When we planned to visit Athens in October of last year we were looking forward to the history. As it turns out, we enjoyed the modern city just as much as the ancient sites. Since both were equally interesting, this post will be about Athens the old, with the next one focusing on modern Athens.
Beginning in the downtown area, there are a number of interesting churches to see. Also called the Little Metropolis, the Church of Theotokos Gorgoepikoos and Ayios Eleytherios was a tiny 12th century structure in a quieter area of downtown near hotels and cafes. It was built on the ruins of a Greek temple and next to a more modern church.
Closer to the action was the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea. Almost 1000 years old, it followed the theme of building churches on top of temples. It was built on the site of an ancient temple to Athena or Demeter and is now surrounded by bakeries and shops. If you wish to see inside, make sure you are modestly dressed or they won’t let you enter. We couldn’t go in because Kim was wearing shorts.
Even when walking around other areas of downtown such as the markets and financial district, signs of the past weren’t far away. The ancient walls around Athens and the Archanican Gate were located on a site near the fresh food market.
The modern buildings had to accommodate the excavations in creative ways, particularly in the business district. As the glass and steel went up around the ancient ruins they used clear glass layers so people could view the remains of the original structures.
There were a number of archaeological sites in the city, some of which were not open to the public. We would be walking down a city street and then suddenly come upon a large site from ancient times.
Another place we visited was the Agora of Athens, located near the Acropolis but closer to downtown Athens. While there we checked out the Agora of Athens museum, located next to the ruins. The museum was located within the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a huge building that was originally used for education before serving other purposes before being burned by invaders in 267 AD. This reconstruction was finished in 1956.
The ruins of the Agora are spread out and many are just outlines of walls or columns in the ground. Because the area is so large, it is easy to get a sense of the size of the business and marketplace area even though so little has survived the centuries. Among all of the ancient pieces around the Agora one building stood out because it was Christian and mostly intact. This was a 1000 year-old church called Church of the Holy Apostles that was built over top of a pagan grotto. It was possible to take a look inside.
The best preserved monument in the Agora was the Temple of Hephaestus (Hephaisteion), located on a small hill overlooking the site. Because it had been used almost continuously as a temple and then church, it was in great condition compared with the rest of the monuments there. We went up the hill to get a better look.
The one site that can be seen from anywhere in Athens is the Acropolis, and we had to make sure we visited. It took less than an hour from our location downtown to get to the base of the citadel, although once there we had to navigate some narrow streets and then wind around the base of the hill to get to the main entrance around the back.
As we climbed up towards the Acropolis, we noticed a large rock with a number of people on it near its base. At the time we didn’t think much about it but it turned out to be an important stop after we made our way back down.
After paying the entrance fee we started making our way up. Because of a late-afternoon arrival due to the long walk to get there, we barely had an hour before the place was closing for the day, so we made our way up quickly. Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get to the top of the citadel. Along the way we passed an ancient theatre before making our way up to the gateway.
To get to the top you pass through the Propylaea, a public works project initiated by Pericles after the end of the Persian Wars. It was built from 437-432 BC when work stopped and it remained unfinished. Those allowed entry thorough here to the Acropolis could claim the protection of the gods.
Once at the top we had great views of Athens. There is one spot in particular that is easy to find–just go towards the giant Greek flag. This is the best lookout point though it is likely to be crowded. We could see the city, the hills and far-off monasteries from the viewpoint.
Of course the most famous structure on the Acropolis is the Parthenon. Completed in 438 BC when the empire was at its height, it was dedicated to the goddess Athena. Considered the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, it was built on the site of a previous Parthenon destroyed by the Persians decades before. The treasury of Athens was once located inside the Parthenon, making it a very valuable site. Over the centuries the building was repurposed as a Christian church and later as a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, and was severely damaged when the Venetians bombed it during a siege of the Ottomans occupying the city.
Close to the Partheon is the Erechtheion, an ancient temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. On the right side you can see the “Porch of the Maidens”, a series of six unique caryatids. Although they look striking they were actually built to hide a giant support beam put in place for the original plans. The temple plans were changed and the building was modified to save money after the Peloponnesian War began.
With the sun setting and our time up, we started to head back towards the entrance. By this point the security guards were doing their best to shoo the many tourists back down, although most tourists were taking their time doing so.
With the Acropolis now closed we made our way over to the large rock we had noticed after climbing up the Acropolis. It turns out this hill had a lot of significance. It was the Aroepagus (Hill of Ares), a place that served as a court in classical times. Trials involving murder, arson and olive trees(!) were held there, and even the god Ares was reputed to have been put on trial there for murdering Poseidon’s son. For us, it was the perfect spot to watch the sunset with the Acropolis as the backdrop.
From the view on the rock we saw and heard an elaborate ceremony involving the Greek military that closed the Acropolis for the day.
Eventually we made our way down the hill in time to see the lights surrounding the hill come on. Each night we stayed in Athens we enjoyed that same illuminated glow of ancient history from high above.