The Acropolis, the ‘sacred rock’ of Athens, the apotheosis of Ancient Greek architecture and a collection of some of the most recognisable monuments worldwide. Although ongoing restoration works meant that the majestic beauty of the Acropolis was somewhat diminished, the experience of seeing it in real life was not. Scaffolding aside, the monuments that sit atop the towering limestone rock in Greece’s capital city are awe-inspiring as much for their appearance and architecture as their history and cultural importance.
Older Buildings on the Acropolis Site
Located high on a hill, the Acropolis has an imposing position and as such can be seen even as you wander elsewhere around the city centre. Two temples were built on the site in the 6th century BC: the Old Temple of Athena and the Hekatompedon. The latter – also referred to as Ur-Parthenon – was dismantled at the beginning of the 5th century BC for the construction of a new temple, the Older Parthenon, or Pre-Parthenon. Initially of limestone and later revised to be made of marble, the temple (and everything else on the Acropolis site) was looted and destroyed in the sack of the city by the Persians in 480 BC.
Most of the major structures which can be seen today were built or rebuilt during the ‘Golden Age of Athens’, under Pericles. Of these, the Parthenon is the best known, and remains a symbol of Ancient Greece. Built from marble, with both Doric and Ionic architectural features, the temple was designed by architects Iktinos and Kallikrates.
The easily recognisable colonnade flanks the cella, the inner structure of the Parthenon, which housed a gold and ivory statue of Athena. The numerous metopes (panels around the outside walls) show battle scenes that illustrate the fight between justice/order and chaos. The Ionic frieze around the cella’s upper edge likely depicts the Athenian people taking part in an annual procession, though other explanations for the sculptures have been put forward.
Interestingly, although it is generally referred to as a temple, the Parthenon does not appear to have been a religious building. It seems instead to have been more of a treasury, housing as it did the sculpture of Athena and other valuable items. In its long history since the establishment of Roman rule in Greece, the Parthenon has been utilised for different purposes depending on who held power.
It was turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the end of the 6th century AD, then a Catholic church by the Franks in 1204, and was later converted into a mosque by the Turks in 1458. The Parthenon suffered severe damage during the Venetian attack on Athens in 1687 when it was used as a gunpowder store.
The Propylaia forms the grand entrance to the Acropolis site. It was designed by the architect Mnesikles; construction commenced after the completion of the Parthenon around 437 BC but was halted due to the outbreak of the Peloponnese war. Like the Parthenon it is primarily of the Doric order but also incorporates Ionic columns.
Among the other notable monuments on the site is the Erechtheion, constructed between 421 and 406 BC. Built on uneven ground, the temple is particularly notable for the ‘Porch of the Maidens’ on the north side, where there are six female figures (Caryatids) used as supporting columns. It is located on the most sacred area on the Acropolis, where there were said to be marks from the battle between Athena and Poseidon for patronage of the city.
The Two Theatres
Also worth a mention is the Theatre of Dionysus, carved into the south slope of the Acropolis. Dedicated to the god of wine and drama, it was here that the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, and the comedies of Aristophanes were first performed. The south slope is also home to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a better-preserved theatre built in 161 AD which is still used for concerts today.
The Acropolis has undergone numerous restoration and conservation projects. The current restoration works on the Parthenon aim to rectify structural issues particularly on the west side of the monument.
Numerous projects have been carried out on the Propylaia including extensive interventions between 1909 and 1917; unfortunately the methods carried out during these works caused damage which required further interventions later. The current works aim to complete restorations carried out later in the 20th century. Work is also being carried out on the aforementioned Erechtheion and the small but elegant Temple of Athena Nike.
The Acropolis Museum
The modern, purpose-built Acropolis museum is a few minutes’ walk from the Acropolis itself and houses sculptures and other artefacts. The spacious building offers plenty of opportunity to wander in and amongst the statues and there is a wealth of information available in Greek and English. Certainly worth the 5 euro entrance fee!
The Looting of the Acropolis
Shockingly, a number of the sculptures from the Acropolis were looted by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, where they were returned to England; many now reside in the British Museum. This was at the time of Turkish occupation, so the claim is that authority was given to Lord Elgin by the Sultan at that time. There is an ongoing campaign to return these sculptures to their rightful home in Athens. You can read more about the history and controversy surrounding these events here.
Other Useful Resoruces to Learn More
It would be difficult to do justice to the many wonders of the Acropolis, some of which I have laid out here. Hopefully this gives an introduction to some of the main historical and architectural themes and features, but if you would like to learn more I have found the following resources very useful:
For information on past and current restoration works, click here
For information on the Acropolis site and its many monuments, click here
For information on Joan Breton Connelly’s interpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze, and the darker side of Athenian culture, this NY Times article is an interesting read
Thanks for reading!
Until next time,