By Mary Rowland
The glorious Parthenon is a Doric temple constructed between 447 and 432 BC by Iktinos and Kallicrates under the direction of Phidias, the Michelangelo of the Periclean Age. Constructed of Pentelic marble, it held Phidias' chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena which stood over 36 ft. high. The Parthenon architects wrote the book on mathematical precision, grace and entasis, the art of curving a form to create the visual illusion of perfection.
Look closely, and you'll see that there's not a straight line to be seen: the foundation is curved to prevent an illusion of drooping caused by straight horizontals. The columns bend inward, and those on the corners are wider to complete the illusion of perfect form. Above the 46 columns of the outer colonnade are the remnants of the Doric frieze: the east side portrayed the Battle of Giants and Gods, the south the Lapiths and Centaurs the west the Greeks and the Amazons, and the north the Battle of Troy. Little remains of the pediment sculptures of the gods. Above the interior colonnade, 40ft up, is a unique feature: the exquisite 524 ft. continuous Ionic frieze designed by Phidias showed the quadrennial Panathenaic Procession in which the cult statue of Athena in the Erechtheion was brought a crown and a sacred garment, or pelops. After seeing it at eye level in the British Museum, it's startling to realize how hard it must have been to see in situ.
The Parthenon, used as a church and then a mosque, remained intact until 1687, when a Venetian bomb hit the Turks' powder stores and blew the roof off. The 1894 earthquake struck another blow. Entrance within is forbidden to save on wear and tear. The work of preserving the building from smog and undoing the damage of previous restorations has been ongoing since 1983. While discovering how to use hot, pressurized carbon dioxide to re-harden stone surfaces, Greek engineers have learned about ancient techniques and are reconstructing as much of the temple as possible.
In ancient times the now bare rock of the Acropolis was thronged with exquisite Attic statues, many of which are now in this little museum tucked behind the Parthenon. The Archaic works are exceptional: painted pediments from the 6thcentury BC Hecatompedon (or 'Old' Parthenon) and from the Temple of Athena Polias, with three impressive snake men; the smiling Calf-Bearer (Moschoforos) from 570 BC carrying his offering to the goddess; lovely Kore statues, votives to Athena, and each with her own personality; and the Rampin Horseman. There are several remarkable panels of the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin forgot, and the pollution-scarred Caryatids. At the time of writing, a new state-of-the-art museum is being built on Mitseon Street, with Acropolis views and space for the Elgin marbles, fingers crossed.
The last great temple of the Acropolis the Erechtheion, was completed only in 395 BC after the Peloponnesian War. This complex Ionic temple with three porches and none of the usual Classical colonnades owes its idiosyncrasies to the much older holies of holies it encompasses -the sanctuaries of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Kekrops and the olive tree planted by the goddess -yet such is the genius of its structure that it appears harmonious. The southern porch facing the Parthenon is supported by six Caryatids (now casts), designed to complement the Parthenon opposite. Lord Elgin nicked one; the other girls, said to weep every night for their missing sister, rotted in the smog before they were rescued.
Behind the east portico, with its six Ionic columns the cello was divided up to serve both Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheos, and held the primitive cult statue of Athena Polias, who wore the pelops and had the biggest juju of all. Down the steps is the Erechtheion's best side: its north porch, defined by six tall and elegant Ionic columns. Part of the floor and roof were cutaway to reveal the marks left by Poseidon's trident; when the Turks made the temple a harem, they used the sacred place as a toilet. This porch was the tomb of Erechtheos, some say Kekrops, and the traditional home of the Acropolis guardian snake. An olive tree replaces the original in the western court of the temple.
Below the Acropolis entrance, to the north towards the Agora, is the bald Areopagos, or hill of the war god Ares, once the seat of the High Council. It figured prominently in Aeschylus' play The Eumenides where mercy defeated vengeance for the first time in history during the trial of Orestes for matricide. Although Pericles removed much of the original power of the High Council, under the control of the ex-archons it continued to advise on the Athenian constitution for hundreds of years. Beyond it, across Apostolou Pavlou St, tucked in the side of Philopappos Hill, is the Pnyx, where the General Assembly of Athens heard the speeches of Pericles and Demosthenes. On Assembly days it was sometimes necessary to round up citizens in order to fill the minimum attendance quota of 5,000. For important debates, 18,000 could squeeze in here. Later the Assembly was transferred to the Theatre of Dionysos.
The Pnyx assemblies now consist of tourists watching the Sound and Light Show.
An attractive stone and marble lane leads via the lovely Byzantine church of
Ag. Dimitrios up to the Philopappos Monument (AD 114) built in honour of Caius Julius Antiochos Philopappos, a Syrian Prince and friend of Athens. The surrounding park is a good spot for sunset views of the Acropolis, but very isolated at night. Nearby is the Dora Stratou Theatre, where Athens' folk dance troupe performs nightly in summer.
Two theatres are tucked into the south flank of the Acropolis. The older, in fact the oldest in the world if you don't count the theatre' at Knossos, is the Theatre of Dionysos. Built in the 6th century BC when Thespis created the first true drama, it was continually modified up to the time of Nero. Here, 17,000 could watch the annual Greater Dionysia, held in honour of Dionysos the god of wine and patron divinity of the theatre; the dramatic competitions were awarded prizes, many of which went to the works of Aeschylus, Sophodes, Aristophanes and Euripides. The stage that remains is from the 4th century BC, while the area before the stage, the proskenion, is decorated with 1st century AD scenes based on the life of Dionysos. Further east in Plaka, the Monument of Lysikrates was built by an 'angel' who funded the play that won top prize in 334 BC. It later passed into the hands of Capuchin friars who hosted Lord Byron; another Lord, Elgin wanted to take the monument to London but was thwarted this time by the friars.
Next to the Theatre of Dionysos, the Odeon (AD 161) was originally covered with a roof when built by the Rockefeller of his day, Herodes Atticus (like someone out of Arabian Nights: he inherited his great wealth from his father, who found a vast golden treasure outside Rome). The Odeon hosts the annual mid-May and September Festival of Athens, where modern European and ancient Greek cultures meet in theatre, ballet, and classical music concerts performed by international companies.
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