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.
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.
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.
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.