Athens is the capital of Greece and the historical capital of the western civilization. It is one of the world’s oldest cities with a history of more than 3000 years and a strong heritage from the classical period still visible today in the city’s spectacular landmarks and monuments such as the Acropolis. Athens is the city that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896 and most recently the 2004 summer Olympic Games that left the city with state of the art transport infrastructure, green parks and promenades and world-class sport facilities such as the Athens Olympic Complex. Today, a cosmopolitan metropolis, Athens offers breathtaking experiences and offbeat activities to its guests.
Name and the myth
Athens acquired this name from one of the Twelve Olympian Gods, the goddess of wisdom, civilization, warfare and strategy Athena. According to an ancient Greek myth, Athena fought with Poseidon, god of the sea, over who would become the patron of the city. Each would give Athenians a gift and the Athenians would choose the best. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident producing a salt water spring, representing Athens’ naval power. The Athenians accepted Athena’s gift, an olive tree that would bring food, olive oil and wood and symbolized peace, hence the name of the city, Athens. Athena struck the rock with her spear sprouting an olive tree.
The major monument of the city, the Parthenon, atop the hill of the Acropolis of Athens, is a temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). The Parthenon is regarded as one of the world’s greatest monuments. It is a symbol of the Athenian democracy and of the economic and military power of the city at the Golden Age of Pericles. It is also considered as a great example of the Greek classical architecture and demonstrates the high level of technological development achieved by the Ancient Greeks. It took 10 years (447-438 BC) for the Parthenon to be built as part of the Pericles program for the reconstruction of the city after the Persian Wars. The Athenians built the temple in order to thank their patron goddess Athena for the salvation of the city and the victory of Greeks against the Persians. In fact, the current building replaced an older temple of Athena which was still under construction when the Persians sacked the city and razed the Acropolis. The Parthenon is a peripheral Doric temple with Ionic architectural features. It housed a 13m tall statue of Athena made of gold and ivory sculpted by Phidias , who was the general supervisor of the whole project and was also in charge of the sculptural decoration. The Parthenon, designed by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates, is made of the Pentelic Marble, transported to the Acropolis from the Mount Pentelikon, about 10 miles from Athens, a great technological achievement for the time. This type of marble is still widely used today in the construction industry for decorative purposes quarried at the Dionyssos suburb of Athens, named after the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, Dionysus. Many of the proportions of the temple are alleged to approximate the golden ratio. The architects have also built the temple in such a way to counteract optical illusions and the columns lean inwards, so if they carried on, they would meet above the Parthenon.
The temple was decorated with a 524ft. freeze of which some 80% survives depicting scenes from the Panathenaic Games. The metopes depicted mythical battles: Gigantomachy in the east side (battle between the Olympian gods led by Zeus and the Giants), Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons) in the west, Centauromachy (battle between Greeks and half-man half-horse Centaurs) in the south and scenes from the Trojan War in the north. The east pediment narrates the birth of Athena from the head of his father, Zeus. The west pediment shows the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of the city of Athens.
In fact the temple was kept in a very good condition as only the colors of the stones had faded until 1687 when the Venetians led by Francesco Morosini attacked Athens which was under the ottoman rule. The Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as a gun powder store and when a Venetian mortar fired from the Hill of Philopappus, tha canon ball hit the gun power and blew it up. The damage continued in 1801 when the British Ambassador at the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople forcibly removed the remaining sculptures. Apart from the esthetic damage, the detachment of the sculptures by the Earl of Elgin caused irreparable damage to the static of the building and some of the frieze blocks where sawn in order to be transported to England. These sculptures are currently displayed at the British Museum.
The Acropolis of Athens is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO and was formally proclaimed as the top European Cultural Heritage Monument. Apart from the Parthenon, there are also other buildings lying in the Acropolis starting from the Propylaea, continuing with the temple of Athena Nike, the temple of Brauronian Artemis and the Erectheum.
The Propylaea is a monumental building that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens. Phidias was again in charge of supervising the construction of Propylaea as he had the responsibility for planning the rebuilding of the whole Acropolis. It was designed by the architect Mnesicles and construction took place between 437 and 432 BC. White Pentelic marble and grey Eleusinian marble were used to construct the Propylaea that consists of a central building and two side wings. There are five passageways but the central passageway was not paved but for the Sacred Way from Eleusis to Athens. The north wing was famous in the antiquity as the location where paintings of important Greek battles were displayed. The southern wing was used for the access to the temple of Athena Nike. The Propylaea was never completed due to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.
The Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis of Athens was built in 410 BC. It was also called the temple of Apteros Nike, meaning victory without wings, in order to ensure the victory will never fly away from the city of Athens. It is a small, elegant amphiprostyle, tetrastyle temple of ionic order that housed a statue of Athena Nike who held a helmet in one hand, symbol of war, and a branch of pomegranate tree in the other, symbol of peace. The sides of the bastion around the temple of Athena Nike were protected by a parapet of Pentelic marble depicting Nikai carrying bulls to sacrifice or holding weapons or victory trophies from the Persian Wars. The friezes of the building were all decorated and some fragments of them are exhibited at the new Acropolis Museum. The north and the west friezes showed a battle, but it is unclear whether it was between Greeks or against Persians as the Peloponnesian War still stood. The south frieze depicted the victory of Greeks against the Persians at the battle of Plataea. The east frieze represents the Olympian gods. The temple has been recently restored and the entrance to the Acropolis is now free of all scaffolding for the first time since the end of the 1970s.
The Erechtheion, named after the mythical king Erechtheus (or Erichthonius), is a complex marble building on the north side of the Acropolis in the Ionic Order. It was considered the most sacred place of the Acropolis and the eastern part was dedicated to Athena while the western part was dedicated to Hephaestus, Erichthonius’ father, and Voutis, Erechtheus’ brother. The temple was built between 421 and 406 BC and was the site of the “Sacred Tokens”; an opening containing salt water and the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the olive tree, the gift of Athena to the city of Athens. On the south of the building there is a porch with ionic columns (where the famous singer Jennifer Lopez was photographed for a shooting for a cover for a magazine recently) and on the northern part there is a large porch where the roof was supported by six statues of maidens, known as Caryatids. Five of the original statues of the Caryatids are exhibited at the new Acropolis museum while the sixth is located at the London’s British Museum.