquered when adequately defended, and only the Persians under Xerxes in 480 BC ever conquered it, and they razed everything that stood upon it. The splendor we see today stems from the rebuilding program of the Athenian leader Pericles during the well-named Golden Age of Athens (460–430 BC), the stunning three-generational period that gave Western culture so much of its foundation.
Forewarned by two taxi drivers that a) the climb up to the Acropolis is difficult and the b) two cruise ships were going to bus passenger to the Acropolis by 9 o’clock, I made an early start, and was at the side gate by just after 8, having fortified myself with a spinach pie (very good: spinach and feta in a flaky crust) and a double espresso at a sidewalk eatery.
The side entry, the Dionysus Theater entrance, is always less crowded than the main entrance, and gives you the advantage of a longer, gentler approach to the Acropolis and a view of the theater of Dionysus, the ancient theater of Athens, which the main entrance does not afford.
The other theater of the Acropolis, the Herodeion, or the Odeon (theater, or concert hall) of Herodus Atticus, is a later Roman amphitheater, built in 161 AD, and renovated in 1950; it is still in use, but being a modern, nouveau riche construction, we ancient Athenians will pass it by.
Continuing on our way, we come at last — up some steep stairs — to the remains of the ancient Propylaia, or gates, to the Acropolis proper. In the old days, there was a long ramp that lead to the top, after wending its way from the city gates and through the Agora. This was the Panathenaic Way (more to come on that).
You climb the final modern stairs, which pass through the marble Propylaia (signs: “Do Not Touch The Marble” everywhere), and suddenly you are there, with the Parthenon before you in the morning light.
It would be fatuous to describe the impact of first seeing the Parthenon; we have seen so many pictures, built up so many expectations. It equals them — that is enough to say. It is more, and bigger, than we imagined.
Some may regret the paved way that has been added around the Parthenon, but it makes viewing far easier and safer. And if we look at old pictures of the rubble-strewn surroundings where the powder magazine explosion of 1687 blasted what then remained of the original building, I think we can be glad of the cleanup, if not of the actual cement walkway, which Athenians deplore (my taxi driver to the airport was furious about the cement!).
The next things we see as we walk up the pavement are the “marshalling yard” for the rubble, where each bit has been laser measured and recorded, and stored carefully on wood blocks to ensure against further damage, and the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Polias (Athena “of the city”). The Erechtheum is possibly on the site of the oldest temple on the rock, sacred to both Athena and Poseidon. Its dual role explains the rather rambly design of the building. It is also the home of the Caryatids, the female figures serving as pillars, one of which is in the British Museum of local odium (see previous articles for mention of Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles). The others are in the Acropolis Museum — what we see today are modern copies.
One feature of the Erechtheum is the olive tree. The legend was that at the prompting of Zeus, Athena and Poseidon strove to see which could give the Athenians the most valuable gift. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident, and a salt spring gushed forth. Athena planted the olive tree, and won. (I’m with her.) An olive tree has continually been in the spot since time out of mind. The Persians set fire to it, but the tree sprouted a 4-foot green branch the next day. The 4 feet may possibly be an exaggeration, but the fact is that olive trees are very hardy and survive almost anything, living to very great old ages – the oldest being some 1,500 years old, though 500 is more usual.
The tradition is that the tree has been replanted over the centuries, but always with a shoot of the one before it — the present incumbent was planted in 1950 by the American School of Archaeology in 1952, which saved and harvested a branch from the destruction of the Germans during World War II. (See www.athenswalkingtours.gr/blog/2012/10/31/the-sacred-olive-tree.)
The ancient engineering continues to fascinate and astonish: Not only did the marble for the building have to be imported — much from the island of Paros — but hauled up to the Acropolis, shaped and lifted into place. The fluting of the columns was added later, after the individual column drums had been lifted into place to form the 46 outer columns — 34 feet high — and all other elements and details had to be similarly put in place. The columns are slightly curved, which gives the visual effect of being straight, and the corner columns are slightly larger in diameter, to give the illusion of uniformity. These engineers knew their business, all those centuries ago.
But that is not all: The Parthenon is 101 feet wide by 228 feet long, and a level platform had to be created to allow building on the slanted, uneven and rough surface of the Acropolis. And all by hand, in just nine years.
The restoration work on the Parthenon is ongoing. I could hear electrical tools being used, and workmen — craftsmen! — were visible inside the building. Everywhere you look, evidence of their patient work can be seen, even more wonderful if you revisit the 1875 photo above..
I wish I could come back in a century to see what progress has been made. It is important, I think, to emphasize that the restoration work is not creating something out of almost nothing, as is the case at Knosos (next article). But it is refitting original stone as much as possible — and putting it in its proper place — a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle that would have been impossible before the advent of laser measurement and computer cataloging and simulating. It is slow, patient work.
By 9:30 it was time to go. The threatened cruise ship crowds were arriving, and both my feet and my brain were feeling a need for rest, and the day was heating up..
I am a tourist too, so I cannot complain too much — but crowds at ancient monuments are a rising problem. Venice has instituted new docking arrangements that do not block and dominate views of the city. Perhaps in the future some sort of metered system on Athens would alleviate the crowding, or a reservation system?
The way down was quite easy, after the very steep bit at the Propylaia, and there are magnificent views that are easy to miss as you climb up.
The next view is the Areopagus, a rock outcrop on the shoulder of the Acropolis hill. This is where Apollo pardoned Orestes and placated the Furies, and where the ancient Athenian governing council met, and later tried cases of “deliberate homicide, wounding, and religious matters as well as cases of arson of olive trees” (Wikipedia, my italics). St Paul preached his sermon on the “unknown god” here. It’s a bit treacherous to walk on, as I did a few days earlier: Two or three thousand years of feet going up and down have polished the marble of the rock into a smooth shine; it must be deadly when wet.
I have no idea what the distant smoke in the photo may by, but so it might have looked during the Peloponnesian war (431–404 BC) when the Spartans were burning Athenian farms and the Ateneans watched from the walls of the city and the Acropolis itself; it had been Pericles’ plan to remain within the walls and allow the Spartans to exhaust themselves, while the Athenian navy raided Laconia, the Spartan homeland on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Athens at the time had the only real navy in Greece, some 200 or more triremes.
The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were all first performed here in the Theater of Dionysus, as well as the comedies of Aristophanes. One of my taxi drivers practically spit at the name of Aristophanes, whose savage parodies of Socrates, he said, helped lead to his trial and execution — a history discussion which I do not think would happen with a taxi driver in New York, or an Uber driver in Seattle.
The stoa was a gathering place where Athenians might rest in the shade or shelter in bad weather. The present reconstruction was given by the American School of Classical Studies, and was constructed in 1952-56. It houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora.
I confess that by this stage I was starting to feel the distances walked, but with just one more day in Athens on this leg of the trip, I decided to walk the outer perimeter of the Acropolis. This took in the Ancient Agora and the Panathenaic Way, the processional way that began in the Kerameikos neighborhood (hence our word “ceramic” — it being the potters’ quarter as well as the site of many tombs). The procession was held annually, as the climax of a three-day festival celebrating the goddess Athena, and ended on the Acropolis. (For more on this central importance of the festival, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panathenaea)
This turned out to be my longest walk yet. There is nothing quite so instructive as getting moderately lost in a city and wandering — you find all sorts of things you would never have known to look for. In Athens, however, you know that if you always keep the ever-present Acropolis on your right, you will wind up somewhere you know.
It was good to end the stay with a long and interesting walk. A good dinner on the roof terrace and early to bed — off to Crete in the morning.
Next: Crete, and a leap even further back into the still-more-remote past of Knosos.
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.