Athens: Sights in the City That Shaped Western Civilization



Athens is a dirty, grimy city.  I feel obligated to include this knowledge in the way that drug companies list off the side effects of their products in advertisements.  If you come to Athens expecting that the cradle of Western civilization would be blemish free after all of these years, you will be disappointed.  I can’t recall another city I've been to that is more covered in graffiti than Athens.  I doubt even Gary, Indiana, has it beat, but nobody expects the hometown of the Jackson Five to compare to the hometown of Socrates.  There’s very visible squalor.  The mass of the city’s modern building are aesthetic garbage and make it look like the city planners were hired from the Eastern bloc.  What I’m saying is that the city has a lot of rough edges.  Athens is not unique in this regard.  Except for maybe Singapore, with its hospital like cleanliness, virtually every city I’ve been to has suffered in some degree from some or all of the issues of Athens.  These conditions are not enough to write the city off.

View of Athens from Mount Lycabettus.  The Acropolis is visible in the right half of the photo.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic of Athen’s sights is the Acropolis.  Overlooking the city from a rocky outcrop, the Acropolis was a complex of temples and other buildings serving as the center of religious and civic activity.  The influence of the Acropolis and its monuments can be seen in architecture around the Western world and Portland’s premier combination steakhouse and gentlemen’s club.

The most well known of the Acropolis’ monuments is the Parthenon.  Dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, it is the largest temple on the Acropolis.  Construction on it was completed in 432 BC.  Incredibly detailed stonework provided both function and adornment is a hallmark of the building.  The temple has served several purposes over time, having been used as a treasury, Christian church, mosque, and now archaeological site.

Details of the Parthenon

As with just about every major monument I’ve visited thus far, the Parthenon is undergoing significant restoration.  This has been an ongoing process for over 30 years.  The process has been very thorough and employed cutting edge practices.  Most interventions are designed to be reversible in case it is decided to undo the process in the future.

Restoration work on the Parthenon

Having been constructed so long ago, several events took their toll on the temple.  The most significant damage occurred in 1687 when Venice and the Ottoman Empire were engaged in the Morean War.  Venice sent an army to take Athens.  The Ottomans held up in the Acropolis, employing the Parthenon as an ammunition dump.  While besieging the Acropolis, the Venetians launched a mortar round that hit the ammunition dump and destroyed significant parts of the temple.  Venice would ultimately take Athens and win the war.

Though none are as large as the Parthenon, several other impressive monuments occupy the Acropolis.

The Erechtheion was a temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena.  It housed the sacred olive tree that rose as a result of Athena’s founding of the city.  If there is one thing I remember from my college class on trials in Ancient Greece, it’s that the Greeks took their olive trees seriously.  Cutting down an olive tree was punishable by execution.

The Erechtheion and its olive tree

The Propylaea is the large gateway at the entrance to the Acropolis.  It would have been an appropriately large and dramatic feature to pass through before reaching the other monuments on the hilltop.  It is currently undergoing reconstruction.

The Propylaea and some of the crowd of visitors

The Temple of Athena Nike is located on the edge of the Acropolis near the Propylaea.  It is the most completely restored monument on the hill.  Athena was worshipped here as the goddess that would lead Athens to victory in war.

Temple of Athena Nike

At the base of one side of the Acropolis is the Theatre of Dionysus.  Having read Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles during my education, it was incredible to see where the works of these playwrights were performed for the first time over 2000 years ago.

I should also mention that I was a bit of a thespian in college.  I starred as Child 2 in an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea.  Despite my lack of acting skills I had fun time doing that.  Being able to see where the play was first performed in 431 BC gave me an odd connection to the Acropolis that I would not have expected to have a year ago.  I’d like to think I outperformed whatever actor originally played Child 2 in light of the fact that the play came in last place in the City Dionysia festival when it debuted.  

The Theatre of Dionysus

Near the site of the Acropolis is the Acropolis Museum.  Regrettably, I did not visit it.  It houses many artifacts excavated from the Acropolis and provides more in depth information.

From the high ground of the Acropolis a noticeable feature in Athens is the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  This was a truly massive structure.  Prior to its destruction, it was considered the largest temple in all of Greece.  Work on it took over 600 years and it was not completed until the 2nd century AD when the Roman emperor  Hadrian took it on as a pet project.  Sixteen columns of the original 104 remain at the site, though one of those is collapsed.

Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus

A short walk from the Temple of Olympian Zeus will take you the to the Panathenaic Stadium.  Athletic events were held on this site during the Panathenaic Games in the classical era.  The ancient stadium was excavated in the latter half of the 19th century.  It was the site of early attempts to revive the Olympic Games and in 1896 hosted the first modern Olympics as we conceive of them today.  During the 2004 Olympics it hosted several events and was the finishing point of the marathon.

View of Panathenaic Stadium from the original royal throne

Among the qualities that make the stadium impressive are its all-marble construction.  It is the only stadium in the world constructed of marble.  

That's a whole lot of marble

There are sets of marble thrones in two locations in the stadium.  The King and Queen of Greece would occupy these during events.  The first thrones sit at the end of the narrow part of the stadium.  However, new thrones were constructed on the long edge to give the monarch a better view of events.  It’s as if the king had his own front row seat at the 50-yard line of a football stadium.  The row of seating around the thrones was for VIP guests to occupy.  Of course, I made it a point to sit in each throne.

Marble thrones

The stadium also houses posters and torches from throughout the years.  As an aside, the torch relay only began with 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Yes, those Nazi ones best remembered by Americans for Jesse Owens’ four gold medals.

Olympic torches and posters

The one museum I did visit in Athens was the National Archaeological Museum.  It has artifacts from a wide swath of historical Greek eras.  The exhibits are well put together.  Virtually everything is signed in English, a big plus when it comes to museums.

The National Archaeological Museum

The Mask of Agamamenon

Pan being a creep towards Aphrodite, Eros trying to help shoo him away

Sculptures make up a large portion of the objects on display.  However, you’ll find everything from utensils to Egyptian sarcophagi in the museum.

Egyptian Sarcophagi

Statue of Poseidon

An interesting piece is a recycled sarcophagus.  Originally it held a wealthy man and woman.  This was indicated by the sculpture on the lid.  However, at some point the original occupants were removed and a new body took their place.  The original sculpture of the man was cut off and replaced with the base of a pillar.  The woman’s head was removed and replaced with that of a man.

The recycled sarcophagus

Athens is not perfect.  It’s not even close.  However, it’s still worth the trip.  I’ve been to a lot of cities and there are some that I have totally hated.  Athens is not among those.  It offers some incredible opportunities to connect with a past that still influences us today.  The people were friendly and welcoming.  The backpacker budget food is great.  Pork gyros for 2 euros were a great deal.

Athens: Where even the cacti are covered in graffiti