It’s fair to say that Athens might not be the first place to spring to mind when weighing up city-break destinations; after all, as Greece lays claim to some of the most beautiful islands and stunning beaches in Europe let alone the Aegean, it’s arguably more suited to a longer, sun-soaked stay. And yet, ranking high alongside those powerhouse cities of early civilisation, Athens, so named after Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, is a rich melting pot of democracy, philosophy, mythology, archaeological greatness and century-upon-century of culture, tradition and history. In the first of a spotlight on this fascinating city, I explore the marvels of its most famous and formidable landmarks – the Acropolis.
Set atop a rocky limestone outcrop and dominating the city skyline, the Acropolis or ‘High City’ in Greek represents the ancient upper city upon which the original settlement in Athens was founded and indeed represents the birthplace of Western Civilisation itself. First inhabited during the Neolithic period (4000 – 3000 BC), the earliest temples were built during the Mycenaean era in homage to the goddess Athena yet through centuries of war and occupation, earthquakes, pollution and sheer footfall, the temples of the Acropolis have long endured cycles of destruction, reconstruction and renovation.
First port of call when entering the Acropolis complex is the Beulé Gate, a late-Roman structure dating back to 320 BC named after the French archaeologist, Ernest Beulé, who discovered it in 1852. You’ll then encounter the stunning Temple of Athena Nike, designed by Kallicrates and built in 427 – 424 BC to celebrate peace with Persia, only to be destroyed by Turkish forces in the 17th century, however was painstakingly reconstructed and beautifully restored in the 19th century. To its left is the imposing and architecturally exquisite Propylaia, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis. Built by Mnesicles between 437 – 432 BC in both Ionic and Doric style, the Propylaia was originally designed as a crossover point for worshippers as they moved from the temporal into the spiritual world.
Set at the highest point of the Acropolis and thus the most prominent amongst the temple treasures therein stands the mighty Parthenon, Pericles’ architectural masterpiece and the epitome of Ancient Greece itself. Literally meaning ‘virgin’s apartment’, the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena and is not only the largest Doric temple ever fully constructed throughout Greece, but also the only one (bar its roof) to be entirely built from marble. Immediately recognisable thanks to its column-lined façade, the Parthenon remains Athens’ most iconic and enduring structure.
Last but not least, the spectacular Erechtheion Temple represents a dual shrine to both Athena and Poseidon built on the most sacred site of the mythical battle between these two great gods and is said to have been Athena’s holiest shrine. Legend has it that its setting is where Poseidon struck the ground with its trident and Athena produced the olive tree and its Ionic architectural uniqueness and brilliance is rivalled only by the Parthenon.
A regrettably brief snapshot of this most awe-inspiring city landmark. I’ll return to Athens soon to uncover more of its many wonderful treasures.