You can’t go to Greece without going to Athens, right? Our last three days with the Germains, then, were in Athens touring museums, climbing the Acropolis, eating great food, and trying our darnedest to stay out of the heat. From here, they head back to the States and that thing Dan calls a “job” – I don’t know, but apparently it’s something you have to go back to after a “vacation,” whatever that is – while we’re catching an overnight boat to the island of Rhodes.Mark & I had been to Athens just a little over three years ago, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time than I remembered, notwithstanding daytime temperatures well up into the upper 90s. Part of it was just enjoying our last days with the Germains, but part of it, too, was that I’ve recently read three books of Greek history. Suddenly all the stuff I was seeing here was more alive, had more meaning, than my earlier visit. Yes, there are certainly museum exhibits of just too many broken vases and jars and stuff, but when the basic outlines of Mycenaeans, Minoans, Persians, Classical Age, Peloponnese War, Pericles, Socrates, Romans, and all that start fitting together, all those old broken rocks start to take on more meaning.
The Acropolis – that glorious, huge rock outcrop that towers over the city – is the center of all that’s cool about ancient Greece. I used to be confused about the distinction between the Acropolis and the Parthenon, but now I have that clear: an acropolis is any citadel-like settlement, typically on a hill or other easily defended high ground; many old Greek cities had settlements called acropolises. As by far the most famous, though, Athens’s acropolis is just known as the Acropolis. The Parthenon is the major temple on the Acropolis, dedicated to the patron god of Athens, the goddess Athena.
While there is evidence of people living on the Acropolis for a few thousand years – it would make sense to take advantage of the high ground in a dangerous world – it was only in the mid-fifth century BC that the Athenian leader Pericles began the building program that created the Parthenon and other monuments on the Acropolis that we know today.
It was actually a military tragedy that led to Pericles’s project to build a glorious temple to Athena. The far more powerful Persian empire had gone to war against Greece at the start of the fifth century BC. Although the Greeks won an important battle at Marathon in 490 BC, the Persians pulled back to regroup and invaded Greece again in 480 BC. This time they were not to be denied. After pushing into Greece over the dead Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (think The 300 Spartans or the more recent 300), the Persians had free access to Athens. The Athenians chose to abandon their city so they could fight another day and enemy sacked the city and trashed the Acropolis, leaving it’s ancient buildings and temples in smoldering ruins.
When the Athenians, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis later in 480 they initially decided to leave the Acropolis in ruins as a reminder to themselves and their heirs of how horrible the Persians were and how the Athenians had sacrificed to defeat them. By the mid-fifth century BC, however, Athens was ready to move on. Their leader Pericles, perhaps the greatest Athenian leader ever, devised the plans for a greatly enhanced temple to Athena and up it went along with a variety of other monumental buildings.
Over time, of course, everything falls down. In the case of the Parthenon, history records two cataclysmic events that destroyed much of what time hadn’t yet. In 1687 the Venetians were attacking the Ottomans who controlled Greece. The Venetian bombardment hit the Parthenon, where the Turks stored their ammunition, and *BOOM* went the Parthenon. Then in 1806 the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the 7th Earl of Elgin, decided he wanted a piece of the action. Allegedly with the permission of the Turks, though the Greeks say he bribed them and was guilty of looting Greek patrimony, the Earl of Elgin expropriated half of the remaining statues along with other remaining ornaments from the Parthenon. Today the Elgin Marbles – priceless historic relics, not the kind of marbles kids play with – are on display in the British Museum, though the Greek government remains committed to their repatriation.
That’s what we went to Athens to see. There is a fabulous Acropolis Museum near the Acropolis that houses some of the original statuary and ornamentation, brought indoors to protect it from acid rain and other environmental impacts, along with replicas of the Elgin Marbles. Athens also hosts the National Archeological Museum, presumably the greatest collection from Greek antiquity in the world. Given the heat outdoors, the museums were a welcome alternative to exploring outdoors.
So now Laura & Dan, et al., are U.S.-bound while Mark & I are getting ready to head south to the islands, where it can get as hot as it wants so long as we’re near a beach.