The Acropolis: What’s the Big Deal?

You’ve been in Athens for ten minutes and already you’re thinking “Enough of the Acropolis already!” It’s old, it’s important, I get it. Why is it such a big deal? Good question. To start, you have to mentally erase what you see of the Acropolis today. In the beginning, there was a flat-topped hill, a fertile valley, and a Mycenaean temple. In other words, the Acropolis has been inhabited for nearly 5000 years, so stop saying that you’re “getting so old.”

Sometime after the end of Mycenaean rule, Athenians dedicated the hill to the pagan goddess Athena and erected a set of religious structures on top of it. As Athens developed from dinkytown to major trade port, the ruler Pericles decided to transform the Acropolis into a spectacle of city-state pride. Under Pericles’ building program (during the Golden Age of Athens, 460-430 BCE), the Acropolis transformed from a collection of temples to an extravaganza of classical art and architecture.

First, there’s the Parthenon—the crowd-pleaser, Pericles’s pride, the most recognized symbol of Athens. Originally a far less impressive temple to Athena, the Parthenon was transformed by the greatest architects of Classical Greece into a massive colonnaded structure decorated with friezes (marble murals). The construction revolutionized architectural techniques at the time, resulting in some cool optical illusions: the outer columns swell in the middle to appear straight from a distance, and they tilt slightly inwards. At one point in the fifth century BCE, the Parthenon served as a treasury for the Delian League, an alliance of city-states. The temple has also served as a church, a mosque, and a storehouse for gunpowder during the Venetian siege of 1687, which resulted in half the building blowing up. Oops.

If walls could talk, you’d want to get coffee with the Erechtheion, which has been (1) a temple to Athena (duh), (2) a church, (3) a Turkish governor’s harem, and (4) a bomb recipient. Ingeniously designed to make use of uneven ground and avoid old burial plots, the Erechtheion boasts the famous Porch of the Caryatids, whose columns are modeled on individual female figures.

Before you get to the Erechtheion, though, you must pass through the Propylaia, the grand entrance gate. One of the greatest examples of Doric architecture, which still greets all visitors to the Acropolis, the Propylaea was originally designed to extend outward with massive marble wings. These plans never materialized, as Athens instead went to war with (This! Is!) Sparta (431 BCE). Just outside the Propylaia gates rests the Temple of Athena Nike, an open-air sanctuary dedicated to the goddess of victory. This temple is notable for its easy access to the Athenian public, and for inspiring a shoe company you’ve probably never heard of.

Phew, that’s a lot. You can get your selfie with the Parthenon now.

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