The smell of the meat markets in the midsummer heat is pungent and overwhelming as I walk along the dry, dusty streets. The walls of the city here, at the base of such beauty, are filled with advertisements, both old and new, and modern graffiti. Further on, as I get closer, the streets open out and begin to feel friendlier: there are restaurants and gifts shops filled with vases, masks and plates, men and women with sun-drenched skin sit in front of their shop selling their wares to people like me.
Often I would stop and look around – there is a sense of neglected, disordered beauty to these things - but today I want to push towards the top before the heat of the sun becomes too intense. Athens in midsummer is very hot - over forty degree today – in the narrow confines of the winding roads nearly oppressive; generally tour guides do not recommend trying to ascend the hill unless you make an early start. I love this city with its dirt and dust, the dense smog which clouds the skylines, the roaming stray dogs and cats, the sweltering days and cool evenings where one can sit in a cafe by the street with tea and watch the city walk by unnoticed. Athens and I have a long and flawed love affair that goes back decades: sometimes it is enjoyed briefly, sometimes over time appreciated but now, today, with definite intent.
There are several routes to the top of the Acropolis; on the south and west sides they have created wide avenues which wind up towards the Propylaea, the fortress’s gateway, lined with sweet trees and cafes, and passes by the magnificent Theatre of Dionysus. I walked up a narrower pathway on the northern side of the edifice covered by trees; slowly the small shops and restaurants filter out onto a broader path that curves past the Aereopagus and towards the entrance.
The entrance to the Acropolis is the Propylaea, which was completed in 432 BC under Pericles' instructions before the beginning of the Archidamian war. Before ascent it is possible to stand between the two mighty edifices and allow the crowds to disappear so that one can recreate in the mind how it might have looked when built. The image is familiar and testimony to the obvious influence of the Classical on the modern city. For me it is a moment to be enjoyed slowly, not rushed; it is a near sacred moment to catch one’s breath and clear one’s mind.
To the right is the small temple of Athene Nike, a memorial to the Pan-Hellenic victory over the Persian Empire which left the city destroyed. Constructed in white marble and heavily restored over many decades, it stands looking towards the gulf, tetrastyle with four Ionic columns, as a symbol of their hope for future victory. Only part of the fronton still exists, most of the reliefs are now housed within the archaeological museum; the cella itself is empty of its winged statues. If you stand as close to the edge as you can get you can look down on the pathways and the Theatre of Herod Atticus, a later Roman addition finished in AD 161. Yet it is the Theatre of Dionysus, below the Parthenon itself, which captures my spirit: this is where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were performed, where the city gathered in celebration and watched some of the greatest works of art ever produced, where ideas and beauty melted into one. Even here though there was ancient restoration work and additions throughout the classical period. All things are subject to change.
To the left, on the north side of the mount, is the Erectheion. On its south side is the famous Porch of the Caryatids, those draped maidens and columns, daughters of Artemis. It is incredible to think that this temple, built between 421 and 406 BC, finished its construction as the city stumbled towards defeat: the Caryatids were an impromptu addition to mask the fact that the city could not afford the original structure. Today the columns are replicas and the originals are housed in the museum below.
The Erectheum was a temple to Athena Polias and Posidon Erectheus, marking the spot where goddess played against god with olive tree and trident, and is the alleged burial spot of Cecrops and Erectheus, two early kings of the city whose children Athenians claimed to be in poetry. For me the temple symbolises the importance of these men and mythologies to the city; that when Athenian fathers told their children the foundation stories of the city they could look up at the Acropolis and see the spot where Ericthonius, the child of the virgin Athena, was born from his box and where Cecrops’ daughters, in terror at the infant wrapped in the serpent’s coil, flung themselves to their deaths.
Then between them there is the famous Temple of the maiden goddess and patron Athene, the Parthenon itself. It dominates the mound as it dominates the city and is regarded as the most perfect example of a Doric order temple. Built over fifteen years between 447 BC and 432 BC, it stands eight collades by seventeen, the inner rooms – now exposed to the light of sun – housed the statue of Athena and the city treasury. The building housed in its original form ninety-two metopes (the marble panels which filled the space between two triglyphs), which depicted the struggle between Olympian gods and the children of Gaia (east), the Centauromachy (south), the Amazonomachy (west) and the sack of Troy by the Greeks (north), all representing the truimph of order over chaos and form some of the tapestry of story-telling which was part of the building’s function; now they are in poor condition, destroyed over history or housed in the British Museum in London as the Parthenon (or Elgin) marbles.
The east pediment depicts the birth of Athena, whole and in full armour, from the head of her father Zeus; the west side depicts the struggle between Athena and Poseidon. After 2,500 years of misjudgement, war, pollution and vandalism both literal and figurative that there is such splendour to be found in the whole and the detail is incredible.
The famous statue of Athena Parthenos, in ivory and gold, and built by Phidias, would have stood here, perhaps now the most famous image of the goddess. There is a well-known story, told by Thucydides that Pericles, one of the ten strategoi of the city, preparing for war calculated the wealth of Athens: the city received six hundred talents in tribute from their allies, and there was six thousand of coined silver in the Acropolis but in the event of extremity, he calculated, they could take off the plates of gold with which were upon the statue of Athena Parthenos; these weighed forty talents, were of refined gold, and was all detachable. Later Aristophanes’ Lystristata as she absurdly strives to stop the war against the Spartans, gathers the women folk and forms a blockade to the Acropolis. The stories tell us that the primary purpose was not cultic but political and economic. It not only represented the might of Athens but it was the wealth of Athens.
Here, perhaps appropriately, above it all I think: what is the enduring allure of ancient sites? So much of our understanding of the ancient world lies on paper that to see a temple helps us make sense in our mind of the ancient world; to walk amongst the columns and marble of the classical world makes it a reality. Our understanding of the ancient world is often intellectual rather than emotional. We can think through its world but do we always feel that world? Like a trip to the theatre, it is a chance for us to engage emotionally with another and also ourselves. Yet there is something more. The Acropolis is perhaps one of the structures from the ancient world that has been recreated most often by artists to show what it might have looked like originally. Colourful, vibrant, its friezes intact this Parthenon is very different from the pale reality I have before me.
As a teenager I had above my bed a map of the Acropolis as it would have been in the 5th century, I had two framed pictures of the modern site hanging on a wall; probably more than any other ancient site, except the Coliseum and Pyramids at Giza, it exists in our consciousness but it has come to symbolise a nation and its proud heritage. So common is the image that it can be possible to look at it without appreciating its undoubted magnificence. Its very fame can obscure its importance, its ubiquity its relevance.
To imagine, to hypothesize, to give one’s mind the room to roam around such cerebral challenge: visiting classical sites is not always easy but it is rewarding. Especially here. It is also the fact that it isn’t perfect, that it holds the ravages of time that provides an allure, and within that imperfection lies an aesthetic authenticity – and maybe it is only a perception - so that the ruin is more attractive than a recreation. Perhaps in a world where truth is so easily masked there is a certain comfort in these living museums of another culture.
Despite the crowds, which are constant, and the sun – although there is a slight breeze which takes the edge off its light – it is here above the haze of modern Athens that one can feel an amazing sense of space; I have a sense of being above it and removed: the panoramic view of the modern Athens is just that, a view. There is a divide between the city, the Piraeus and the mountains beyond and us. You can turned around, away from the modern towards the ancient, and be immersed by the beauty of its buildings.
Inspiring and iconic, the Acropolis is now so many things that it evades simple definition. Our understanding of the Greek world sometimes begins and ends with Classical Athens, and the Parthenon is part of that cultural appreciation. Despite its mark Athens burnt bright but briefly from the end of the Persian Wars to its collapse after a generational struggle with Sparta, less than one hundred years and before other powers rose and fell in a ephemeral world.
The chaotic and splendid Acropolis, standing above the city and for a while the world, is yet still our entrance to understanding the aesthetics of Athens and the Classical world; it is the symbiotic relationship between art and society, more evidence of the marriage of mythology and politics; it also contains the story of a wider Greece and maybe even further beyond in its telling of building, destruction and reinvention over hundreds of years and hundreds of years again. Maybe cynical, perhaps even manipulative, certainly exceptional, for all the complexities that can be imposed upon it, it was and does remain an accomplished thing of beauty.