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Athens and its most famous historical monuments

Athens and its most famous historical monuments

Athens is one of Europe's most important historic cities and harbours some real architectural treasures. There are many valuable monuments from different historical periods, the most famous being the remains of the original ancient buildings. However, there are also interesting monuments from the Roman Empire, typical Byzantine buildings, traces of Turkish architecture and distinctly modern elements.

Acropolis of Athens

The Acropolis of Athens is the main symbol of Athens, for a long time it was an important political, religious and cultural centre of ancient Greece and played an important role throughout the long history of Athens. In 1987, the Acropolis became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Acropolis was built in antiquity, gradually expanded and underwent its greatest changes, especially between the 13th and 5th centuries BC. The acropolis is perched on a hill a few metres above the sea, with a single access road and water springs nearby. All of this suggests that in the earliest times the Acropolis probably served as the site of a sanctuary or citadel. However, the existence of the Parthenon and other unique historical buildings takes the significance of the site much further.

According to archaeological research, a Mycenaean royal castle stood on the rocky hill as early as the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. The more obscure ancient buildings whose remains can still be admired on the Acropolis today - the Parthenon, the Temple of Erechtheum, the Propylaea and others - were built during the reign of Pericles (460-430 BC) and under the supervision of the chief sculptor, Pheidias. In the 5th century BC, the columned gate of the Propylaea, the small temple of Athena Nike and other buildings were also built, but unfortunately most of their remains have not survived.

There was also a huge statue of the goddess Pallas Athena on the Acropolis. The famous sculptor Feidias designed it made of wood and covered with sheets of gold, ivory and gems for eyes. However, the statue mysteriously disappeared in the course of history. But the existence of the statue has been confirmed by 20th century archaeologists who found small parts of it. Initially, the Romans were suspected of taking the statue, but today historians are more inclined to believe that it was taken and destroyed by Christians. According to scholars, the Romans did not destroy Athenian buildings, but rather admired and repaired them, even though they had their own deity (e.g., Emperor Hadrianus had the temple of Zeus completed, even though the Romans did not worship Zeus as a god).

A beautiful view of the whole Acropolis and especially the Parthenon temple is from the nearby Lykavittos hill. Moreover, if you head here at sunset, you will be rewarded with a truly breathtaking spectacle.

In a separate article you will find Tourist Tips and Interesting Facts about the capital city of Athens.

Parthenon Temple

The huge, oblong temple dedicated to the city's patron goddess, Athena, was built in the 5th century BC under Peisistratus and subsequently completed under Pericles. The Parthenon is the landmark of the Acropolis, at first glance very simple and with clean lines, but on the other hand still shrouded in many question marks. The architectural peculiarity and sheer precision of the temple lies in the fact that its simplicity is only deceptive. The individual columns in the colonnade have a diminishing thickness towards the centre of the colonnade, while the space between the columns also diminishes towards the centre of the colonnade, and in addition they lean towards the centre (there are thus no straight vertical lines, but each column is almost imperceptibly inclined, so that in theory their elongated lines would meet high in the sky). However, all these anomalies are almost invisible to the ordinary observer.

The temple was designed for mass worship, and its interior was beautifully decorated in colour (a general feature of ancient temples, which were normally colourful inside). Here we see marble reliefs of the gods Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis.

The Parthenon, as the most insignificant site on the Acropolis, played an important role throughout the history of Athens. In the northeast corner of its interior, traces of Christian murals from the Byzantine period, when the temple was converted into the Basilica of St. Mary, are still slightly visible. The acropolis also served as a fortress in those times. In the south-west corner, on the other hand, we find the remains of a staircase to the minaret, which was added to the temple in the mid-15th century during the Turkish rule, when the temple served as a mosque.

The Parthenon was also used at one time for storing gunpowder, which was almost fatal to it, because in 1687, when Athens was besieged by the Venetians, a shot fired during the bombardment of the Acropolis caused the stored gunpowder to explode. The damage to the Parthenon thus had an impact on its present form. Unfortunately, when the Ottoman Empire regained its position on the Acropolis, the local monuments and valuables were sold off as souvenirs for Europeans.

Temple of Erechtheum (Erechteion)

The Temple of Erechtheum was also built in the 5th century BC and was originally dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, later to the legendary King Erechtheus. And although the Parthenon was the largest building on the Acropolis, it was the Temple of Erechtheum that was considered the spiritual centre. The site on which the temple stands is also said to be the most sacred part of the Acropolis.

Originally, three separate small temples stood on its site, which were merged into one with the construction of the new temple. At the northern entrance of the Erechtheum temple we find the antechamber, whose roof is held up by statues of six beautiful maidens (called caryatids) instead of columns.

Under Byzantine rule, the Athenian temple became a church and subsequently the harem of the Turkish commander.

Propylaea

The Propylaea was the gateway to the Athenian Acropolis. The large structure consisted of a marble staircase and a gate with five entrances, which were closed at night and in case of danger, making the Acropolis an impenetrable fortress. The name comes from the word "propylon", meaning "gate".

Due to its location, the Acropolis is naturally in a good defensive position. The first fortification of the Acropolis came in the Mycenaean period and traces of this early defensive wall are still clearly visible, especially in the south-east of the Propylaea. Further fortifications were added, especially after the Persian Wars, and were later reinforced when the Acropolis became a fortress city.

The massive structure of Propylaea, which can be seen by today's visitors, dates from the reign of Pericles (437-432 BC). Pericles had it built after the completion of the Parthenon and entrusted its design to the architect Mnesicles, who gave it the feel of Athenian temples and sanctuaries. In the course of subsequent history, the building was adapted to the needs of the time, and even housed an ammunition depot during the Ottoman Empire, whose explosion in 1640 caused considerable damage to the Propylaea. After the independence of Greece, the period paintings and extensions were removed and the entire building was repaired.

Temple of Athena Nike

This smaller, two-aisle temple was also built in the 5th century BC. It was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Athena, and to the older goddess Nike, who was supposed to protect the entrance to the Acropolis.

The Temple of Athena Nike stood to the right of the Propylaea until it was demolished by Ottoman soldiers in 1686, when they used stones from the temple as building material for a defensive wall against the Venetians.

New museum on the Acropolis

Southeast of the Parthenon (about 300 m away) is the New Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009. Its exhibition space is about 10 times larger than that of the old Acropolis Museum and the museum preserves one of the richest historical collections in the world.

The museum houses important historical finds from the Acropolis and its surroundings, in particular a large number of archaic sculptures, old ceramics and a very impressive and faithfully rendered model of the entire Parthenon ledge, including the famous metopes of Feidius (which are the so-called friezes in the surface, in the case of the Parthenon, 92 metopes depicting the struggle between centaurs and lapiths). We can also see the caryatids, i.e. the statues of virgins that hold up the facade of the temple of Erechtheum, or, for example, the statue of the ancient Athenian god Erechtheus, who is depicted as a being half human (upper body) and half serpent (lower body).

However, most of the exhibits on display are only replicas of famous works, and the originals are housed in the British Museum in London. In fact, in the early 19th century, the British envoy to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, took almost all of the sculpture from the Acropolis back to England with him and displayed it in the British Museum.

Other important sights in Athens

Athenian Agora

The main road from the Acropolis leads down to the Athenian Agora. The word "agora" means primarily "marketplace" in Greek, but the Athenian Agora was so much more. It was the centre of Athens, with its administrative buildings, political offices and courts, and it was also a commercial centre where all sorts of things were sold and bought. The Agora was also a place of political and philosophical debate, including a speaker's corner that allowed all full Athenian citizens to express their opinions.

At the entrance to the Agora today stands the beautifully preserved Greek temple of Theseum (Temple of Theseion-Hephastion), dating from the 5th century BC. The temple was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Athena, and to the god Hephaestus. The temple of Theseum is sometimes a bit overlooked due to the touristy Acropolis, but you should definitely not miss it as it is one of the best preserved ancient monuments in all of Greece.

Horologium (Tower of the Winds)

In the Athenian Agora we also find an interesting monument, which is the octagonal, high and marble so-called Horologium of Andronicus of Cyrrhus, usually called the "Tower of the Winds". The Horologium had a sundial, a water clock (used to tell time on cloudy days) and a weather vane. The Turks left this structure unaltered and reportedly believed it to be the tomb of two local prophets, Socrates and Plato.

Odeum of Herod Atticus (Odeon)

Below the sanctuary on the Acropolis, on the southwestern slope of the hill, the wealthy Roman Herod Atticus had an Odeum with a capacity of 5,000 seats built in 161 AD as a monument to his wife. The peculiarity of this Roman theatre is that its semi-circular auditorium was excavated into the rock, had a three-storey façade of arches and was also roofed with cedar wood.

The Odeum has been repaired and is now used (no longer roofed) for the Athens Summer Music Festival.

Dionysus Theatre

Even earlier, the Dionysus Theatre was built on the southern slope, where from the 6th century BC the local Greeks worshipped Dionysus, the god of fertility, wine and merriment, with singing and dancing. The theatre later became the main stage and venue for dramatic plays and audiences could watch the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles.

The theatre was the venue for the spring celebrations in honour of the god Dionysus, where crowds flocked from many parts of Greece and the Greek colonies in Asia Minor and Italy. In fact, the celebrations took the form of a competition for the best dramatic performance, where both tragic and comic plays were presented by the best actors. However, theatrical plays in antiquity did not only serve to entertain, but also had to have a deeper educational and cultural dimension. The theatre had about 13,000 seats, divided into 67 rows. The jury and church dignitaries had stone seats in the front row, marked with their names.

However, the theatre has been damaged and rebuilt many times, and its present appearance dates mainly from the Roman period.

Near the Dionysus Theatre stand the ruins of the ancient sanctuary of Asclepion. The building, dating from 420 BC, was dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius, and in addition to the sanctuary, it also functioned as a medical school and surgery.

Temple of Zeus of Olympia (Olympeion)

The Temple of Zeus stands near Hadrian's Arch and the old Olympic Stadium. The Olympeion is one of the largest surviving temples in Greece, as in its time it covered an area of about 96 m in length and 40 m in width. Only a part of it has survived to the present day, namely 15 tall Corinthian columns (out of a total of 104). One can also see a column that fell during a storm roughly over a year ago and crumbled into stones.

Hadrian's Arch

During the period of Roman rule, the Emperor Hadrian had a whole new quarter built in Athens, separated by a gate, the so-called Hadrian's Arch. Hadrian's Arch dates from the beginning of our era and was also inscribed with two inscriptions - towards the Acropolis it reads: "This is the city of Theseus, the ancient city." and on the other side is the inscription, "This is the city of Hadrian, not of Theseus." Today, the arch forms the boundary between the Old and the New City.

Royal Garden and Zappeion Park

The classical Zappeion building from 1888 stands in the Royal Garden and is traditionally a venue for exhibitions and other social events. At the time of the Olympic Games, it was a press centre.

The Royal Garden is a large park of almost 16 hectares, with a variety of trees, shrubs and flowers as well as tall palm trees. If you're looking for a pleasant and green place to relax in Athens, you won't be disappointed with the Zappeion Garden.

 

Apart from the ancient period, the appearance of Athenian monuments has also been influenced to varying degrees by the other historical eras through which Athens has passed, especially the periods of domination by foreign powers - the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Each of these cultures has left its mark.

If you are interested in the history of the capital, you can also read our article History of Athens.

However, the ancient style was also popular throughout Athens' later history, and the late 19th century in particular saw a return to ancient Greek architecture, with many new buildings designed as copies of ancient structures. Similarly, walking through the parks and squares of Athens, statues of the most important Athenian figures, often in the so-called ancient style, are typical features.