“Does this get on our top ten list?” Emma asks, as I pull all my gear out of my bag. It went from hot to cold in the space of 30 minutes and I need to get warm despite the bright sunshine. The top of the acropolis is very exposed and a cold front is coming in. “we’ll have to consult the list of course” when I don’t reply affirmatively. She’s a consensus builder – never wants to put her own opinion ahead of anyone else.
It’s a top ten for her. A big piece of her childhood is wrapped up in Greek mythology, a subject she knows extensively. This is both an exploration of adult intellect and a comforting childhood memory. I’m less sure it’s a top ten, but I admit it’s terrific being up here, at the spot where recorded western civilization began.
The day started out less magnificently than it ended. We awake at 9:30 – already late. Breakfast is slow and then we putter getting ready. Once we finally meet up in the lobby, we spend 30 minutes deciding what to do. Typically, I have a plan, and I do have a list of things to do. But we want to make sure we save our best weather for the hike up the Acropolis and a few other outdoor things.
We are really arguing about what exactly the weather is going to do – a pointless endeavor in Athens in December. It causes Amanda and I to have a quick fight, but we get over it and decide to head for the Acropolis in the cold but light rain.
‘This way’ I say confidently, but that confidence wanes as the entrance I expect to see fails to appear where I think it should be. I realize the map I was using was oriented with North to the bottom of the page, which spun me around and we are exactly opposite where we need to be. I look down the road to the right and see Hadrian’s Arch, which I has spotted the night before. It’s one of the areas we want to see.
“Change of plans, everyone’ and instead we visit the Temple of Zeus / Hadrians Arch first. Right next to a 4 lane plus trolleybus street is the Arch that once stood over the largest road from outside the city into the center. The arch says on one side ‘This is the city of Theseus’ referring to the old Athens of Greek origin. And on the other it sayd ‘This is the city of Hadrian’ referring to the new city of Roman construction from about 125 A.D.
More interestingly, just beyond Hadrian’s Arch is the Temple of Zeus/Jupiter that was started in classic Greek times but finished almost 500 years later by Hadrian. It was the largest temple in Athens and only a few columns remain including one that blew over in a gale just a few decades ago.
Lily gets goofy and sings songs from Hercules the Disney movie. Amanda needs a break to fix her boots. There is almost no one here, it’s like we have the place to ourselves. It’s still cold, and we are still on the wrong side of the Acropolis (yes you can get in from either side, but supposedly cameras are allowed only through the main gate.) Instead we go to the Greek and Roman Agoras.
We decide not to stop at the Roman Agora. It’s a small area, decently excavated, but only the foundations are exposed, no buildings are reconstructed. And it’s easily visible from above. We can spend more time at the Greek Agora. The clouds are parting and the skys are becoming brighter. It’s about 2:30, and we know a lot of places close at 3pm so we move quickly.
The Greek Agora was a ‘gathering place’ or ‘Assembly’ and was the town center for most purposes. Large towns and all cities had Agora’s but Athen’s was particularly large. It would have been busy and congested (at least for ~450BC) when it was at it’s zenith.
What remain are a ton of foundations and a few monuments, but not much else. Each god had an altar on which donations were given and around which different kids of discussion or commerce would happen. The altar of Zeus is where Socrates was written to have done much of his discussion. As a philosophy major, this is a pretty big event for me. I didn’t study the ancients much as I preferred contemporary philosophy more, but it nearly provokes tears in me to think the foundation of much of our Western culture was discussed first here.
I spend a little time with Lily and Emma trying to understand how developmentally important Socrates was. Like many first ideas, it’s hard to understand why it’s such a big deal because we now take the concept for granted so deeply that we can’t even imagine what it was like before the idea existed. I try to explain that he is the father of questioning ideas, challenging the status quo, and deducing truth. Maybe bits of it will stick…
Emma is more excited to see the Temple of Hephastus, the god of the forge and ironwork. It’s the most complete temple we have seen. It’s nearly entirely reconstructed from original pieces, which conveys the power of these buildings in a way we hadn’t experienced. “Daddy, can you name all twelve Gods of olympus?’ Emma asks. I get about 10 including a guess at Hephestus since we are here at his temple. “pretty good’ she says. ‘Everyone always forgets Artemis and Demeter’
The other large building, completely reconstructed in the fifties and a Roman era building in the first place, was the Stoa of Attacus. It’s called the first shopping mall and has dozens of small booths under a covered roof. A Muslim Israeli with weak but eager english, asks Emma questions as we pass each fresco “who was this guy?’ ‘Poseidon’ . ‘What is this girl called’ (Athena). ‘What do you study?’ (I’m in High School). He’s nice enough.
The museum workers blow a whistle and usher us to the exits. It’s 3pm and the Agora is closed. We saw most of what we wanted to see. As we exit, we pass over graffiti covered train tracks that pass right next to foundations from Classic Athens. It’s cool seeing the mash-up of millennia of progress.
On our way back Emma and Lily buy some backpacks as souvenirs and we trudge around the others side of the Acropolis – the one we meant to be at in the morning. It’s sunny enough that we are unzipping our coats and taking off the hats that have kept us warm all day. We’re a little tired, but we’ll get some coffee soon enough.
Amanda says ‘what if they don’t close at 3pm like the other ruins. Maybe they are open?’ and runs off to check. The website said it closed at 3pm, I had checked it before but nothing in Greece runs very close to published standards. She comes back ‘it’s open, should we do it?’. It feels like forever ago that we sat in the hotel lobby wondering when the perfect weather moment would be to see the Acropolis.
And here we are under clear sunny skies with Emma wondering about our Top ten list from the top of Western Civilizations most important historical site. She is positively beaming as we enter the hill that was transformed from a rocky perch safe from local thieves and invaders to the center of art and thought by Perecles in the 400’s BC.
The Acropolis has been inhabited in the 6th Millennium B.C. and with it’s own source of water was easy to defend from attackers. It was a natural place to build a city-fort. There are platforms from many buildings prior to the Acropolis below our feet, probably more that are undiscovered. We know there were at least three parthenons just for Athena.
But the Acropolis we know today, with it’s handful of major buildings, was the product of money, a benevolent dictator Perecles and a post-war peace that opened an era of art, thought and economic expansion for Athens. Athens and it’s Delian league of Greek cities including rival Sparta, defeated the Persians on the coasts of Modern Turkey in a rout so big it demoralized them for decades. The cities of the Aegean sea paid huge money into Athens as tribute and for protection.
Though the war with Sparta would diminish it’s power, nearly the next whole century was an unparalleled age of growth for the Athenian polity. The Acropolis grew with it. The adorable temple of Nike (victory) at the entrance makes us all smile as we walk into a steep stairway with columns that soar high above us.
The Erechtheion – a word I can neither pronounce nor spell – is famous for it’s Caryatid columns of maidens, which more properly (and easily spelled) were called Kourai by the greeks. Though there is a sad story about the women of Caryae being persecuted in the Persian war, this is most likely a Roman myth added for drama. Korai were women in perfect form, honored by the Greeks who thought a lot about ideals and perfection. What we see are replicas – the real ones are safely stored in the Acropolis museum away from the acid rain.
And of course the Parthenon. It is the high point of art for this period, both the doric architecture and the sculpture (all of which has been moved for preservation.) There are cranes and scaffolding on some of the walls, but enough ls left to appreciate it’s perfection. I’m psyched to see the sculptures tomorrow in the Acropolis museum before we leave.
And the view. The view on all sides is gorgeous. White painted buildings of Athens stretch to the mountains and sea on all sides. The sun is setting, and it gets colder and colder, but the light warms and glows. We can see the Temple of Zeus where we started in the morning, and the temple of Hephestaus. “I wish I could experience what it was really like – like Westworld but for ancient Greece’ Amanda says, and Emma agrees.
At night we hop in the roof top Jacuzzi with a view of the Parthenon. There is no one with us (have I said how much I like Europe in the winter?) We finish the top ten conversation and I agree ‘It definitely belongs top ten but maybe only number ten’ I say. It’s missing a sense of adventure that we like in our favorite spots. We are basically walking an outdoor museum. But it’s amazing for sure, and worthy of a revisit.
Another great post Dave. Living this trip. Just out of curiosity, what is in the top 10?
I have an upcoming post about it I promise!