Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lost in Antiquity

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
 A residential neighbourhood, street signs in an unintelligible alphabet, three oddly dressed soldiers goose-stepping along the pavement. What is wrong with this picture? Everything. Twenty minutes out of the hotel and I was lost. I had begun the day bright and early; packed a hat, water bottle, walking shoes, camera; checked the map, guide book instructions and the view from my window; then strode purposefully out into the Athenian morning. The wrong way. Ah well – on the positive side, I had an interesting glimpse into the early Sunday morning activities of Athenian residents (hosing the sidewalk, walking the dog, waiting at the bus stop), and a close-up view of the changing of the guard at the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A peek of the Parthenon viewed through the
massive columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
My goal was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in mainland Greece, over a kilometre in circumference, and fronted by a massive Roman Hadrian’s Gate. You would think it would be hard to miss. Pausing only to marvel at a lovely scribbly gum growing on the roadside (*moment of homesickness*) I finally made my way to this huge temple standing, or rather lying fallen (as my trusty guidebook put it) in an open field by the side of a highway. It was begun in the late 6th century BC and completed seven hundred years later by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was a great traveller. You can find triumphal Hadrian’s Gates all over the ancient world; and walls of course – Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England illustrating how far he roamed. It seems he was a fan of Greek classical culture, and Athens in particular. I took a photo for a pair of Spanish tourists, and was berated (in Spanish) by la mujer for not doing it right. A chance to practice my Spanish!

Ionic - Temple of Erechtheion

Doric - The Parthenon

But before we go any further, I need to get straight the question of the ‘orders’ of classical Greek architecture, or confusion could ensue. It’s all about the capitals, folks. DORIC are the plain ones, perfected on the Parthenon. IONIC are curlier; and CORINTHIAN are particularly ornate. There are other distinguishing features of these ‘orders’, but that’s for another time. I just wanted to make sure that was all straight before I ventured further.

Corinthian - Temple of Olympian Zeus
Which I did. Towards the ultimate goal of every tourist in Athens – the Acropolis and its treasures. The day was warming up, as Greek days tend to do, and the crowds were gathering. Being Sunday, entrance to all the ancient sites was free. The first decision was: into the New Acropolis Museum to see the Parthenon marbles first, or the real thing first? Actually, the marbles in the museum are in fact the real thing, brought inside for preservation; but the Parthenon itself beckoned from the rocky hilltop. I chose....the museum, and I think it was sensible. I had done enough research to know what I was supposed to be seeing – which turned out to be a lucky thing, because I can report that there is very little left of the Parthenon marbles. They are badly eroded and very fragmented, and despite being cleverly and beautifully displayed in a purpose built museum, somewhat underwhelming. I could even begin to think that it was a good thing Lord Elgin snaffled the ones he did in 1801 and put them safely indoors (but I won’t say that out loud around here).

Like all sites which are extremely old, imagination is a key element in appreciating them. When you’re looking back 2,500 years, you need to get used to phrases like ‘foundational suggestions’ and ‘probably’ and ‘slight remains’ and – ‘there is not much to see but a great deal to imagine’. In the case of the remaining Parthenon marbles, the have hopeful-sounding signs like the one on an unprepossessing lump of marble that could be anything, saying: ‘fragment of Zeus’s hand holding a thunderbolt’; or on an almost eroded-smooth panel: ‘Greek soldiers disembarking from a ship’. Really? And in between there are any number of narky little mentions of the ‘BM’ and ‘Elgin’ (not even allowed the dignity of his title).

My little Roman Aphrodite: just like the one in the museum
The room which displays the Parthenon marbles is in fact the whole top floor of the new museum, and has dramatic floor-to-ceiling views of the Acropolis itself. The top floor of the building is angled differently to the rest of it, to align with the Parthenon. I actually enjoyed the rest of the displays more than the squabbled-over marbles. They have housed here the original Caryatids (except the one Elgin pinched) – of which more later. There are also numerous bits and pieces from the site, which has basically been picked clean of anything moveable. I saw a lovely little Roman-era ‘unfinished Aphrodite’ which looked just like mine, except even more unfinished; and lots of Grecian urns and so on, many like mine too (mine were dug up in Israel/Palestine).

Looking down on the Theatre of Dionysus with the
New Acropolis Museum behind
Then out into the heat of the day and on to the mighty rock of the Acropolis itself, where the first site you come to is a theatre, that of the god Dionysus – yes, the very popular god of wine and ecstasy. The theatre here is the birthplace of Greek, and thus western, drama: the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed here (though possible not in such a grand theatre as it later became).

There is a second (smaller) theatre – the Odeion of Herodes Atticus – which is used as a working theatre today; and a small fragmentary shrine to Asclepius (of medical fame); and then the long hot slog to the top of the Acropolis, rewarded with the huge ‘gate house’ or Propylaia and several thousand eager tourists. Perched to the right is the exquisite little Temple to Athena Nike, looking out high above the city and the coast. Today the air was clear and the views extraordinary.

The beautiful Temple of Athena Nike - my favourite
and views to the coast on a clear, hot day
And then through the Propylaia and on to the top of the rock, scraped back to the bedrock by 19th century ‘restoration’, and the effort to ignore the throbbing crowds and to take in – the Parthenon. Even with the crowds, the scaffolding, the cranes and the complete stripping of all its decoration, the building is immensely beautiful. As many have said more eloquently than me, there is something about the proportions of the thing that strike a note of precise harmony. It just looks great. Only the Taj Mahal comes close, in my humble experience, and the Taj has the advantage of being intact. This cannot be said of the Parthenon, which is certainly still a complete ruin, despite all those decades of rebuilding. I am grateful to have seen it.

Me at the...where was it?...oh yes, the Parthenon!
Amongst all those tourists on the site, I chose at random a passing couple to ask them to take a photograph of me on my camera – de rigueur.  In all those thousands, I lit upon Australians (from Armidale).

Porch of the Caryatids

The other building still intact (sort of) on the Acropolis is the Temple of Erechtheion (one of the names of the god Poseidon, god of the sea and Athena’s rival). This is said to be the site of all kinds of ancient wonders, including the contest between Athena and Poseidon for control of Athens, when his summoning of the sea was judged less useful than her summoning of the olive tree (a contest which is the subject of one of the pediment sculptures of the Parthenon itself – see the BM!) The Erechtheion also boasts the ‘porch of the Caryatids’, a porch held up by six sculpted maidens. Four and the remains of a fifth are in the New Acropolis Museum (see above), and a sixth in the dastardly BM. Copies are in place, showing how they looked. (I have seen a weirdly similar thing on a back entrance to The Hermitage in St Petersburg).

Temple of Hephaestus in the old agora
You may have thought I was daunted by now, but no! Down I went, following the old procession trail which led up to the Acropolis, into the ancient Agora at the bottom of the hill. This site is scattered, jumbled and fragmented, but was the place where real Athenian life throbbed. This was where Socrates would have buttonholed his fellow citizens and plied them with his questions, and where Plato and later Aristotle would have walked. It was the marketplace, the government offices, the gymnasium – the full panoply of everyday life in a Greek polis. My philosophy lecturer at Griffith in 2009, Dr JM, who was fluent in ancient Greek, would wax lyrical about the agora and all it meant to the Greeks. Today there is one reasonably well-preserved temple left standing, the Temple of Hephaestus (with a barrel vaulted roof from its time as a Byzantine church); and a restored stoa (marketplace – the shops, actually) which is now a small museum with some fascinating bits and pieces. I never realised how huge a Spartan shield was.

So as you can tell, I had a busy day. I did break for a Greek beer (brand: Mythos). By mid-afternoon (what  with the heat and the beer) it was time to find the hotel. I wandered through the narrow streets of Pláka, passing a Roman Forum with a very interesting ‘Tower of the Winds’ (a kind of combination compass, sundial, weather vane and water clock, as the Rough Guide has it), the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, and a very old mosque and medressa. And another gum tree. I finally made it back to base, and a welcome swim.  Then I discovered how sunburnt I was, but you don’t want to know about that.

Head of a Triton, from the Odeion of Agrippa,
old Agora, c.150 AD


  1. What a fabulous time! Isn't Athens magic.

    Will always remember when we visited in the early '70's. Qantas still flew to Athens in those days (what an obvious route for an Aussie carrier) and used to arrive at something like 4.30am. So as our taxi bumped through the outer suburbs our first glimpse of the Acropolis was with the first rays of sun illuminating it, the city below still shrouded in deep blue. In contrast, the Parthenon glowed in pink and gold.

    Yes, Atehns = Magic. So glad you are enjoying it.

  2. Hi Harry! Lovely memories. I saw the Parthenon at dawn too this morning - because I went to breakfast at 6.30 am and the sun didn't rise until 7 am. Not quite as romantic as your first vision, but still...