Athens & Antiquity (2008)

Athens & Antiquity (2008)

The origin of the city of Athens is an interesting story. Cecrops, a Phoenician came to Attica where he founded a city on a huge rock near the sea. The gods at Olympus decided that the city should be named after a god who could produce the most valuable legacy for mortals. Athena, goddess of wisdom and Poseidon, god of the seas contended. Athena produced an olive tree, symbol of peace and wisdom while Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and a horse emerged, symbolizing strength and fortitude. Athena was declared the victor because her legacy would be far more useful to mankind than the horse which signified war. Thus the city came to be called Athens with Athena as its presiding deity.


It is only natural that the presiding deity should be installed on top of the tallest hill in the city. You can see Acropolis from most parts of Athens, but try climbing it and you will find yourself against obstructing walls and shuttered gates. After much rambling we finally find the right path and wind our way up the Acropolis. Acropolis is a wooded hill on which are scattered several monuments dating back to pre-Christian times. Parthenon, its crowning jewel, is still considered the embodiment of the finest in Greek civilization. Parthenon stands sentinel over the city of Athens. Unfortunately for us, today the Parthenon is sheathed in scaffolding – it is undergoing major restoration work. Nevertheless, at night when Parthenon is illuminated, the scaffolding is no longer visible and the monument glows with a sublime light, captivating the heart of anyone who glances up, no matter which part of the city you are in.


Actually, the Acropolis which originally supported the grand Temple of Athena and many other structures was razed to the ground by in 480 BC by Persians. It was Pericles who rebuilt the wondrous monuments with such diligence that they came to be regarded as the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilization. Yet, time has wrought its ravages on them, compounded by vandalism, destructive invaders and earthquakes, not to mention the acid rain that has caused irreversible damage in recent times. Now there are only four surviving monuments on the Acropolis. You will have to take a leap of imagination to visualize the splendor of Pericles’s creation – the grand marble palaces, the splendid sculpture that must have adorned the structures, the exquisitely carved Corinthian, Ionian and Doric columns that must have supported them, although some of the last still survive.

Nike, the ancient one

The Propylaia, famous for the Temple of Athena Nike formed the towering entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times. It had a central hall and two wings on either side. The ceiling of the central hall was painted blue and dotted with brilliant stars. The structure was held by double columns, Doric on the outside and Ionic on the inside. Each section had a gate and these gates were the only entrance to Parthenon. The middle gate is known as the Panathenaic Way – the main route through which the procession of the Athenaic Festival passed. The procession was the climax of the festival which included athletic, musical and dramatic contests.

Even before you enter Parthenon, you come across a striking but familiar monument. The Caryatids – six larger than life women from Karyai (modern day Karyes) hold aloft the Erechtheion, a temple considered most sacred by ancient Greeks. It was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and Athena produced the olive tree. The temple dates back to the 4th century B.C. While Parthenon is considered the supreme example of Doric architecture, the Erechtheion is said to represent the best in Ionic style.


The Parthenon (meaning virgin’s apartment) is the largest Doric temple in Greece built entirely of Pentelic marble except for the wooden roof. Built by Pericles, it had a dual purpose – to house the statue of Athena and to house the treasury of the state. Its construction began in 447 B.C and it was completed in 438 B.C, in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival. The eight fluted columns in front and back and the 17 columns on each side are a study in elegance and perfection although a closer scrutiny would reveal asymmetric base lines deliberately so to correct an optical illusion which would have otherwise portrayed the entire structure askew when viewed from a distance. Inside stood an impressive statue of goddess Athena, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 B.C, massive Athena stood 12 meters high on a wooden pedestal. The face, hands and feet were made of ivory and precious stones formed her eyes. The goddess was covered in a long robe of gold and a head of Medusa carved in ivory adorned her breast. In her right hand she held a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory and in her left, a spear. At the base of the spear was a serpent. The helmet on her head contained a sphinx and griffins on either side.


In 426 AD, the statue was taken to Constantinople by the Turkish conquerors from where it disappeared. Whatever was left of the rest of the archeological site has been carted away and some of it can be seen in the British Museum in London. Today, giant bulldozers, dumpers and cranes mar the skyline and completely obliterate the view. The grating sound of marble cutters is deafening. We step away hastily and find ourselves a corner on the hill from where you get a glorious view of Athens below.


We are fascinated by the Ancient Agora that lies at the foot of the Acropolis. The Agora was the centre of political, administrative, social and commercial life and would have been buzzing with activity two thousand years ago. We’re shown a spot from where in 49 AD, Socrates was supposed to have expounded his philosophy to anyone who cared to listen! The Agora first came into existence in the 6th century B.C and suffered successive destruction by maurading Persians and Turks, but survived everytime until it was destroyed altogether by Herulians, a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia in AD 267. Plaka, the fashionable tourist district of Athens, is actually Turkish in origin and adjoins the Ancient Agora. The Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Attalos and the Church of the Holy Apostles are the only monuments that are still standing in the Agora. We learn that the Stoa, originally built in the 2nd century B.C by the Pergamum King Attolos II has been rebuilt by the American School of Archeology. The Stoa has 45 Doric columns on the ground floor and now houses a museum of artifacts found on the site. Sunlight streams in slanting shafts through these columns forming a geometric pattern all along the long corridor.

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The Temple of Hephaestus is dedicated to the God of forge and in ancient times, was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops. It has 34 columns and was built by one of the architects of Parthenon, Ictinus. As you exit the Agora, you pass by the Street of Tombs, reserved for distinguished Athenians of yore. It has a variety of funerary structures. From here on, you’re in Roman Athens, though that sounds like an oxymoron. The Roman Agora which looks like a heap of rubble has one noteworthy structure – Tower of the Winds – built in the 1st century B.C by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus . It functioned as a sundial, weathervane, water clock and a compass. We wander further and find ourselves in the Temple of Olympian Zeus which was completed by emperor Hadrian in AD 131, 700 years after its construction first began! It impresses with its 104 massive Corinthian columns, 15 of which are still standing in a sprawling complex.

We wrap up our day with a tall cool drink at one of the many stylish eateries at Plaka. Athens is too overwhelming to absorb in one go. You have to savour it in small doses which is what we do over the next few days. Even then, we could barely catch a glimpse of this glorious city of yore.

(Published in Frontline dated Sep 27, 2008)

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