This unique monument, which represents the ultimate in architectural and artistic expression of the ancient Athenian spirit, occupies a rock 156 m above sea level, which is itself a natural fortress.
Entrance to the “high city” is from the west.
HISTORY OF THE ACROPOLIS
The hill was first inhabited in the Neolithic era and the first walls were erected in the mid 13th c. BC. In the course of the Dorian invasion, the city was moved elsewhere and the Acropolis began to be established as a place of worship. It acquired its first temple in the 8th c. BC. Building started on the Parthenon itself, dedicated to Athena, in the early 5th c. BC, only to be razed by the Persians in 480. It was rebuilt during Pericles’ rule in just ten years. The monumental entrance to the summit of the holy rock, the Propylaia, designed by Mnesicles, was under construction from 437 to 432 BC. The Erechtheion was completed twelve years later.
These brilliant architectural and artistic achievements of the 5th c. BC were supervised by Pheidias, while the designs were the work of Iktinos and Kallikrates.
The foundations of the temple of Athena Nike were also laid at this time, as were those of the Chalkotheke and the sanctuary of Artemis Vravronia to the south and west of the Parthenon.
The extraordinary gold and ivory statue of Athena, Pheidia’s masterpiece which stood 13 m high with its base, dominated the centre of the temple of the goddess, and the 9 m high statue of Athena Promachos, also by Pheidias, rose imposingly between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. Of the former, all that is left is a Roman copy, Athena tou Varvarkiou, now in the National Museum. The latter was carried off to Constantinople under Justinian, where it was destroyed by fanatic Christians.
In 334 BC Alexander the Great dedicated the spoils from his victory at the Granikos river to the Parthenon. In 304 BC the harem of Demetrios Poliorketes (the Besieger) made the sacred temple their home. In 267 AD the Herulean invasion caused considerable damage and the west gate was fortified. In Byzantine times, the Parthenon, Erechtheion and Propylaia were converted into Christian churches. Justinian declared the Parthenon a church consecrated to Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia); later it was rededicated to the Virgin Mary. The Franks made it a Catholic church, Santa Maria. The Ottomans in turn converted it to a mosque, while the whole Acropolis became a Turkish neighbourhood. By 1463 the Erechtheion was so debased it had become a harem, and the temple of Athena Nike was completely razed. In 1687, during one of the Venetians’ battles against the Ottomans, one of Morosini’s shells burst over the Parthenon, setting off the dynamite the Turks had stored inside and blowing off the roof. In 1827 a Turkish shell damaged the Karyatids on the Erechtheion, while an earthquake in 1894 wreaked additional havoc.
Today the temples’ worst enemy is pollution, which has severely corroded the marble. The Karyatids have been removed to the Acropolis Museum, replaced by copies on site. The ongoing efforts at restoration, which are taking far longer than the original construction, have unfortunately resulted in an Acropolis partially covered with scaffolding, making it much harder for us to imagine what it must have been like. Nevertheless, visitors from the world over still flock to the ancient rock to contemplate this unique specimen of perfection, which shows us that humankind, despite its frailties, can now and then attain greatness.
WANDERING AROUND THE ACROPOLIS
If you look down as you’re walking up to the Propylaia, you can see the Theatre of Herod Atticus, while just outside the entrance to the museum you’ll notice the remains of the Stoa of Eumenes and Theatre of Dionysos below it.
Temple of Apteros Nike (Wingless Victory).A small temple with eight Ionic columns, in which the Athenians placed a statue of Nike without wings to ensure that she would never “fly” away from their city. Today the statue can be seen in the Acropolis Museum.
The Propylaia. Built of Pentelic marble, it consists of a central structure with two wings. It was designed by Mnesicles and replaced the earlier Propylon erected by Peisistratos.
The Parthenon. Built between 447 and 432 BC to plans of Iktinos and Kallikrates. An extraordinary combination of Ionic and Doric features, it is 69.1 m long, 30.86 m wide and was surrounded by 46 columns. The temple proper, the sekos, was divided into three aisles, with a double series of columns framing the statue of Athena. The inner columns supported an epistyle with smaller Doric columns, which reached as high as the roof. A frieze depicting the Panathenaic procession in relief ran round the upper part of the outer wall. Its 92 metopes portrayed the battle of the Giants, the battle of Centaurs and Lapiths and other subjects. The pediments were decorated with sculptures representing the birth of Athena and her contest with Poseidon for possession of Athens. The building itself contains not a single straight line and no strictly true perpendicular line either. The stylobate and the epistyle are both gently curved, the columns are a bit narrower at the top than at the middle and lean slightly toward the centre, so that if they were extended indefinitely, they would eventually form a pyramid. This gives the temple a lightness and a unique feeling that it is about to take off.
The Erechtheio. Built during the Peloponnesian War by Philocles, the temple was shared by Athena and Poseidon-Erechtheus, from whom it got its name. Six female statues, the famous Karyatids, with canisters on their heads as column capitals, support the roof of the temple. Today five copies stand in their place. The originals are in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth Karyatid, thanks to Elgin, can only be seen in London.
The shrine of Zeus. Very little is left of this temple dedicated to Zeus Polios, to whom sacrifices, the Bouphonia, were brought every summer during the harvest season.
Theatre of Herod Atticus (The Herodion). Erected in 161 BC by the Athenian orator and benefactor whose name it commemorates. It can seat 5,000 spectators but most of its marble seats, except for those in the front row, are modern restorations. It hosts all the events of the Athens Festival, as well as a few other concerts and performances throughout the summer.
Stoa of Eumenes. Constructed in the 2nd c. BC, it took its name from the king of Pergamon, Eumenes II, who paid for it. Only its foundations remain, but Athenians used to stroll and discuss in the shade of this 163 m long arcade.
Theatre of Dionysos. This theatre, which occupies the site of an earlier sanctuary of Dionysos Eleuthereos, is considered to be the oldest yet discovered. Of the original 5th c. BC structure, only the orchestra remains. The movable stage and seats were of wood. It was here that the great dramas of the Golden Age had their first performances. The stone seats were added in the 4th c. BC. Measuring 100 m in width, 90 m in depth and possessing 78 rows of seats, of which only two-thirds are extant, the theatre underwent many alterations before it reached its final form.
Odeon of Pericles. Completed in 443 BC. Its foundations have been only partly excavated. This roofed building with columns was used as a concert hall.