Note: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece–ahem, 35 years ago–I have been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently returned from a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gave an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
Our whirlwind odyssey through Greece was designed to visit some research highlights, settings for my novel-in-progress, so I barely had time to absorb some of the wealth of history, landscape, and culture in each stop. Athens and surroundings could fill three weeks or more, instead of three days! Thor and I nearly hit sensory overload trying to soak up as much as possible. We’ve vowed to return soon, as he’s become just as enamored as I am with this magical country.
(above, Temple of Hephaistos in Athens)
It was a 14-hour journey from Vancouver, B.C. (just over the border from our home in Bellingham, WA) via Munich to Athens. Jet lag became irrelevant as the excitement of returning (for me) and the thrill of newly experiencing (for Thor) this ancient and still-thriving city charged our batteries. Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world still retaining its original name, and it’s been continuously inhabited for at least 5000 years. Evidence shows that the Mycenaeans, during the period of Agememnon and the Trojan War, 1250-1200 BC, had built a fortress and a temple to the goddess Athena atop the Athens Acropolis. It was later, during the Classical period, that the buildings we see there today were installed. (The Parthenon was begun in 447 BC by the ruler Pericles). In the midst of the bustling modern city, it seems that everywhere you turn there are buildings or remnants of past eras. (Below is the ancient agora or gathering-place, from the Acropolis.)
For this installment, I’ll look at remains of ancient Athens, mostly the Classical period from around 462 to 330 BC. This beautiful bronze statue in the Archeological Museum is thought to represent the goddess Aphrodite with her signature dove.
Naturally, the highest priority for any tourist in Athens is to climb to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, dedicated to the patron goddess Athena and the symbol of Classical Greek culture. Due to our late arrival the night before, Thor and I decided to use our first full day to visit the outstanding and recently-renovated Archeology Museum and nearby sites, saving the Acropolis for the next day when we could get up early to visit that site as it first opened. We were glad we did that, as we beat the crowds mobbing the gate when we left, and also escaped the blazing midday sun during the heat wave the region was experiencing in September.
We followed the marble paving of the ancient Panathenaic Way. It’s the route taken by celebrants of the important Panathenaic Procession (a lesser one every year, and a Greater one every four years). The procession involved bringing sacrificial animals, maidens with drink, musicians, and dancers to honor Athena in the form of her giant statue in the Parthenon. A sacred peplos or shawl was draped over the statue at the end. The original statute must have been awe-inspiring at over 37 feet tall, made of ivory and gold, with jewels for eyes. The goddess is depicted in battle attire, holding an image of winged Victory in one hand and a shield with a serpent curling behind it in the other.
This small marble copy in the Athens Archeological Museum, from the Roman era, is said to be the most accurate image of the lost statue.
Continuing to follow the Panathenaic Way, Thor and I climbed below the fortified walls of the natural acropolis outcrop. The age-polished marble stairs leading to the original entrance of the Propylaia were slippery even when dry! Marble is so abundant in this land of limestone geology, that almost all buildings and walkways, ancient and modern, have used it extensively.
The first tiny temple on the right is the restored Temple of Athena Nike built around 425 BC. The legends tell that the goddess of wisdom Athena and the sea-god Poseidon competed for the honor of being patron of the city and naming it. Poseidon produced a fresh-water spring by jabbing his trident into the ground. Athena created the olive tree to provide nourishment and symbolize peace. She won, and the city was named Athens.
The most impressive temple on the Acropolis, and the centerpiece of the ancient worship, is the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena.
Through the centuries and various invaders and occupying nations, it remained in use, sometimes as a church. When the Turks occupied the land, they stored their gunpowder there, and when they came under attack by the Venetians, a terrible explosion blew off the roof and caused extensive damage. Further damage was done by the British Lord Elgin, who infamously removed many of the sculptures on the friezes of the pediments under the roof supports, partly to save them from further damage by the Turks. The Elgin Marbles, as they are called (NOT by the Greeks) are now in the British Museum, and the Greeks are rather bitter about it, calling for their return. Now that the terrible smog that afflicted the city when I stayed there in the early 1980s is cleaned up (it caused degradation of many of the statues and monuments), and there is a wonderful new Acropolis Museum that houses the rest of the pediment statuary that survived, it does seem right that the Brits should return the Elgin Marbles.
When Thor and I were in London, we saw the Elgin Marbles there. This is from the frieze depicting the Olympian gods and goddesses:
The Parthenon has been in various stages of restoration for decades, and the scaffolding that I saw there in 1982 is still there (though I hope they are new ones!), along with giant cranes. There are 8 fluted Doric columns on the ends, and 17 on each side. To achieve perfect classic form, the famous sculptor Pheidias directed the columns to be curved to create the optical illusion of straightness.
In my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, my modern-day Ariadne, under pursuit and facing a dark night of the soul, flees to Athens to lose herself among squatters in earthquake-damage streets. She looks up and finds hope in this image of order and beauty:
She swayed, squinting past fragments of broken walls, a distant billboard and buildings.
There. Through a gap, she caught a pale shimmer. On top of that high rock outcrop, a clean white geometry of fluted marble columns and sweeping cornices, impossible perfection floating above the squalid Athens streets and smog. Harmony and balance.
In the cornices, there are still remnants of the frieze sculptures.
In the new Acropolis Museum below the site, reconstructions of the original appearance of the Parthenon (based on historical drawings before the destructive explosion) help with visualization.
This model depicts the contest between Athena and Poseidon.
And this one, from the opposite pediment, shows the Olympian gods and goddesses. On the left, Helios the sun god rides his sun chariot and horses up into daylight, and on the right they ride down into night.
My own favorite building on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, on the site where Poseidon produced the spring and Athena planted the first sacred olive tree. The larger-than-life Karyatides, statues of maidens instead of columns, support the southern portico.
The Karyatides on site are reconstructions; the remaining originals are in the new Acropolis Museum.
The other side of the temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon is supported by Ionic columns.
And on the other side, one of Athena’s sacred olive trees still flourishes, fed by Poseidon’s spring.
I’ll be back here next Saturday to continue our Athens explorations, including more from the museums and streets! I hope you’ll join me.
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect.