Mention the Eastern Mediterranean and one thinks of Greece and the islands in the Aegean Sea. It also invokes a sense of awe for the mythological, for which Greece has much to offer.
At the height of Athenian power, the city led a confederation of cities, opposed to Sparta. An ancient city republic, Athens was a major power in the period before Alexander the great. But as a republic, only citizens can vote though there were many slaves in the city. And the city did not maintain its independence for long. It was incorporated into Alexander’s empire as he marched south and on to Anatolia. Upon his death, Athens was again independent for a while before the Romans emerged. See how its power ebbed and flowed over the centuries?
But throughout the so-called classical age and beyond, the city continued to develop. Today that is manifest in what we would call a,
It was the summer of 2003. No doubt August, but still high summer and an intense one too. It was a 40-minute drive from the airport to the city. For this journey our hotel is in the center of the city not far from the Plaka – the main tourist shopping area of Athens. It happened that we were there while it was a public holiday (feast of assumption), so the roads were quite empty but it was hot – literally at 40°C.
The city was still in the midst of preparing for the 2004 Olympics. The new tramline and express train lines were in progress of being built even as the stadiums and other venues were not complete. Walking past the Plaka, we got to the base of the Acropolis to take some photos of the monuments. There were few other tourists around – since it was combination of being hot and a holiday (we said that right?). Of course the number of shops in the Plaka, mostly selling the same souvenirs such as T-shirts and souvenirs remained open, welcoming you at every turn.
Many see the Acropolis as the symbol of Greece. Not many know that it was a fortress that once laid in utter ruin. Recent restorations for the centennial Olympics had given it a new lease of life. With an 12 Euro ticket back then, you can gain access to the acropolis and 4 other sites within the enclosure. We took our time to explore, but we could not see it all as there was not enough time in half a morning so ration accordingly. One recommendation is to spend time walking all the way to the ruins at the base of the acropolis. You’d see a side of this landmark this way, particularly if you get to this rocky outcrop that gives direct view of its entirety.
The Parthenon was under partial restoration at that time, meaning that we could not take in the whole picture. It was extremely crowded and we had to squeeze our way to the theatre of Dionysus. While it is not in incredibly good shape, the outline of the theatre remains prominent and we can only imagine the plays and comedies that were performed there. History: the entire acropolis was greatly damaged in the late 1800s due to the uprising against Turkey and when Greek nationalists blew up the ammunition store that was on location. Much of the original sculptures were destroyed and only few left.
What would it symbolize
From the top one can get quite a good view over the entire city. The Parthenon and Acropolis were built in the period of prosperity in the middle of the 5th century BC. While in name it was a temple dedicated to Athena (Goddess of wisdom, craft, war etc), it served a more utilitarian purpose as a treasury. Yep, it was the place where money was stored. And it became a church and later on a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Greece.
As the power of Athens grew, its role of being dedicated the worship of the gods intensified. Afterall, it was named after a Goddess right? Today, quite some of the Parthenon’s surviving statues are domiciled in British museum and subject of diplomatic friction between the two countries for its return.
Walking away from the Acropolis, we came to a rocky outcrop from which we had a direct view of the acropolis. Greece was the center of western civilization between 500-100BC. From then on the Romans surpassed them after Alexander’s brief moment of brilliance. Within short distance is the temple of Jupiter (which is in the center of the city). Unremarkable as it seems today, this was originally a temple dedicated to Olympian Zeus, King of the Greek pantheon of gods.
The project started around 520BC and was left in various stages of incompleteness until – guess when? Hadrian the Roman Emperor came, saw and completed the structure with 104 columns. These columns are huge as you can see from the photos, but there are only a few of 4-5 of them left. Left abandoned and pillaged for building material, this is but a shell of its former self (understatement). This temple is about a 10-minute walk from our hotel and had no entrance fees. It was so warm that we had to shelter in the small trees that line the sides of the enclosure. Even the stray dogs were hiding in the shade. If you have time come here for a walk. Otherwise, spend more time on the acropolis!
Even more temples galore!
In the afternoon we traveled to Cape Sounion, where we visited the temple of Poseidon. Approximately 70km from Athens, it is at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula facing the Aegean Sea. You recall the story of a King whose son went to battle the Minotaur? Well the son forgot to put up a white sail as he returned and his father jumped to his death from here. You see, the agreement was to change the sail color to white to indicate his success at slaying the monster. Aegeus was the King’s and the sea was named after him.
Poseidon temple (constructed around 440BC) is situated at the end of the peninsula on a hill. The temple is well preserved and it’s well worth the visit. The views from the temple were great and we think that this structure is the best preserved in all the temples that we visited in Greece. It probably also gave one of the best views…(sorry to repeat but we have to emphasize) the sea god Poseidon’s temple overlooks the stretch of sea where Athenian ships set sail. You need to remember, like some of the oriental religions the Greeks believe in seeking favors from relevant gods of the elements to avoid misfortune.
So for mariners, this was the place to give offerings of sacrifice, gifts and prayers. You want a safe passage in the sea, well go pray at the temple of Poseidon.
Tip: If you are going in the peak season June through September, remember to drink lots of water. And buy them at local minimarts or supermarket too, for the kiosks at the tourist spots are exorbitant. Eat well and try out Greek food, after all the Mediterranean diet is supposed to get you past 100. If you ever want to live that long. No prayers will help you though.
We would find out in the coming days that very little is left of most of the historical buildings in Greece. In the two millennia that has passed since their prime, many had been destroyed in conflicts of major powers burrowing their way through from or on the way to the Balkans. Neglect and lack of funds for maintenance also took their toll. Though restoration efforts had begun yet again in the 1970s, there remains a stagnation of effort. We hope this turns around soon, but the current state of economic and political affairs seems to suggest we might need to wait just a little longer yet.
We explored Athens in depth in August of 2003
Next up, we are headed onto the Peloponnesian peninsula here.