For me, the prospect of going to Greece was immensely exciting: to be able to visit places which featured in the Greek myths and legends I grew up with – and have never quite grown out – of thrilled me to bits! I was especially looking forward to visiting the Acropolis.
In January 2013, as we neared the end of our time living in Morocco, we decided that the next place we would call home would be Fort Kochi in southern India.
However, as when we lived in Thailand, we had to obtain visas first, for which we needed to go to London. We thought it would be an ideal opportunity to not only spend a few days in Britain catching up with family and friends but also perhaps to get in a few days’ holiday too.
Although we’ve lived in some very exotic places, we don’t often get a chance to be tourists, simply because in order to fund our nomadic lifestyle, we have to work – usually long hours – which means we can’t afford to be on the road all the time. Actual holidays are few and far between but it doesn’t matter because we get to live in fantastic places instead!
At the beginning of that February, the weather in Athens was glorious, as was the food and the architecture, so it was a real shame that the same could not be said of the Acropolis. Nor its staff.
The Acropolis of Athens
To be completely frank, I felt that the Acropolis was a bit of a let-down. The all-male staff was grumpy to the point of bordering on rude, and really gave no indication that they wanted anyone there; in fact, I got the distinct feeling that they’d have been far happier to just be left alone. It was a completely different story at the Agora, which I may write about in another post.
As for the buildings themselves, they just lacked any soul, at least, that’s how it felt to me. They felt dead. Of course they were technically impressive and beautiful but I just got no sense of any history while up there on the hill. And let’s face it, Athens has had an awful lot of history. And legends.
Legends such as this one…
The Birth of Erichthonius
According to the Athenian mythographer and historian, Apollodorus, when Athena visited Hephaestus to commission some weapons, the god of fire succumbed to a different kind of flame, that of desire for the goddess of wisdom, and attempted to have his way with her. Athena however, had other ideas, and ran away from him. Unfortunately, he caught her, and what followed can only be described as premature ejaculation during an attempt to rape her.
Understandably grossed out, the goddess wiped the ejaculate off her thigh with a piece of wool (presumably torn from her peplos), and discarded it, before fleeing again. As she escaped however, from the spot where Hephaestus’ seed landed, Erichthonius was born. Athena, wishing to raise the child… but not actually being particularly maternal, it seems, put the baby into a small box, which she then entrusted to the care of Aglaurus, Herse, and Pandrosus – the three daughters of the king of Athens, Kekrops (for whom the Kekropia on the Erechtheion is named), with a stern warning to never open the box.
No prizes for guessing what they did.
Utterly terrified at what they saw within the box – stories vary as to whether it was a half-snake, half-man, or simply a snake coiled around the infant – the sisters promptly went mad and threw themselves off the Acropolis. As you do.
I bet if they were able to speak Parseltongue, it would have been a very different story.
Unfortunately, the Parthenon of February 2013 was largely a 21st building site. While I understand that restoration and conservation work has to be carried out (and I applaud it), I can’t help thinking that it would have been better had the site been blocked off with a facade, graphically illustrated with what the building would have looked like in its heyday. That said, I suspect that in order to do that, it would have significantly added to the budget, and Greece isn’t exactly flush. I think it would have looked better than this though…
Pericles and the new Parthenon
According to Herodotus, prior to the Greco-Persian Battle of Marathon (c. 490–488 BC), an Archaic temple, dedicated to Athena Polias (aka Athena Pallas) stood atop the Acropolis. After the battle had ended, a new building was commissioned to be built alongside the existing temple; however, before it was completed, in 480 the new one was also destroyed when the Persians sacked Athens.
The Parthenon as we know it today, was commissioned by the statesman, Pericles, in 447 BC, and finally finished in 432.
Although we think of the Parthenon as being a temple to Athena, the name itself refers to it being apartments for female devotees and the priestesses of the goddess. During Pericles’ time however, it was actually used as a treasury, with the statesman himself referring to Athena Parthenos, which was housed in the Parthenon, as being a source of finance, should the city need it.
It seems that the Parthenon and its golden statue were never intended to be sacred. The statue of Athena Parthenos was made by Phidias, who is probably most famous for building the Statue of Zeus at Olympia – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Ottomans, Venetians, and British
During the early 1460s, the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a mosque, while the nearby temple, the Erechtheion, was used to house the harem of the Ottoman governor. Scattered around the Acropolis are the remains of beautiful Islamic script.
On September 26th 1687, the Parthenon and its statues sustained heavy damage when the Venetians blew up the ammunition dump, which was also inside the Parthenon. Almost 120 years later, in 1806, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin took several of the Acropolis’ surviving statues from both the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. A decade later, he sold them to the British Museum, where they remain to this day.
The Elgin Marbles, as they came to be known, have been a pain point between the British and Greek governments ever since, and for the past three decades, the latter has been committed to getting the Parthenon Marbles (as is more politically correct) brought home to Athens.
The Erechtheion was slightly better than the Parthenon, although not by much. Fortunately, Lord Elgin didn’t get manage to get his hands on all of the Caryatids, although after appropriating one to put in his home in Scotland (like his other stolen goods, it’s also now in the British Museum), he decided he wanted another but managed to destroy it during the liberation process by… ummm… hacking it up when it wouldn’t all come out in one go. After wreaking havoc, Elgin and his minions simply left the damaged pieces of statue scattered around, close to the temple.
What. A. Dick.
Although, at least his littering was good news for later restoration projects.
As with the Parthenon, work began on the current building in 421 BC, to replace the earlier temple to Athena Polias, which was also destroyed during the Greco-Persian war in 480 BC. The Erechtheion was completed in 406 BC.
It’s thought that Pericles commissioned the architect, Mnesicles, who is also responsible for the Propylaea – the grand entrance to the Acropolis, to design the Erechtheion, with Phidias providing the sculptures and statues. Some claim that the temple’s name comes from a shrine dedicated to the ancient hero, King Erichthonius, while others maintain that it was actually built in honour of King Erechtheus, who is allegedly buried close to the temple. Given that both kings seem to share the same origin story, it’s more than likely that Erichthonius and Erechtheus are actually the same person.
The Porch of the Caryatids
During the Peloponnesian war, with money tight, the building of the temple had to be scaled back, and so the Porch of the Caryatids (or Porch of the Maidens as it’s sometimes known) was built on the south side to conceal the 5-metre beam, which supports the Kekropion in the southwest corner of the temple. Each of the maidens is very individual, with unique faces, different styles of draped peploi, and differing stances.
Religion and the Erechtheion
One of the Athenians’ most sacred relics, the Palladion – a wooden effigy of Athena Polias, allegedly a divine gift – was housed in the eastern part of the temple, which was dedicated to the goddess of wisdom. The olivewood effigy was considered the holiest of relics, and stood beneath a bronze palm tree, with a gold lamp alight before it. During the annual feast of the Panathenaea, Athena’s old peplos was replaced with a new one, woven by the Arrephoroi, four young girls who were chosen to serve Athena each year. According to legend, Athena’s snake lived in the Erechtheion, and fed upon honey cakes, served by the Canephorae – Athena’s priestesses who were traditionally women from the Eteoboutadae – the descendants of the ancient hero, Boutes.
The western side of the temple contained altars to Hephaestus and Voutos (Erechtheus’ brother), and served the cult of Poseidon-Erechtheus.
The Acropolis is a Dump!
By that I don’t mean that it’s completely rubbish, I mean it’s used as a dumping ground and storage facility for all kinds of gardening and work equipment. The Porch of the Caryatids, for example, has been blocked off with perspex walling, and turned into a store-room for the workmen. You can clearly see drums and containers behind the maidens…
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get inside to take a photo of what’s within but I did get this shot inside another ancient building.
I realise that it’s entirely up to modern Athenians how they treat their own ancient history and its relics but on every single site we visited, there were notices telling people to show due deference, to be respectful, to keep a fair distance from the buildings, to not touch anything at all, to not pick up stones and bits of masonry, to not drop litter, and don’t smoke, don’t talk loudly, don’t sing and dance, don’t run around, don’t eat and drink, and to keep control of children.
I have no problem with adhering to any of those things, and I have the utmost respect for all historical sites, no matter what the culture. However, it strikes me that instead of erecting a small portakabin or shed on-site, local workers are more than happy to not only risk further damage to the buildings by using them as toolsheds but also to make each of those buildings into an eyesore. That hardly strikes me as being respectful.
I don’t feel that the staff and building workers smoking on-site were showing due respect either. Surely if you want rules to be followed, you have to set an example.
But what really irked me was when I took this photo of Garth…
All of a sudden, an exceedingly grumpy member of staff came running up to us, waving his arms in the air, and shouting hysterically at us;
No toys! No toys!
Really? Presumably it would have been fine if amato mio had held up a baby for me to photograph, and it was fine for each of us to pose in front of the building for a photo but it was not OK for Garth.
Amato mio was actually standing about 10 metres from the building, with his back to it, so there’s no way any damage could have been caused. I think, in all honesty, the guy was either massively superstitious, or was just a massively miserable old sod. I’m going with the latter.
Still, I got a great pic of Garth.
Weirdly, the same man watched me get really close to the temple in order to get these photos of the beautifully sculpted architecture, and he didn’t say a word. Go figure!
I’m really glad we visited the Acropolis; I learned a lot, and I got some great photos but compared to the other sites we visited in Athens, this was definitely the poorest. One very good thing however, was that there were perhaps only another half a dozen other tourists there when we went, so we had plenty of opportunity to really study the buildings. I would definitely recommend going early in the morning, and out of the usual tourist season.
And if you’re really lucky, while you’re wandering around the hills, you may even make a little friend, who’s also out for a wander!
This post first appeared on my old blog, Pretty Thai for a White Guy.
(I apologise for the photo quality – I only had my old iPhone 4S at the time!)