20 April 2020
A ‘virtual tour’ of a dozen
historic sites in Athens on
a lost ‘lockdown’ Easter
I had planned to be in Greece for Holy Week and Easter, which fell this weekend in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. But the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has cancelled all my travel plans.
I am still hoping to visit Thessaloniki and Halkidiki at the end of August and beginning of September. Perhaps I can even plan in a few weeks’ time to visit Crete later this year.
Meanwhile, to mark Easter in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church this weekend, I am offering a series of ‘virtual tours’ of favourite places in Greece, with a ‘virtual tour’ this evening of a dozen sites in Athens.
This is offered in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen churches and chapels in Crete, a dozen churches in Thessaloniki, a dozen monasteries in Crete, a dozen churches in Rethymnon, and a dozen restaurants in Rethymnon.
Most of my visits to Athens in the past were working visits as a journalist in the 1990s. But I have often returned since then on city breaks and on family occasions.
1, The Acropolis:
The temples on the ‘sacred rock’ of Athens are breath-taking in scale. These are the most important monuments in the western world and they have exerted more influence on our architecture than anything built since.
The great marble masterpieces were built during the ‘Golden Age of Athens,’ during the rule of Pericles in late fifth century BC.
The principal sites on the Acropolis are the Propylaia, the Parthenon or the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion.
The Parthenon or Temple of Athena Nike was built in 427-423 BC by the architect Kallikrates and under the supervision of Phidias. It replaced an earlier small temple and is the epitome of ancient Greek classical art and architecture.
The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of the city, and also served as the city treasury. It was built to celebrate the defeat of the Persians by Athens.
The pediments and metopes or carved pictorial panels above the frieze of the Parthenon were decorated with mythological subjects.
In contrast, the sculptor Phidias decided to decorate the frieze with an elaborate and eloquent depiction of the Panathenaic festival in honour of Athena. This festival took place every four years, lasted 12 days and included rituals and sacrifices, as well as athletic and musical contests. On the last day of the festival, the Panathenaic procession took place from Keramaikos through the city and up the cliffside of the citadel to the Temple of Athena at the Parthenon.
The story of this procession unfolds in more than 160 metres of continuous sculptural decoration on the Parthenon frieze.
The frieze consisted of 115 blocks, was 160 metres long and was 1.02 meters high. Some 378 human figures and deities and more than 200 animals, mainly horses, were depicted on the frieze. Groups of horses and chariots occupy most of the space. They are followed by the sacrificial procession, with animals and groups of men and women carrying ceremonial vessels and offerings.
The procession concludes with the giving of the peplos, the gift of the Athenian people to the decorated statue of Athena. To the left and right of the scene sit the twelve gods of Mount Olympus.
The Propylaia is the monumental or grand entrance through which all visitors entered the Acropolis. It was built in 437-432 BC and was designed by the Athenian architect Mnesikles.
The Erechtheion is the last of the buildings dating from the time of Pericles. It was a temple to Poseidon and Athena, with a porch supported by pillars in the shape of statues known as the Caryatids. Building work finished around 410 BC.
2, The Acropolis Museum:
From the entire frieze, 50 metres are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens today, but 80 metres are in the British Museum, London, one block is in the Louvre in Paris, and other fragments are scattered in museums in Palermo, the Vatican, Würzburg, Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen.
The award-winning Acropolis Museum opened in 2009. The museum is only 280 metres from the Parthenon, or a short 400-metre walk. It stands by the south-east slopes of the Acropolis hill, on the ancient road that led up to the ‘sacred rock’ in classical times. It has a floor area of 14,000 square metres and includes 4,000 artefacts from the Acropolis hill.
The first museum on the Acropolis was built in 1874. It was expanded in the 1950s, but with successive excavations it was unable to house new finds. When I first visited it almost 30 years ago, it had already outgrown its capacity.
The new museum was first planned in the 1990s, but work was delayed for years and eventually abandoned because of sensitive archaeological finds on the site.
The new museum was identified by the Swiss-born New York architect Bernard Tschumi, who worked closely with the Greek architect Michael Photiadis. It stands on the ruins of part of Roman and early Byzantine Athens. After six years of planning and building, the new museum opened in 2009.
At the top floor of the museum, the Parthenon Gallery sits askew above the lower levels, giving it the same orientation as the ancient temple on the Acropolis. The spacing of the columns in the Parthenon hall is the same as that of the ancient temple, and glass walls on all four outside walls allow the natural light to illumine the Parthenon marbles as it would have on the ancient temple.
The 48 columns in the Parthenon hall mark the outline of the ancient temple and form a colonnade that displays the Parthenon marbles. To make viewing easier, the pediment marbles are displayed at eye level in front of the end columns.
The metopes are displayed on the columns, two per column, but not as high as they were in the ancient temple.
The frieze is displayed behind the metopes, forming a continuous band around the walls of a rectangular space set inside the columns, as in the ancient temple but not as high, again for ease of viewing.
3, The Theatres of classical Athens:
As I climbed the Acropolis in the summer sun recently, I stopped a number of times to admire the other sites that illustrate how this place was essential to the life and culture of ancient Athens. They include the Theatre of Dionysus and the Herodium or Theatre of Herodes Atticus, where I have attended concerts.
Climbing up the Acropolis, I was reminded that words in the English language such as theatre, drama and tragedy are derived from Greek and the cultural life of classical Athens.
The word theatre comes from the Ancient Greek θέατρον (théatron), ‘a place for viewing’, itself from θεάομαι (theáomai), to see, to watch, or to observe.
Modern Western theatre owes its ideas, concepts and inspiration to ancient Greek drama, and borrows technical terminology, classification into genres, and many of its themes, stock characters, and plot elements.
Our concept of theatre originated in the city-state of Athens, where theatre was part of a broader culture of theatricality that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics, the gymnasium, music, poetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.
Taking part in the City Dionysia was mandatory for citizens of Athens,, either as members of the audience or as participants, and was an important part of citizenship. Civic participation also involved the evaluation of the rhetoric of orators in the law courts and political assembly, both of which were analogous to the theatre and came to absorb its dramatic vocabulary.
The Theatre of Dionysus was the site of the great drama competitions, where tragedies and comedies by the great playwrights were performed before audiences of 15,000 people, with the engraved marble seats in the front rows reserved for the priests of Dionysus.
The Greeks also developed the concepts of dramatic criticism and theatre architecture. Actors were either amateur or semi-professional.
The theatre of ancient Greece consisted of three types of drama: tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play.
Aristotle was the first theoretician of theatre, and his Poetics (ca 335 BC) is the earliest work of dramatic theory. Aristotle considered drama as a genre of poetry in general, and he contrasted the dramatic mode with the epic and the lyrical modes.
He traced the origins of the theatre in ancient Greece to the festivals that honoured Dionysus. The performances took place in semi-circular auditoria cut into hillsides and seating 10,000 to 20,000 people in the audience. The stage consisted of a dancing floor (orchestra), dressing room and the scene-building area (skene).
Since the words were the most important part of the play, good acoustics and clear delivery mattered. The actors, who were always men, wore masks appropriate to the characters they represented, and each actor might play several parts.
Athenian tragedy – the oldest surviving form of tragedy – is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of Athens. It emerged in the 6th century BC, flowered in the 5th century BC, and continued to be popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
We have no surviving tragedies from the 6th century BC, and only 32 of more than 1,000 that were performed in the 5th century BC have survived, with complete texts for plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
The origins of tragedy remain obscure, though by the 5th century BC it was institutionalised in competitions held as part of the festivities celebrating Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.
The Dionysian competition was the most prestigious of the festivals to stage drama. Playwrights were required to present plays that usually consisted of three tragedies and one satyr play. The performance of tragedies at the City Dionysia may have begun as early as 534 BC, when Pisistratus, the ruler of Athens, formalised the Dionysian festivals into full drama competitions that took place each year.
The first competition was won by Thespis, who is remembered for his innovation of the solo narrative. He gives his name to the word thespian, and the role he created is now known as the protagonist.
Most Athenian tragedies dramatise events from Greek mythology, although the notable exception is The Persians, which tells of the Persian response to the news of their military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. When Aeschylus won first prize for it at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, he had been writing tragedies for more than 25 years. However, this tragic treatment of recent history is the earliest example of drama to survive. His Oriestea tells of the house of Atreus, the most dysfunctional family in ancient Greece.
Aeschylus, who is regarded as the ‘Father of Tragedy,’ introduced the second innovation with the antagonist. Sophocles, who defeated Aeschylus in 468 BC, introduced a third innovation – a third character. Only seven plays by Sophocles have survived, and his reputation rests on the three plays in the Theban tragedies: Oedipus Rex, which is still considered the greatest masterpiece of tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.
After the age of great tragedy, Aristophanes, the greatest comic playwright, brought a breath of fresh air to Athenian drama. His raunchy, hilarious Lysistrata is one of the great anti-war protests of all time. The play tells of how the women of warring Sparta and Athens refused to sleep with their husbands until they stopped fighting.
Athenian comedy is usually divided into three periods, ‘Old Comedy,’ ‘Middle Comedy’ and ‘New Comedy.’ Old Comedy survives today largely in the 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost. New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander, whose statue stands in front of the Theatre of Dionysus.
Aristotle defined comedy as a representation of laughable people that involves some kind of blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.
The two masks associated with drama represent the traditional generic division between comedy and tragedy, and are symbols of the ancient Greek Muses, Thalia, and Melpomene. Thalia was the Muse of comedy (the laughing face), while Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy (the weeping face).
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a late addition to the Acropolis. It was built on the south slopes of the Acropolis in the year 161 AD by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Roman, in memory of his wife Regilla. For almost 2,000 years, this amphitheatre was the premiere showcase for the performing arts in Athens.
The theatre was excavated in 1857-1858, and was restored between 1950 and 1961. In summer months, it is now a venue for summer festivals, concerts and plays.
Popular Greek culture today enjoys the included colourful characters from Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης), the shadow puppet theatre that takes its name from a popular character in Greek culture and folklore.
These colourful puppets are two dimensional and are seen in profile, made in either wood or cardboard, with their torso, waist, feet and arms as separate pieces that are joined together with pins and that are moved with sticks attached to their backs.
Karagiozis is a well-loved figure in Greek folklore, performed at folk feasts, festivals and on television. In Greek daily speech, the name Karagiozis is also used as an insult more or less like clown. But, while Karagiozis can be violent, mischievous, a liar and an anti-hero, he is also good-natured and faithful.
Everyone in Greece loves Karagiozis, and recalls with affection the regular, weekly Karagiozis shows on Greek television in the 1980s, which showed Karagiozis living out some Greek myths or visiting the moon and other planets.
Several legends tell of the arrival of Karagiozis in Greece and his growth in popularity. Some say Greek merchants brought the art from China and others say it was a Greek who created the legend under Ottoman rule to entertain the sultan. Others say it began in real events involving two masonry workers, named Karagöz and Haci Ivat, who were building a mosque in Bursa in Turkey in the early 14th century.
Karagiozis is a poor hunch-backed Greek, with a long right hand, clothes that are ragged and patched, and bare feet. He lives in a poor cottage with his wife Aglaia and their three sons under Ottoman rule. The scene shows their cottage on the left, and the Sultan’s Palace (Sarai) on the far right. Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and to feed his family.
But modern Greek drama also includes movies such as Z and the movies of Theo Angelopoulos.
One of Greece’s best known film actors was Melina Mercouri (1920-1994), who was Minister of Culture and Tourism (1981-1989, 1993-1994) in the governments of Andreas Papandreou. She was a strong advocate for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens from the British Museum in London. Her statue stands on Leoforos Vasilissis Amalias (Queen Amalia Avenue), near the entrance to the Acropolis and on the edges of the Plaka.
4, The Agora:
One of the many splendid buildings beneath the slopes of the Acropolis is the Stoa of Attalos, a stoa, covered walkway or portico in the Agora. It was built by and named after King Attalos II (159-138 BC) of Pergamon. Its arcades were divided into shops and stalls, and it was a popular place for wealthy Athenians to meet and gossip.
There were many stoas in Athens, including the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, originally called the Porch of Peisianax built in the fifth century BC on the north side of the Agora.
The Stoa Poikile was one of the most famous sites in ancient Athens, owing its fame to the paintings and loot from wars displayed in it. It was in this porch that Zeno of Citium taught Stoicism, the philosophical school that takes its name from place.
The Stoa Poikile stood for over six centuries, but was damaged when Athens was sacked the Goths in 267 AD, and again when paintings were removed by a Roman governor around 396 AD. The Stoa may have continued to stand for another 50 to 100 years until it was demolished used for building material for a city wall.
The Stoa Basileios or Royal Stoa, was built in the sixth century BC and rebuilt in the fifth century, in the north-west corner of the Agora. Socrates met Euthyphro in front of this stoa, and had the conversation recreated by Plato in his Euthyphro, and it was here that Socrates was formally charged with impiety.
The Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, in the north-west corner of the Agora, was built ca 425 BC-410 BC and was one of the places where Socrates taught.
The large Middle Stoa took up the major part of the central marketplace or Agora, and its aisles were lined with Doric columns.
Close to the Theatre of Dionysos and the Asclepion on the slopes of the Acropolis, the Stoa of Eumenes was built by Eumenes, King of Pergamon. This colonnade was used as a shelter and promenade for theatre goers.
During his visit to Athens, the Apostle Paul debated with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in the marketplace or the agora, probably at the Stoa of Attalos rather than the Stoa Poikile. They took him to the shrine of the unknown god at the Areopagus (see Acts 17: 16-19).
In his letters, Saint Paul drew on his knowledge of Stoic philosophy, using Stoic terms and metaphors to assist his new Gentile converts in their understanding of Christianity.
In his translation of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Anglican Patristic scholar, the Revd Maxwell Staniforth, discussed the profound impact Stoicism had on Christianity. He connected the use of term Logos for Christ in Saint John’s Gospel was influenced by a term that ‘had long been one of the leading terms of Stoicism, chosen originally for the purpose of explaining how deity came into relation with the universe.’
He says other theological thinking that is influenced by Stoicism includes debates about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Stoic influence can also be seen in the works of Saint Ambrose and Tertullian, and Stoic writings such as the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius have been highly regarded by many Christian writers throughout the centuries.
The Stoa of Attalos was fully rebuilt in 1952-1956, and the Ancient Agora Museum was established by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The Stoa of Attalos now houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora, and its exhibits are mostly connected with the Athenian democracy.
5,The Roman Forum:
The Romans moved the marketplace in Athens from the old Agora to the Roman Forum in the first century AD. The new forum was smaller than the one it replaced, but the marble-pillared courtyard was a grander place to set up shop. This remained the commercial and administrative centre of Athens until the 19th century.
For decades, archaeologists have used the forum as a repository for unclassified finds from throughout Attica, so that the site is studded with mis-matched ‘extras.’
One of the lasting sights in the Roman Forum is the Tower of the Winds, or Aerides, an octagonal tower built by the Syrian astronomer Andronikos Kyrrhestas in 50 BC and the world’s first meteorological station.
Each side is decorated with personifications of the winds, and a water clock inside was powered by a stream from the Acropolis.
Nearby, the Choregic Tower of Lysikrates was erected to honour Lysikrates when he won the Dionysian Choral competition in 335/334 BCE.
The monument is known as the first use of the Corinthian order on the exterior of a building. It was once known as the Lantern of Demosthenes. It became part of a French Capuchin monastery in the 1650s and 1660s, and Lord Byron stayed at the monastery during his second visit to Greece.
6, The Panathenaic Stadium:
The first modern Olympic Games were staged in 1896 at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens Kallimarmaro. This is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. A stadium was built on the site of a simple racecourse by the Athenian statesman Lykourgos ca 330 BC, primarily for the Panathenaic Games. It was rebuilt in marble by Herodes Atticus by 144 AD and had a capacity of 50,000 seats.
The stadium was excavated in 1869 and hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. After it was refurbished, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was the venue for four of the nine contested sports.
It is the finishing point for the annual Athens Classic Marathon and it was an Olympic venue once again in 2004. It is also the last venue in Greece for handing over the Olympic flame to the host nation.
Close to the Panathenaic Stadium, in the Zappeion National Gardens, the Zappeion Hall is often used for official and private meetings and ceremonies.
The Zappeion is named after its benefactor, Evangelis Zappas, and was designed by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen.
7, Hadrian’s Arch and Hadrian’s Library:
The Arch of Hadrian or Hadrian’s Gate is a monumental gateway 325 metres south-east of the Acropolis, resembling a Roman triumphal arch. It spanned an ancient road from the centre of Athens to a complex of structures on the east side that included the Temple of the Olympian Zeus.
The arch was first intended to celebrate the arrival of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in Athens in 131 or 132 AD, and two inscriptions on opposite sides of the arch name Theseus and Hadrian as founders of Athens: ‘This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus’ (Αιδ' εισιν Αθηναι Θησεωσ η Πριν Πολισ) and ‘This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus’ (Αιδ' εισ' Αδριανου κουχι Θησεωσ Πολισ). It was once said the arch marked the division between the old and the new city.
Hadrian’s Library on the north side of the Acropolis was built for the Emperor Hadrian in 132 AD. It was built in an architectural style typical of a Roman Forum architectural style.
The library was on the east side where rolls of papyrus books were kept, and the library had reading rooms and lecture halls.
The library was seriously damaged in 267 and repaired in 407-412. During Byzantine times, there were three churches on the site, including the 12th century Megali Panagia, the first cathedral of the city.
Kerameikos, north-west of the Acropolis, was an extensive area both within and outside the ancient city walls, on both sides of the Dipylon Gate and by the banks of the Eridanos River. This was the potters’ quarter and gives us the English word ‘ceramic.’
Kerameikos was also the site of an important cemetery, with numerous funerary sculptures along the road out of the city towards Eleusis. The original burial monuments and sculptures are displayed in the museum, with replicas on the site.
A plague pit and about 1,000 tombs from the 4th and 5th centuries BC were discovered when the Kerameikos station was being built for the Athens Metro.
9, Syntagma Square:
Today, Syntagma Square is the central square of the Greek capital and is at the heart of Greek commercial and political life. The square takes its name from the Constitution that King Otto was obliged to concede after a popular and military uprising in 1843.
The 19th century Old Royal Palace has housed the Greek Parliament since 1934. Every hour, the changing of the guard, performed by the Presidential Guard or Evzones, has taken place in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the area between Syntagma Square and the Parliament building.
On some days, a ceremonial changing of the guard includes an army band, with the majority of the 120 Evzones present at 11 am.
10, The Plaka and Monastiraki:
The Plaka is regarded the oldest section of Athens, and stretches from under the Acropolis almost to Syntagma Square, and the Mansion of Benizelou, the oldest surviving house in Athens, is at 96 Adrianou Street.
Most of the streets have been closed to automobile traffic and pedestrianised. Two pedestrianised streets are considered the heart of the Plaka: Kydathineon and Adrianou, named after the Emperor Hadrian.
This was once the nightclub district, but most of these closed when amplified music in the area was outlawed in the 1970s. The area then became a centre for tourist shopping, with its restaurants, jewellery shops, tourist shops, and cafés.
Monastiraki is another busy area in the heart of Athens. Here are the Flea market, a busy square and metro station, and shopping streets and restaurants that are a continuation of the Plaka and that offer spectacular views of the Acropolis, especially at night.
The area takes its name from the church and monastery that stood here from the 10th century. The monastery lost most of lands and properties in the area as major archaeological excavations began in the 19th century, and with the monastery’s property depleted, the area itself became known as Monastiraki, or ‘Little Monastery.’
11, The house of Richard Church:
The second oldest surviving house in Athens is the Tower of Church, on the corner of School Street and Epicharmou Street in the Plaka. This three-storey tower was fortified, and this distinguishes it from all other buildings in the Plaka. It is one of the few Ottoman buildings in Athens to have survived to this day.
The house was built in the 18th century, and was sold in 1835 to the Scottish historian and Philhellene George Finlay (1799-1875). Finlay, in turn, gave the house to his friend and comrade, Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), the Cork-born general, and so it is known as the Tower of Church. Today it is covered in graffiti, and there are signs or plaques to indicate the important role it played in the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century.
Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes,’ was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. After the Greek War of Independence, King Otho (1832-1862) appointed him Inspector-General of the army. Church played a key role in the coup d’état in 1843, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication.
Church remained a life senator and when he died in his 90th year on 27 March 1873, he received a public funeral from Saint Paul’s Anglican Church and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to the heroes of the War of Independence.
This connection between his faith and his life is seen in Saint Paul’s Church, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land.
Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’
Church also gave his name to the awkwardly spelt Tzortz Street (Οδός Τζορτζ), now part of a depressed corner of Athens off Kanigos Square and Akadimias Street. When he was writing in Greek, Church spelled his name Τζορτζ. It is such a pity that the English transliteration of the street name is not properly rendered as Church Street.
12, The Academy:
The Academy of Athens is Greece’s national academy, and the highest research establishment in the country. It was established in 1926, and is under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. The Academy building between Panepistimiou Street and Akadimias Street is a major landmarks of Athens.
The name of the Academy of Athens hearkens back to the Academy of Plato. It was established in 1926, and has three Orders – Natural Sciences, Letters and Arts, Moral and Political Sciences – four research centres, seven research offices and a central library.
The main building of the Academy, between Panepistimiou Street and Akadimias Street, was designed the Danish architect Theophil Hansen in 1859 as part of an architectural trilogy, along with the University and the National Library.
The original Academy in Athens was founded by Plato ca 387 BC. Aristotle studied there for 20 years (367–347 BC) before founding his own school, the Lyceum. The Platonic Academy was destroyed by the Roman dictator Sulla in 86 BC, and Plato’s Academy came to an end after the death of Philo of Larissa in 83 BC. The site was rediscovered in the 20th century.
In this evening’s posting I have said nothing about my favourite churches in Athens, apart from Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, nor anything about my favourite restaurants and cafés in the city. I could also list 12 places to visit on a day trip from Athens.
Hopefully this lockfown and pandemic will soon come to an end, and I can return to Athens soon again.