Medea & Other Friends I Made in Athens (Part 3)

5 September 2022. Part 1: The Acropolis.

What a difference a decent night’s sleep makes! Today’s journey is to the Acropolis, the new Acropolis Museum, and the Greek Agora. I woke up after Paul came back from an early morning jaunt to the Acropolis. He was the first tourist there this morning when it opened. Only the workers were there when he climbed up to the top, so he had the entire place to himself for a while. The nice thing about that was that he was able to purchase our tickets so that we wouldn’t have to stand in line with the tour bus crowds – crowds that we had hoped would be thinned out by early September. Remember when I posted that Greece was having a record tourism year? Yeah. That.

Our tickets were good for the Acropolis of Athens and North & South Slopes, Ancient Agora of Athens Museum & Ancient Agora of Athens, Archaeological Kerameikos & Museum of Kerameikos, Hadrian’s Library, Lykeion Archaeological Site, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Roman Agora (Forum) of Athens. That was far more trekking than we had time to accomplish on this trip. In fact, we did so much today – focusing on the Acropolis, South Slope, New Acropolis Museum, and Athenian Agora – that this day’s summary has had to be divided into several posts.

The Holy Metropolitan Church of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, Mitropoleos Square, Athens. Michael P. and I thought that the plaza had just been washed. But it always looks wet because the marble is highly polished.
(Image: Neil K, Liverpool, UK. 2022)

We had to content ourselves with external views of the Roman Forum/Agora (which we had seen several times yesterday), Hadrian’s Library (bits of which are scattered throughout the Plaka), and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Other things, such as the National Museum, will just have to wait for a future trip (and this last item hurt – a lot).

While the rest of us were getting ready, Paul zipped down to a coffee shop across the street and brought us up some tiropita, which is a cheese pie with a crispy phyllo wrapping. We then went downstairs and headed off towards the Acropolis. On the way, we stopped off at Piazza Duomo on Mitropoleos Square for coffee, tea, and a very light breakfast. I had the open brios bun with sweet mizithra, honey & nuts, which was way too much food given the amount of exertion ahead of me. The fare was pricey and the service slow, but the quality and atmosphere were very good.

Paul and Michael P. once more walked to the Acropolis while Aaron and I waited for a taxi. I probably could have walked it but, given the amount of walking ahead of me today, I really didn’t want to press my luck. While we were waiting for our taxi, we saw a couple of older taxi drivers trade insults and almost have a throwdown in the middle of the street. Life in the big city, part deux. Our cab soon arrived and within a few minutes we were dropped off at the base of Theorias Street once again.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus (Ωδείο Ηρώδου του Αττικού), as seen from the pathway up to the top of the Acropolis.
Philopappos Hill (Λόφος Φιλοπάππου) and the Philopappos Monument (Μνημείο Φιλοπάππου) are seen in the top center right.

To get up to the top of the Acropolis, one must climb, and climb … and climb. This gets you to the point where the real climbing begins. The stairs and paths take one above the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still used as a performance space. When we were there, they were doing sound checks for a performance by the Vienna Mozart Orchestra to be held the next evening of selections from three operas by Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Idomeneo, and Don Giovanni. That must have been a spectacular experience! Punk doyenne Patti Smith performed there on 25 June, and Florence + the Machine played there on the Autumnal Equinox in 2019. Can you imagine?

Entering the Propylaia near the top of the Acropolis. These steps lead to some ramps at the top that actually take you through the gateway. The ramps are easy to negotiate, but getting to them requires a lot of stair climbing. Wear comfortable footwear (not flipflops).

I managed with the help of a cane to make it up through the Propylaia to the top of the Acropolis under my own power – a lifelong ambition of mine (it was a point of pride that I did not use the new elevator).

Aaron kept an eye on me on the lower level, while Paul escorted me to the top. They were basically running interference for me with the somewhat disorderly crowd (there were still some uncontrolled kids in the mix), as well as pointing out potential trip hazards (of which there were a few).

These niches in the bastion wall below the Temple of Nike purposefully expose cyclopian blocks dating back to the late Bronze Age of Mycenaean rule. It has been suggested that the blocks were displayed
as part of an ancestral rite of the ancient city.

The Propylaia (Προπύλαια) or “Gates” is the magnificent entrance to the Acropolis (as a side note, I told the boys that I needed to find a new descriptive word, as “magnificent” had simply lost its meaning in the face of so much, er, magnificence). The existing structure was commissioned by Pericles in 438 BCE, and construction was carried out from 437 to 432 BCE when it ceased, leaving the structure incomplete. It has been said that the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE was the reason, but in truth Pericles may have just run out of money to finish the project due to the cost overruns that likely resulted from the numerous design changes during construction.

Like most of the classical buildings in Athens, the Propylaia suffered greatly under the hand of both Christians and Ottomans alike. The Turks used the Propylaia as a munitions dump during their war with the Venetians. The Parthenon was likewise used for this purpose but, unlike the Sanctuary of Athena Parthenos, the Propylaia was not hit with a Venetian shell that set off the munitions contained within.

Paul and I on the top of the Acropolis,
east side of the Propylaia. Below, the approach to the Propylaia and the gate itself.

“Earth proudly wears the Parthenon as the best gem upon her zone.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
On the West end of the Sanctuary of Athena Parthenos (Παρθένος Ἀθηνᾶ). L to R: Me and my 3 sons,” Aaron, Paul, and Michael P.

I have to admit that when I gained the top of the Acropolis the breath caught in my throat and tears sprang to my eyes. I’ve written before about how emotionally exhausting it is to see so many things that I’ve only been able to read about for much of my life. When you first lay eyes upon the great works that live atop the Athenian rock, you are keenly aware of the enormous weight of history pressing down upon you. Here is a podcast discussing why the Parthenon was built.

I should note that we were blessed with great weather today. Although it was mostly sunny, it was slightly cooler than yesterday, and there was a stiff breeze blowing. This was particularly noticeable up on the rock, where the Greek flag was snapping energetically in the wind. Still, I drained my 1L water bottle before the day was half over.

The Parthenon was (and remains) the home of the Goddess Athena. And humanity has been the worst of guests in that house, from the burning of the Acropolis by the Persians to the vandal-ism by Germanic invaders, from the depredations of the early Church fathers to the contempt and war of the Ottomans and Venetians until, finally, the rape by Lord Elgin (who should have known better) and its erosion by modern-day acid rain and smog. Slowly, but surely, the damages of centuries are finally being healed by dedicated archaeologists, scientists, artisans, artists, and historians. Remember this the next time you hear someone complain about the scaffolding.

Pensive Athena, relief sculpture from the Acropolis, c. 460 BCE; in the New Acropolis Museum, Athens.

“As you enter the temple [of Athena] that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx – the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia – and on either side of the helmet are Griffins in relief . . . The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medousa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Nike about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erikhthonios. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind.”

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 24. 5
Replica of Pheidias’ (Φειδίας) statue of Athena Parthenos (Παρθένος Ἀθηνᾶ), Nashville Parthenon. (Image: Leslie Rodriguez, 2018)
The sacred olive tree of Athena, located in the temenos on the west side of the Erechtheion. It was Athena’s gift of the olive tree that ensured Her victory over Poseidon in Their contest to become the Patron deity of Athens. Legend says that since that time the people of Athens have ensured that an olive tree always grows on this spot.

Located on the north side of the Acropolis, the Erechtheion is perhaps the oddest piece of (barely) surviving architecture from Classical Greece (photos below). The building has been substantially modified (read “trashed”) over the centuries and appears to be an agglomeration of structures that served the purpose of providing solidity to the founding mythologies of the Athenian polis – from the grave of Kekrops, the founding king of Athens, to a place housing the original wooden statue of Athena, a home for various significant cult objects, and an enclosure displaying the place where Poseidon’s trident struck the earth in His contest with Athena for primacy in the city.

The Erechtheion, looking northeast. The famous porch of the Korai (or Karyatids) on the right
supposedly covers the grave of the legendary King Kekrops.
The base of the monumental bronze statue by Pheidias of
Athena Promachos (Ἀθηνᾶ Πρόμαχος, “Athena who fights in the front line”). 
An illustration of what the statue of Athena Promachos may have looked like next to the Parthenon (from the Assassin’s Creed video game).

Finally (for the Acropolis, that is – I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that the accounting of today’s adventures is a multi-part posting), I would be remiss if I failed to mention the small temple dedicated to the Goddesses Athena and Nike (Ναός Αθηνάς Νίκης) that juts forward of the Propylaia on the west end of the Acropolis (photos below). The next post will cover our descent to the south slope of the Acropolis.

Small bronze statue of winged Nike (Νίκη), Goddess of Victory and attendant of Athena. Purchased by the author in the Plaka, Athens.

— Να εχεις μια ωραια μερα. —

Leave a Reply

Powered by

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: