Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Journey through Time in Athens (Part 1)

At first glance, Athens seems like a dense, bustling metropolis covered in concrete and graffiti, and filled with repetitive blocks of 8-storey apartment buildings. And it is...for the most part. However, if you look a little closer, the mayhem peels away and you see the city you heard and read about your entire life - a city filled with a history spanning over 7000 years. Like Rome, it's a city where ten year old buildings are beside hundred year old buildings, and hundred year old buildings are beside thousand year old buildings. Our short two-day stay in Athens gave us the opportunity to explore a part, if only a small one, of this storied history.

Old & New - The Temple of Hephaestus (completed in 415 BC) is just a few feet from a modern neighborhood.
On our first day we decided to explore the most famous of Athens' landmarks, the Acropolis. This ancient citadel is one of the world's most famous ancient sites due to the awe-inspiring combination of it's stunning architecture, perfect hill-top location, and interesting history. After paying our 12 euro entrance fee (in our opinion too much, but no more than you would expect) we began slowly making our way though the site. The entrance appeal is fantastic as you approach the Propylaea, the marble entrance to the Acropolis site that allowed those deemed worthy of entrance, you have the beautiful Temple of Athena Nike standing to your right, and the stunning Odeon of Herodes Atticus down below.

An recreation of the Acropolis site during its time of use by Leo von Klenze (via)

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus - Still used today for operas and plays.

The Propylaea - The Gate to the Acropolis

The Temple of Athena Nike fully restored
As you pass through the Propylaea into the center of the centre of the Acropolis site you are greeted by the looming Parthenon, undoubtedly one of the most famous structures in the world. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, the virgin patron of Athens, it took nine years to build and another six years to decorate. Currently, like many of the buildings on the site, it is undergoing careful restoration to ensure its stability for the future. In addition, very little of the decorative friezes, metopes, and pediments remain - some removed by Lord Elgin and his crew, and displayed in the British Museum in London, and the majority of the remaining pieces (that were not destroyed over the ages) displayed in the new Acropolis Museum. None of these factors can take away from the majesty of the building however.

We wandered around the entirety of the building, snapping pictures of the unbelievable architectural features of the building itself, but mostly just being in awe of it. It's sheer size is unbelievable (228 x 101 feet), and the fact that it was built using golden ratios is even more unreal. When you couple the structure with the intricately detailed pieces that would have adorned it on display in the museum, it is easy to understand the reason that millions of people flock to it every year.

The southeast corner of the Parthenon
After we eventually moved on past the Parthenon, which wasn't easy to do, we wandered back along the north side of the Acropolis and past the ruined Old Temple of Athena and the still standing Erechtheum. Only the foundation of the Old Temple of Athena survives today, the rest of it being destroyed by invading Persians in 480 BC. The Erechtheum, however, still stands in very good condition even to this day. Originally built between 421 and 406 BC by the sculptor Phidias (the same sculptor that built the Parthenon) and under the supervision of Pericles, it stood as a shrine to the Greek hero Erichthonius. It is a beautiful building capped off by the impressive Porch of the Caryatids, a sculpture of 6 unique women, 4 of which survive today.

The extraordinary detail on the Porch of the Caryatids' figures.
On our way out we decided to utilize our free entry to the Ancient Agora that came with our Acropolis entrance ticket. The Ancient Agora sits below the Acropolis to the north and contains many ruins, as well as a number of extraordinarily preserved buildings. The Ancient Agora represents the best preserved surviving Agora, or gathering place, in Athens. The two best preserved buildings, the Stoa of Attalos and the Temple of Hephaestus, as well as the more contemporary Church of the holy Apostles, were all wonderful to look at.

Built nearly 300 years after the Parthenon, the Stoa of Attalos is perhaps one of the most impressive buildings in all of Athens. It measures 377 feet long and stood until its partial destruction in 267 AD. It was faithfully reconstructed in 1950 to stand as the Ancient Agora Museum. Today its open areas are filled with beautiful examples of Greek sculptures.

One of the beautiful examples of the sculptures on display at the Stoa of Attalos

The outer columns of the Stoa of Attalos
The Temple of Hephaestus is generally regarded as the best preserved ancient Greek temple. Completed in 415 BC, it still stands largely as built, with only minor damage sustained over the ages. it is surrounded by a beautiful little garden filled with pomegranates and functioned as a Greek orthodox church for much of its history.

The surrounding garden provides a gorgeous setting for the Temple of Hephaestus

The well-preserved exterior of the Temple of Hephaestus
The final major building in the Ancient Agora is also the newest. The Church of the Holy Apostles dates back over a thousand years, and is one of the first churches to be built in what would be referred to as the "Athenian" style. It apparently has some amazing paintings and artwork still inside, but was chained up when we were there.

The Church of the Holy Apostles
After wandering around in the devastating Athens sun for the better part of 5 hours, we were in desperate need of some time in the shade, and the newly built Acropolis Museum provided just that. As you make your way towards the entrance, the clear plexiglass walkways allowed us to peer down to current excavations going on just below the museum. After paying our 5 euro entrance fee and checking our bag, we began wandering aimlessly around the ultra-modern new facility, admiring all of the amazing pieces from the Acropolis site that survived the merciless weather and seemingly constant invasions.

The entrance to the new Acropolis Museum with its plexiglass walkways.
Many of the sculptures and statues have only fragments remaining, and some have been reconstructed using plaster with the original pieces incorporated. Many amazing examples of pottery and sculptures remain fully intact, and all of the pieces are cataloged and described in detail.

The piece de resistance, however is the upper floor, the floor housing the Parthenon marbles. The marbles are organized as they would have been when in the actual Parthenon, incorporating actual pieces owned by the museum and casts of those found in the British Museum. Much controversy exists with regard to the so-called "Elgin Marbles" on display at the British Museum. These pieces were removed by Thomas Bruce, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1801 to 1812. They represent just under 50 % of the marbles from the Parthenon and have been on permanent display in the British Museum since 1816. The British museum argues that they have been on display free to the public (unlike the Acropolis Museum) and also survived much better than those left behind. Greece has continuously argued for their return but has been unsuccessful so far. In any case, we thoroughly enjoy both exhibits.

An example of the mixing of original marbles from the Acropolis Museum and plaster casts from the British Museum

The fantastic display at the Acropolis Museum

The display of the "Elgin Marbles" at the British Museum

Some of the well-preserved pieces at the British Museum
Finally, exhausted, we returned for some food and a well-earned sleep.

By Travis Huyghebaert with 1 comment


Sounds like an amazing holiday. Love the narrative . Obviously a college education not mom and dad

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Hey there!

Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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