#5: Acropolis, Athens
It’s been a while since I worked on my UNESCO World Heritage Site series so let’s get back to it with an easily recognizable site – The Acropolis in Athens.
Entering Athens, you are walled in by buildings and can easily lose your orientation but before long you turn a corner and there on an imposing plateau is the Acropolis. The complex of temples including the Parthenon atop the rocky hill was originally filled with great art, commanding architecture and human activity in Classical Greece. I could write long posts about each of the site’s elements but I’ll try to give an overview here.
While there had been religious buildings and fortification on the rock for centuries already, the greatest construction effort was completed under the rule of Pericles during the height of the Greek empire (460-430 BC). Visitors would have entered the site through a grand gateway known as the Propylaea. Once inside, along the right toward the Parthenon would have been the Brauroneion, a temple dedicated to Artemis protector of pregnant women and childbirth, and the Chalcotheke which is believed to be the Parthenon treasury. Left from the entrance was a complex religious building called the Erechtheion which honored Athena as Protectress of Athens, Poseidon as rival for Athens and several ancient heroes. Today the building is most recognizable for a porch of columns shaped like maidens known as Caryatids. The small Temple of Nike could be found to the right of the Propylaea before entering the site and is largely restored today. A Greek and a Roman amphitheater were carved into the South side of the Acropolis rock.
The Parthenon was dedicated to Athena, the Patron Goddess of Athens, and was believed to house a 40 foot tall ivory and gold statue of her. The outer structure of Doric columns is 228.0 x 101.4 feet in size and has several “optical refinements” such as bulging columns and a bowed base so that the structure’s geometry looks perfect to viewers. The triangular pediment facing the Propylaea depicted Athena winning over the city of Athens with her gift of an olive tree while the opposite pediment described her birth from Zeus’ head. Square panels, or metopes, depicting mythical battles adorned the exterior of the Parthenon. The interior cella was decorated with a continuous carved frieze of riders, priests, and pilgrims completing the annual Panathenaic procession from the cemetery through the market and on to the Acropolis.
The Parthenon has been attacked, repurposed and robbed several times. The video below from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture does a good job chronicling the destruction.
You’ll also note that the video above spends a significant amount of time highlighting the removal of art collectively known as the Elgin marbles. There is strong movement in Greece to return these sculptures from the British Museum to Athens. The recently opened Acropolis Museum in Athens displays copies of all the Parthenon sculptures for context but I assume would prefer to have the originals. If you can’t see them in either museum, there is a great virtual exhibit available online that lets you tour the Parthenon frieze.
While virtual recreations and artistic reconstructions are helpful, I still find it difficult to imagine the Acropolis during the Golden Age of Athens. As fantastic as I picture it, the Acropolis was probably more colorful, more cluttered with statues and more imposing.