Greece sits high atop my travel bucket list. While the present-day beauty of Greece is certainly alluring, my personal interest is centered more on the history of ancient Greece. In preparation for my visit, I’d like to get a better understanding of the history behind the sites I hope to see one day. It feels almost magical for me when I am in a place of historical importance and think about the story that unfolded in the very place where I am standing. There will be many places like this in Greece but one location rises to the top.
Rising high above Athens, the Acropolis of Athens is filled with the traces and echoes of ancient Greece. Below are two images of the Acropolis. One is a present-day stock photo and the other is an historically accurate render. What is the importance of this site, why are those buildings important, what is missing, and why did the Acropolis fall into ruins? Knowing the answers to these questions will make my visit to the Acropolis so much more compelling as the history of ancient Greece and origins of Western civilization swirl within my thoughts.
The digital images you will see in my time travel through Greece come from the video game, Greek Odyssey. Developers of this game endeavored to recreate an historically accurate vision of key ancient Greek sites as they would have appeared during the Greek golden age. With game character loaded, I grabbed my game “camera” and traveled through Greece capturing images from locations as they appeared over 2,000 years ago.
What exactly is the Acropolis? The word “acropolis” means “high city” in Greek and the term often referred to fortresses built on elevated terrain. The Acropolis of Athens is the name the name of a mountain top rising above Athens. It is believed to have become somewhat leveled during the bronze age for agricultural purposes and even more so by the Mycenaeans who built a massive compound on the Acropolis and great protective wall around it.
The Mycenaeans were an advanced bronze-age civilization that rose on the Greek mainland in 1600 BCE, and their culture flourished during the late Bronze Age. Major Mycenaean power centers included Mycenae, Thebes, Sparta and Athens. Mycenaean culture fell into decline around 1200 BCE. After this, Greece went through a period called the Dark Ages. It is called “Dark” primarily because there is no written history about that period or significant cultural or artistic achievement. The Dark ages were followed by the Archaic period and then the period known as the Classical or Golden Age of Greece.
Entering Athens from the Port of Athens in the Classical period around 432 BCE, we would have been struck by the grand architecture and sculptures long before reaching the Acropolis. In the image below, you can catch a glimpse of the Acropolis rising in the far distance and the sense of grandeur and sophistication of Athenian culture. It is even more impressive when we think about the timeline of Western civilization. The Roman Republic/Empire hadn’t yet risen. The people of Western Europe were still living a relatively primitive existence – no writing and living in wooden structures at best.
After a walk that would have certainly tested our legs, we begin our final ascent to the Acropolis. From our current vantage point in the image below, we are looking up a walkway to an entry point known as the Propylaea. In this image, the Propylaea is the top center building. To the distant right, the highest structure in this image in the Temple of Athena Nike (goddess of victory). The ruins of the Propylaea and Temple of Athena Nike are still visible on the Acropolis today.
Propylaea was the name given to a monumental gateway that served as a partition between the secular and spiritual parts of a city. As the presence of a Propylaea suggests, the Acropolis was a holy site for the Greeks. The Athenians built temples on the Acropolis and often had to rebuild them after damaging wars with Persia. The Golden or Classic Age of Athens saw the Acropolis achieve a new level of magnificence with the construction of some of the most iconic structures in the world during the 5th century BCE.
Continuing our ascent up the Acropolis, we gain a better look at the Propylaea to the Acropolis (below) which had a central building with two wings. One of those wings featured elaborately painted panels. From our vantage point in the image below we can see the towering bronze statue of Athena and, in the right background, the Parthenon. Behind Athena and to the left (not visible) is the Erechtheion – a sacred Ionic temple made of marble which honored Athena and several other gods (such as Poseidon) and heroes. It’s best known for its porch supported by six Caryatid maiden statues. To the right in the forefront (not visible), is the Temple of Nike (goddess of Victory).
The statue of Athena had an awe-inspiring presence on the Acropolis. The Greeks worshipped all of the Olympian gods, but each Greek city also had a patron god or goddess. Athens is named after Athena (goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts) and she was was the patron goddess of Athens. It is said that Athena won a contest against Poseidon (god of the sea) to become the patron god of the newly named city of Athens, previously known Attica. Athena was featured prominently on the Acropolis.
Interestingly, Athena was created by the famed sculptor, Pheidias. Pheidias also sculpted the statues on and inside the Parthenon including another spectacular statue of Athen. He would later create the Temple of Zeus located in Olympia, Greece. The Temple of Zeus (shown below and no longer in existence) is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We’ll visit ancient Olympia on a future excursion.
After crossing through the Propylaea and seeing Athena, one might veer off to the right to visit the ionic-style Temple of Nike – the Greek goddess of Victory. Returning to the front view of Athena, we walk past that large bronze statue. Our view to the right is of the Parthenon and to the left we have the Erechtheion. As I mentioned earlier, The Erechtheion is a sacred Ionic temple made of marble which honored Athena and several other gods and heroes. It’s best known for its porch supported by six Caryatid maiden statues (shown below).
Greek mythology tells the story of Athena defeating Poseidon for control of the city and she is, therefore, featured on the Acropolis. Still, the Greeks worshipped all the Olympians. Inside the Erechteion in the 5th century BCE, we would have seen a sculpture honoring Poseidon where the Greeks could pay tribute and worship the god of the sea.
After visiting Poseidon, we step outside and are now looking at the Erechtheion (below) as it would have appeared on a star-filled night in 432 BCE.
If we were to turn 90 degrees to the left we would see the rearview of Athena looking out to the Port of Athens. To her right is a “sacred olive tree”?
If we continue to turn left for another 90 degrees, we see the Parthenon.
The Parthenon ruins are the star attraction at the present-day Acropolis and this has no doubt been the case since it was first completed in 432 BCE. It is an enormous Doric-style temple once decorated with ornate sculptures and housed a spectacular statue of the goddess Athena.
There is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee which I had the pleasure of visiting recently. Through my virtual tour of the Parthenon and my visit to the “replica” in Nashville, I learned quite a bit about Greek architecture, art, history, and Athena. The Parthenon brings so much of this together in one location and deserves more than a cursory visit. I’ll devote a separate post to the Parthenon in the near future.