In the beginning, the Olympic gods created heaven and earth. Athens, itself, took a little longer.
Where the ancient and modern are interwoven like the strands in a spider’s web, Athens is a chaotic and complicated place. History is everywhere, as are the crowded, narrow streets swollen with subcompact cars and motorcycles, outdoor cafes where at least five unknown languages can be overhead at any given time, and it’s all overseen by an architectural jewel – the Acropolis.
With only six allotted days, we crammed in as many sights as our blistered feet could tolerate. Athens is a city easily and best explored by foot. The red Hop On, Hop Off sightseeing bus was a godsend, however, and its headset “guide” told us things the history books left out.
Fluted columns and ancient arches; rich, ornate Greek Orthodox interior facades; tired neo-classical architecture; imaginative symbolism and stories of mythological gods; marble statues striking a regal pose; Athens has it all.
Our bus tour covered the routes leading past or near the major sites: The Acropolis and Acropolis Museum, the landmark squares of Syntagma and Monastiraki, Ancient Agora, the Library of Hadrian, Olympic Stadium, Roman Agora, the Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus; we wandered through them all.
Hopping on the bus near our Plaka hotel, we made our first stop at the amazing Acropolis. Democracy and ancient drama were born in Greece, and the rock of the Acropolis with its famous Parthenon from the Classical period, is testament to this. To do it justice, we booked a historian guide to lead us to the top while explaining the history and mythology behind what we were seeing and touching. The 2 ½-hour excursion was worth every euro.
It is believed that Pericles, a famous Athenian politician, ordered the monuments constructed between 447-406 BC – in the fifth century – atop the 512-foot high limestone rock. The more than 50-year building project of erecting the Acropolis temples was under the tutelage of those considered the greatest architects, sculptors and painters of their time. Most of the magnificent temples built were dedicated to the goddess Athena, patroness of the city.
The most renowned structures include the Propylaea, the gateway to the Acropolis, (propylaea means the structure forming the entrance to a temple); temple of Athena Nike, a small temple made entirely of white pentelic marble quarried on Mount Pentelicus near Athens with four Ionic columns (a symbol of the faith of the Athenians in their political system); the Erechtheion, the second largest and most sacred temple on the Acropolis where the gods Poseidon and Athena battled for the right to be patron deity of the city. Part of the temple features the porch of the Caryatids with its six female statues. Five of the original six statues are now in the Acropolis Museum, while the Caryatids today on the temple are replicas. On the slopes of the Acropolis is the Theater of Dionysus with its perfect circular orchestra. According to history, this orchestra was of particular significance for the history of civilization, as it was the main orchestra of Athens, the cradle of dramatic art. It is here that comedies and tragedies were performed. It is still used today as an important and popular musical venue.
The 230 x 100 foot mega structure known as the Parthenon is the most important temple on the Acropolis. Unfortunately, the forty-six-columned Doric marble structure was never completed. The Persians destroyed the half completed temple, and it was left unfinished until Pericles rose to prominence in the political arena and began promoting the grandeur of Athens and what the city stood for in 479 BC.
The Parthenon, on the highest point of the rock, was to represent a symbol of classical beauty and the supreme achievement of ancient Greek architecture. It originally housed an enormous statue of Athena, to whom the temple was dedicated. The Doric styled façade is perfectly balanced yet lacking any straight lines. Restoration work is constantly ongoing as was evident the day I toured the site. The large pediment frieze that adorns the sanctuary is being reconstructed. At one point the pediments were decorated with about 50 sculptures, but most were chiseled off in the early 19th century and illegally smuggled to England, where the majority of them are housed in London’s British Museum.
The Parthenon became a ruin only in 1687 when the Venetians, who conquered the Ottomans, bombarded the Acropolis. The Ottomans had been using the building as an arsenal, and the ammunition stored in the Parthenon exploded, destroying the roof, the interior, and fourteen columns.
As the open double-decker bus made its way through Plaka, the old historic section of Athens, our anonymous “tour guide headset” explained that because Plaka wants to maintain the ambience and architecture of the past and retain its cultural, economical and social development, the narrow twisty streets and lanes remain with limited vehicle traffic allowed. Most of the houses have been restored, as well as buildings of the late 19th century where people of the political and cultural elite of the city once lived.
En route to Monastiraki Square (little monastery), we learned little tidbits; such as Athens’ first tram system began in 1882 with 800 horses. Although Athens has little violent crime, there are a lot of petty thefts and carjacking’s. The graffiti, we learned, was more of an artistic expression rather than vulgar Greek words or political statements. But it was still disheartening to see new or newly renovated homes violated, as they became a multi-colored canvas of painted patterns.
The architecture and state of buildings became more evident of disrepair, and graffiti seemed to be everywhere. The 19th century neoclassical buildings, combined with neo-Hellenist style architecture, were apparently all the rage at the end of the 19th century. But as we drove deeper into the city, neglected wrecks of neo-classical facades appeared more and more often. It was actually quite sad to see some of them vacant while others looked like they were beyond saving.
The Monastiraki area of Athens was thus named because of the Church of Pantanassa, renamed Church of Dormition of the Virgin. This church was the most important church of the Great Monastery in the 17th century. A highlight of the area is the flea market, held every Sunday since 1910, inside the Athens Flea Market area. We explored that and the antiques area on foot, trying to conceal our gasps of the exorbitant prices of the antiques. Although we did not score any flea market finds or splurge on any antiques, the experience was exciting and interesting.
In the square itself is a train station, a former mosque now a Greek Folklore Costume Museum and plenty of people milling about. Obviously a popular gathering spot, intermingling with the crowds were various street performers singing, dancing, and performing…. for donations, of course.
Ermou Street, a pedestrian only lane lined with high-end shops, extends from Monastiraki Square up to Syntagma Square. Most shops were closed on Sunday afternoon when we discovered the street, stray dogs lying peacefully in front of shop doors enjoying an afternoon nap.
Syntagma Square – The Center of Athens
Syntagma is Greek for “Constitution”, and across the street from this square is Parliament. It was so named after the constitution King Otto was obliged to grant Greece in 1843 following a public and military uprising. This is the hub of public transportation in the city with restaurants, shopping, light rail station, a number of statues and two grassy areas ringing the large shaded square. It continues to be home to political rallies and other demonstrations.
The “new” three-story Parliament building, a former palace, was constructed in 1834 of pentelic marble and limestone. At the front of it is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day by two Evzone guards. The Evzone is an elite infantry unit of the Greek army. They wear traditional pleated kilts (fustanella), white britches, and pom-pom shoes. The soldiers’ skirts have 400 pleats – one for each year of Ottoman occupation – and the soldiers must iron their kilts themselves.
We passed the old Parliament building with the statue of a freedom fighter on horseback in front. Built in 1871, the building is now a historical museum with information and artifacts from the Fall of Constantinople to World War II.
The 40-acre National Gardens, formerly for the exclusive use of the palace, surround the Parliament. It was planted in 1839 for then Queen Amalia’s “pleasure”. Now, open to the public since 1923, flowers, wandering paths in and among trees and vines, foot bridges over babbling brooks, playgrounds, benches, and of course, statues make up the gardens. Antiquities found on the premises have been fenced in.
Other renowned buildings in the square are two historic hotels located side by side: George II and Grande Bretagne. The latter was originally constructed in 1842 as a grand neoclassical mansion. In 1872 it was converted into a hotel. The building was demolished and rebuilt in the mid-20th century. Both hotels are five-star properties.
From Syntagma Square, looking skyward is Lykavitos Hill, the highest hill in Athens, just over 900 feet above sea level. According to folklore, the hill got its name from wolves seen roaming the hillside. At its summit sits the tiny white Church of St. George. You almost need binoculars to make it out. On the back side of the hill is a 5,000-seat open theater that plays host to theatrical performances and concerts during the summer. It’s possible to climb the hill by steps, but our blistered toes rebelled, so we chose to observe from afar.
National Archaeological Museum
Back on the bus, we passed various libraries and university buildings before coming to the famed National Archaeological Museum, built in 1829, and the largest archaeological museum in Greece. The building itself is a protected historical monument. Here we disembarked and spent an interesting couple of hours wandering the two spacious floors with its never ending corridors – yes, we got turned around many times – inspecting “the world’s best collection of ancient Greek art from 7000 BC to 500 AD.” It was overwhelming to say the least, but with the brochure map and guidebook handy, we managed to locate and read about the top featured pieces, including the Gold Mask of Agamemnon, the horse and jockey statue, the Artemision Bronze statue, the Kore statue, c. 650 BC, the life size Dipylon vase dating to 750 BC, and much more. Its depth of history is enormous.
Athens has at least two dozen museums featuring various arts and sculptures, instruments, icons and mosaics, weapons, jewelry, traditional costumes, etc. covering almost every time period from ancient to modern.
Next on the bus tour was a drive past the Olympic Stadium used for the Athens 2004 Olympics. The ancient Greeks connected everything in their lives with athletics. Later the Romans converted the stadium into a gladiator’s arena. Across the street from the actual stadium was a life-size statue of the first discus Olympiad athlete. The first Olympic games were held in 1896 with the first marathon run – 21.4 miles. The 2004 marble stadium was built as an exact duplicate to the original stadium. In ancient times, about 50,000 spectators filled the stadium. Today, its capacity is 60,000.
Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus
As we just about complete our circular tour of the city, the final site is Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. This site contains the remains of the largest temple in ancient Greece.
Initiated by an “over ambitious tyrant” (Peisistratos) in the sixth century BC, work was halted five years later when the tyrant’s son was overthrown.
The temple took almost 700 years to finish. It lay abandoned and half built for centuries until the Romans conquered Greece. When completed, the temple was 360 feet by 145 feet, consisting of two rows of 20 columns on each of the long sides and three rows of eight columns along each end. The temple originally housed an oversized statue of Zeus, head of the Greek gods who lived on Mount Olympus, and later on, an equally large statue of Hadrian.
The new Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned the arch with its Corinthian columns on top in 132 AD to celebrate the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which lies just beyond it. An inscription on the arch translates to “This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus”. Yet, writing on the opposite side frieze reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus”. The inscriptions refer to the founders of the new and old city. The gate allegedly separated the old city from the new one founded by Hadrian.
According to historians, a monstrous thunderstorm in 1852 brought down the temple’s Corinthian columns, and today only 15 of the original 104 columns remain standing. The columns were 56 feet high and that sheer magnitude is obvious gazing upon them, both the towering columns and the single intact toppled one lying on its side where it fell.
The newly built museum, located across the road from the Acropolis entrance, is modern and shaped in size with seven columns similar to the Parthenon. All of the artifacts are from excavations at the Acropolis, including the five original female Caryatids.
Since the modern city is built upon ruins that extend to everywhere it seems, I was not overly surprised to learn – and see – that the Acropolis Museum was built over ancient ruins. As we walked toward the entrance, the walkway dramatically split in two. At the split looking down were excavated ruins as far as I could see under the walkway and extending to under the museum building itself.
During evening walks through Plaka along narrow lanes with even narrower sidewalks, we often came upon a section of sidewalk covered in glass. Peering down, ancient remains were visible. Lobbies of buildings also had ruins sectioned off. The footprints of ancients definitely crisscrossed the city.
Greek Orthodox Churches
In the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox religion, churches have an altar screen covered with curtains and icons – also known as iconostasis. The standard design of the iconostasis calls for four icons flanking the central door. An icon of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is always located at the left of the door while an icon of Jesus is always at the right. Likewise, an icon featuring the saint or event that the church is dedicated to will be on the far left. The number of iconostases that line the wall differs by church and is based solely on the width of the individual church. Above the door entry are more paintings. Always at the top of the iconostasis is the crucifixion. Likewise, Jesus Christ is always painted on the central dome of the church.
The church is divided into two sections; the main section for the people and then the area behind the iconostases. There are two doors; the priest uses the central door during the service. He uses a second side door at other times. If he is still a deacon and not a priest yet, he goes up to the pulpit and reads the gospel. Only deacons are allowed in the pulpit.
Lighting a candle when entering a Greek Orthodox Church symbolizes the purity of the Christian soul and also indicates that you are in constant communication with God. During services, women and children sit or stand on the right side and men on the left. They must never sit or stand together.
Regardless of how small a church or chapel is, the air of grandeur definitely permeates throughout when entering. Often times the exterior of the church is rather plain, differentiated only by the number of domes on top. (It is very unusual to have a five-domed church.) All churches feature a richly carved wood pulpit and bishop’s throne. The emblem of the Greek Orthodox Church is the double-headed eagle. It is on the floor of every church.
Interior walls are paved with mosaic patterns and paintings. Instead of taking an icon to a church, the Orthodox now give an amount of money so icons can be painted onto the walls. “This way we manage financially to paint the walls of the churches,” explains our guide. But, in the past there was a reason why they painted the walls: the people of the time were illiterate. “They could not read or write, so a way of teaching them the message of the Bible was through painting the church walls with Bible scenes.”
You will almost never see a statue in a Greek Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox consider statues as over emphasizing the physical world, and the religion forbids worship of graven images, similar to Islam. Therefore, Orthodox churches are filled with paintings of saints against gold and blue backgrounds that are not intended to be lifelike. Instead, they are intended to remind the faithful of the metaphysical nature of Jesus and the saints rather than their physical form, which the Greek Orthodox consider irrelevant. The colors of gold and blue symbolize paradise.
In the Orthodox Church, a deacon is allowed to marry, which means if he wants to get married, he must do it while he still is a deacon. Once he becomes a priest, he can no longer marry. A married deacon may become a priest however and remain married and have a family.
An amazing culture, religious opulence, ceremonial traditions, mythology and folklore; a country built on democracy and philosophy. Athens is truly an incredible city where it all appears to blend seamlessly together.