Celebrate the Acropolis’ extraordinary past
The Parthenon, a temple for the Greek goddess Athena, crowns Athens’ Acropolis. (Oli Scarff /Getty)
Visible for miles around, the Acropolis was intended as a shining beacon for classical civilisation – a temple complex synonymous with a golden age of genius architects, chin-stroking philosophers and glorious military victories.
Somewhat less glorious were the beginnings of this grand structure – Athenian statesman Pericles embezzled funds from his military allies to finance his monumental tribute to the gods in the 5th century BC. In the following centuries, empires rose and fell in Greece, and with them the fortunes of the Acropolis – its buildings put to use variously as mosques, churches, fortifications and once even a harem. A decidedly low ebb came when the Ottomans – employing a rather cavalier attitude to heritage management – used the Parthenon as an ammunition store in the 17th century, and it was blown to smithereens when it came under attack from their Venetian foes. Today the site is put to more sensible use – the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on its southern slope serves as an extraordinary backdrop to music and drama performances throughout Athens’ Hellenic Festival, running through 31 August this year.
The Propylaia guards the entrance to the Acropolis, and was designed to keep the rabble from the realm of the gods. It’s aligned with the Parthenon, its position and dimensions carefully planned to provide a grand entrance. In the light of recent economy-centred tensions between governments in Berlin and Athens, it’s perhaps ironic that the Propylaia serves as the inspiration behind Germany’s most famous monument – the Brandenburg Gate.
Playing it straight
The Parthenon is assumed to be the epitome of symmetry. Look closer, however, and you'll see it’s been designed in a gloriously wonky fashion – its foundations bulge outwards while its columns lean inwards, creating an optical illusion of straight lines. Undeterred, architects have imitated its form for centuries – an equally irregular replica, built in 1897, is in Nashville, Tennessee.
The most sacred building in the Acropolis is the Erechtheion – legend tells it was here that Athena and Poseidon fought to win patronage of the city. The sea god conjured up a spring by striking his trident against the ground, but the goddess won with the gift of an olive tree. There is a small temple to Poseidon, while some believe the olive tree standing outside is Athena's own.
Rome sweet Rome
The Romans made their own tweaks to the Acropolis and their most visible legacy is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (also known as the 'Herodeon'), a large amphitheatre standing on the southern slope of the site. A two-millennia history has seen it host performances from Roman tragedies to Sting, via the 1973 Miss Universe contest.
Athens’ patron goddess once presided over the Acropolis as Athena Promachos – a huge bronze effigy wearing a helmet, waving a spear and looking fierce. The statue’s story has an unhappy ending – she was carried off to Constantinople around the middle of the 5th century AD, and at some point lost her spear. In 1204, that city's residents, fearing that she was beckoning invaders with her upheld hand, smashed her to bits. Only her foundations remain today.