Till 1400 B.C., the Minoan civilization thrived on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The Minoans enjoyed trade and cultural exchanges with contemporary regimes of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Polynesia, the various islands of the Aegean and Balkan seas and the south-eastern parts of Europe. They constructed magnificent palaces and developed a highly advanced culture with rich artistic and architectural traditions. The Minoan culture was the ancestor of today’s western civilization.
Other tribes of the Aegean and Balkan seas, predominantly the Dorians, Ionians, Achaeans and Aeolians were heavily influenced by the Minoans. For centuries, they had been fusing into a single new culture based in the city of Mycenae in Greece. Around 1400 B.C., the Minoan civilization disintegrated and eventually vanished. Possible reasons are natural disasters like earthquakes or a documented volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, present day Santorini about 100 km from Crete.
Another possibility is a total conquest by the Mycenaeans, who supplanted the Minoan culture and came to dominate the entire region. They built beautiful palaces like on Minoan Crete, evolved a highly complex religion and were divided into city-states on the Greek mainland. They had overseas colonies and were at constant warfare with each other. Mycenaean cities were fortified with citadels at places of high altitude, much like in other kingdoms of the time. The citadels were surrounded by several layers of high walls and contained the royal palaces, armouries and other important buildings including temples.
Palace of Knossos on the Isle of Crete: Image courtesy Pixabay
In the beginning of the first millennium B.C., Athens emerged as one of the most influential city-states of Greece and the surrounding region. By the 5th century B.C., Athenian monarchs had been replaced by a governing aristocracy. This was the emergence of Classical Greece, which led to the rise of democracy and the first great statesmen of Athens. The most prominent among them was Pericles who presided over the Golden Age of Athens, which lasted all of three decades. But during these years, Pericles gave the world an everlasting monument, which represented the apogee of Greek civilization and the glorious climax of their cultural achievements.
Pericles decided to create a monumental tribute to the city’s eponymous presiding goddess Athena. He wanted it to be a potent symbol of his city-state’s religious fervour, artistic grandeur and economic might: an ever-lasting reminder of the glory and power of Athens. It was to be called the Acropolis, literally meaning ‘the highest part of the town’. Over two years were spent in planning, designing and organizing the labour for the most important temple on the Acropolis, the Parthenon.
Image courtesy Michel Mondadori from Pixabay
The foundation stone was laid on 28 July 447 B.C., during the Panathenaic festival, the city’s most important religious event celebrating the ‘birth’ of Athena Polias as she leaped from the head of Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks. Pericles hired the greatest architects of the region, Callicrates, Mnesikles and Iktinos to design and construct the various structures of the Acropolis. To sculpt the gold and ivory statues of Athena and her consort, Pericles commissioned none other than the master sculptor Pheidias, whose portfolio included the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Many parallel developments were taking place in Classical Athens, which would prove to be as epoch-making as the construction taking place on the ‘Sacred Rock’. Below the slope of the Acropolis and 400 meters to its northwest was the political, commercial, cultural and social center of Athens called the Agora. While Phidias, the master sculptor, worked on Athena’s golden statue at the Acropolis, Socrates asked random shoppers in the Agora if they knew the meaning of life, and decided they didn’t. Hippocrates was busy formulating the ethics of the practice of medicine and a few years later, the budding historian Aristophanes, would record all these developments for posterity. Democracy, philosophy, science, literature and the arts were making their first flourish in the Agora, which would become the basis of western civilization.
It’s hard to imagine the extent of Pericles’ vision when he conceptualized his ‘ever-lasting’ monument. The ruins of the Acropolis are the most popular tourist destination in the western world, and one of the most visited landmarks of ancient history by people around the globe. The ‘highest place’ in Athens is a grand mausoleum, which contains the remains of an extinct civilization. Still beautiful in death, it provides a vivid picture of the splendor of ancient Greece and showcases the architectural brilliance of Athena’s children.
Bust of Pericles: Image courtesy Lose Jandson Queiroz from Pixabay
Propylaeum, plural for propylon, was the Greek name for monumental entranceways to a temple or religious complex. It was a symbolic partition between the religious and secular spaces of the city. The Propylaea of the Acropolis was elaborately designed to make a lasting impression and was made of white marble. It was initially approached by a steep ramp 80 meters long and ten meters wide and led visitors to the main entrance hall of the Propylaea. Later, the Romans complemented the ramp with steps.
Both the ramp and the steps lead to the porch of the hall. Fronted with six massive Doric columns, the hall has another six columns on the west side. The hall is divided into three parts by two rows of Ionian columns, creating a narrow central corridor. The columns support the massive weight of the large marble slabs of the roof. To decrease the weight, decorative patterns were cut into the ceiling and vividly painted with golden stars and other motifs on a blue background. On the far side was a large central gate, with two smaller doors on either side. In all, the Propylaea had five doors; four for pedestrians and a larger one for chariots.
The main hall is in turn flanked by eastern and western wings. The eastern wing was embellished with panels painted with classical motifs and had an inner chamber that served as a picture gallery of Greek mythology and also as a banquet venue. The western wing served as an antechamber to the adjoining Temple of Athena Nike. In front of the Propylaea stood a grey marble pedestal 10 meters high, on which stood the sculpture of a four-horse chariot. It was in honour of Eumenes II, king of Pergamon, after his victory in the Panthenaic Games of 178 B.C. For a short period in Roman times, the pedestal hosted the statues of Anthony and Cleopatra.
The Parthenon was the main temple of the Acropolis complex. The name of the temple is derived from parthenos, the term used to refer to apartments of unmarried women and refers to the virginal avatar of Athena Parthenos. The Parthenon occupies the highest part of the Acropolis and was constructed of 22,000 tons of marble, the most for any Greek temple by far.
Athena’s temple is an architectural marvel on various counts. It was constructed using a 4:9 ratio in several key aspects: The diameter of each column in relation to the spaces between columns, the width of the sanctum sanctorum to its length and the maximum height and overall width all have a ratio of 4:9. A key challenge was that any straight structure of that size appears to be curved from a distance. To give the illusion of straight lines, the columns lean slightly inwards, a technique that also gives it a lifting effect, making the temple seem lighter.
Image courtesy Dias 12 from Pixabay
Pheidias was tasked with carving a monumental statue of Athena for the Parthenon. He sculpted a chryselephantine (ivory and golden) statue of the goddess 12 meters high. Carved ivory was used for the flesh and 1140 kilos of gold was used for the rest of the figure. The gold and ivory were wrapped around a wooden core; the gold could be removed and recycled in times of financial crisis.
The chryselephantine Athena had a headpiece adorned with an image of the Medusa and stood majestically on an 8.05-meter high pedestal. She held a shield in her left hand and the minor goddess Nike in the right. The shield had scenes of the Battles of the Amazons and the Giants carved on it against a backdrop of a giant snake. Her helmet was adorned with the mythological sphinx and griffins. The awe-inspiring personality and richness of the statue were clearly meant to display the wealth and power of Athens to the world.
The Parthenon was unprecedented in quality and quantity of architectural sculptures; no previous temple had been so richly and artistically adorned. The sculptures also celebrated the political and military dominance of Athens. They depicted recent Greek victories, led by Athens, over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., Salamis in 480 B.C. and at Plataea a year earlier than Salamis. The numerous sculptures on the exterior of the temple represented some of the most important aspects of Greek mythology like the Olympian gods battling the Titans, Greeks fighting the Amazons and the Centaurs and the conquest of Troy.
Named after the mythical king of Athens Erectheus, the shrine housed a variety of lesser gods and goddesses, including a minor avatar of Athena. The asymmetrical structure of the temple is mostly due to the uneven slope of the foundation rock, the floor is three meters lower at the northern end compared to the eastern side. The temple is divided into four main chambers, the largest of which housed the olivewood statue of Athena. A bronze lamp stood in front of the statue, which burned continuously. One of the western chambers housed Athena’s sacred serpent and was fed with honey cakes. Its occasional refusal to eat the cake was deemed to be a bad omen.
Other chambers hosted a assortment of religious paraphernalia and relics from the Persian Wars. Ironically, the temple named after Erectheus also featured an altar dedicated to his murderer Zeus, at the spot where it was believed that the act took place. The main entrance to the Erectheion is from the East and is faced with six Ionic columns. An equal number of columns surrounded the precinct and featured entasis, i.e. thicker bases that narrow as the column rises, as at the Parthenon.
The principle attraction of the Erectheion is unarguably the Caryatid columns on the southern side. Caryatids are sculpted female statues erected as pillars supporting the roof or entablature of a building. The Caryatids are exquisitely ‘clothed’ with delicately plaited hair. The clever sculpting creates folds in the clothing to resemble the normal flutes of an Ionic column. The Caryatids raise their robe slightly with one hand while holding a vessel in the other from which poured libations to the ground as an offering to the dead. The present Caryatids on the Erectheion are exact copies; five of the originals reside in the Acropolis museum while the sixth is with the British Museum.
Image courtesy Jean-Claude Decuyper from Pixabay
Like many ancient remains, the Erectheion has had a tumultuous history. It was damaged by fire only ten years after its completion; it was converted into a church in the 6th century before the Franks turned it into a small palace. The Erectheion suffered its greatest indignity under an Ottoman governor, who used the ancient temple to house his personal harem.
Other Acropolis Buildings:
The Temple of Athena Nike stands on the location of an important shrine dating back to Mycenaean times. The tall mass of rock on which it stood protected one of the most vulnerable access points to the Acropolis. It was dedicated to the later cult of Athena associated with wars. The Old Temple was built several times on the same spot for many centuries and was a focal point of the Panathenaic festival. The Pandrosion was a shrine dedicated to Pandrosus, daughter of Kekrops the first king of Athens.
In Athens, there were young girls who worked for a whole year to weave Athena’s garment for the Panathenaic festival. They were called Arrephores who lived in the building known as the Arrephorion. The Chalkotheke was a structure that housed the treasury and armoury of Athens. Next to the treasury was Brauroneion, a covered walkway called a stoa dedicated to the goddess Artemis Brauronia. Around 500 B.C. the Athenians also built an open-air sanctuary in honour of Zeus Polieus, the City-Protector. Fifty years later, another open-air shrine, the Pandion Sanctuary was built for the All-Zeus festival.
The Acropolis would be repeatedly devastated with fire, canons, earthquakes, looting and simply negligence over two and a half millennia. In 1816, Lord Elgin, with the consent of the Ottomans removed a number of important sculptures and parts of the frieze of the Parthenon in order to preserve them. He sold them to the British Museum, including the famous Elgin marbles. After the Greeks got their independence in 1821, there were several attempts to restore the Acropolis to its former prominence. It was a herculean task despite the involvement of international agencies; it continued sporadically through most of the twentieth century.
Current restoration efforts date back to 1975 and are carried out as per the Venice Charter of 1967, the internationally accepted framework of principles applied to the restoration of ancient monuments. The aim of the enormous project is to resuscitate the entire Acropolis complex to its former pristine glory as far as possible. The most daunting enterprise in the history of archaeological conservation, it involves several international agencies, and more than half the cost is being borne by the European Union. But reconstructing ancient buildings turned out to be much tougher than building new ones.
Today, the Acropolis is an archaeological museum and includes a conventional museum, which showcases important excavated artifacts.