Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Acropolis

The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock shaped like a boat with narrow ends to the east and west and sheer cliffs on all sides.
The top, at an elevation of 490 feet, has a surface area of about 300 acres.
It was a place not only for the worship of the goddess Athena, but for other goddesses, gods and heroes.

The Acropolis, which means “high city,” was inhabited from an early time because it was so defensible.
It had only one way to the top, from the west end, and there was also a spring, deep in a cavern, which provided water. In the Bronze Age, from 1550 to 1200 BC, the culture was known as Mycenaean and there were a series of mythological kings that lived on the Acropolis. One of those kings, Erechtheus, was born from an attempt by Hephaestus to rape Athena. She eluded him and his semen fell on the ground, impregnating the earth god, Gaia. Erechtheus was born from the earth and raised by Athena. Another king, Menestheus, was a minor figure in Homer’s Iliad. Another, Cecrops, presided over the competition between Athena and Poseidon to be the patron deity of Athens. Each agreed they would give the Athenians one gift and that Cecrops would choose the gift the Athenians preferred. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a salt spring sprang up. This was not thought very useful as it was not good for drinking. Athena’s gift, which was accepted, was the first domesticated olive tree which provided the Athenians with wood, oil and food. Poseidon magnanimously granted his gift anyway, although its nature was initially misunderstood. It represented sea power which Athens used skillfully in the future.

During the late Bronze Age, the Acropolis had a Mycenaean megaron on top, used for feasts, worship, sacrifice and royal functions. The megaron was the predecessor of the classical Greek temple. There was also a circuit wall built which served as the main defense until the fifth century BC. The Bronze Age ended mysteriously, perhaps by an invasion of the Dorians combined with environmental factors. All of the great ceremonial centers and palaces of that age were abandoned, except for Athens.

Greece experienced a dark age from 1200 to 800 BC. There were no monumental stone buildings built and very little is known about the period. During the archaic period, from 800 to 510 BC, written language was reintroduced, there were the beginnings of philosophy, theater and poetry and the rise of the polis. It also saw the development of a new authority structure based on clans and the phasing out of kings. Each clan, or family, had a sanctuary on their own spot on the Acropolis, each with an altar, a priest or priestess from that family, their own god, goddess or hero, and young followers to defend it. Worship of the gods was divided among the clans.

Classical Greece went from 510 BC, the fall of the Athenian tyrant, Hippias, to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. It was a highly advanced culture which heavily influenced Ancient Rome and European civilization, particularly in politics, art, science, literature and philosophy. The most important buildings visible on the Acropolis today: the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum and Temple of Athena Nike, were erected in the mid-5th century BC under the direction of Pericles.
As you go up the west side of the Acropolis today, there are some steep staircases with a ramp running alongside. The ramp was used for sacrificial goats, sheep, oxen and other animals being led to the altars on the summit. If the animals had stumbled and been hurt, the sacrifices would have been imperfect. The gate near the top is the Propylaea. Below is a 19th century drawing of the Propylaea.
The Propylaea was designed by Mnesicles and built under the direction of Pericles. Construction began in 437 BC and terminated in 432 BC before it was finished. The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC resulted in the Propylaea not being completed. The eastern wings are missing and wall surfaces were not trimmed to their finished shapes.
The Propylaea was constructed of white Pentelic marble and gray Eleusinian marble or limestone, which was used only for accents. It has a central building with two adjoining wings, one to the north
and one to the south.
The building has a standard six columned Doric fa├žade both on the west to those entering the Acropolis
 and on the east to those departing. It also contains the gate wall, about two-thirds of the way through it. There are five gates in the wall. One gate, for the central passageway, was the culmination of the Sacred Way which led to the Acropolis. The Propylaea survived intact until 1656 when a gun powder magazine inside the Parthenon exploded (more on that below), causing severe damage to it. There was also a tower of French or Ottoman origin on the south wing which was pulled down in 1874.

As you go through the gate of the Propylaea you see the Parthenon, also known as the Temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin), ahead and to your right.
You are looking at the back. The front door to all Greek temples is to the east
so the morning sun could shine into the temple and light up the statue of the deity inside. Construction on the Parthenon began in 447 BC. The architects were Ictinus and Callicrates. It was completed in 438 BC, but decorations continued until 431 BC. It is considered the culmination of development of the Doric order. Its decorative sculptures are considered some of the high points of Greek art. The largest single expense in building the Parthenon was the transportation of stone from Mount Pentelicus. Part of the building costs came from the treasury of the Delian League which had moved to the Acropolis from the Panhellenic sanctuary at Delos in 454 BC. The Parthenon had 46 outer pillars
and the cella, or inner chamber, was set apart by 19 inner pillars.
The roof was covered with large overlapping marble tiles. Inside the cella
was a large statue of Athena sculpted by Phidias, the most renowned sculptor of ancient Greece. Work began on the sculpture in 447 BC and it was dedicated in 439 or 438 BC. It was the most renowned cult image in Athens. It had a wooden core and an outer coating of ivory for the skin of her face and hands and shaped bronze plates covered with 2,500 pounds of removable gold plates for her robe and helmet. The picture below is of another sculpture of Athena which is similar to what the sculpture in the Parthenon might have looked like.
Pausanias, in the 2nd century AD, gave this description of the statue: “...The statue itself is made of ivory silver and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx ... and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief. ... The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief.” The Metopes were 92 marble panels running along the outside walls and part of the Doric frieze. The metopes of each side had a different subject. The south metopes showed the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The east metopes were above the main entrance and showed the final stages of the battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants. The west metopes showed the invasion of Athens by the Amazons and the north metopes showed scenes of the Trojan War. The Parthenon frieze is a low relief, pentelic marble sculpture adorning the upper outside part of the cella. About 80 percent of it survives, mostly at the British Museum, a major part of the Elgin Marbles. No one is exactly sure what it represents, but some postulate that it depicts either the founding myth of Athens or the Panathenaic procession from the Dipylon Gate in the Kerameikos (an area of Athens northwest of the Acropolis) to the Acropolis. The pediments are the gable ends of the temple. The west pediment faced the Propylaea
and depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon to become the patron of Athens. The east pediment narrated the birth of Athena. Athena was the daughter of Metis, a Titan. In order to avoid a prophecy that any offspring of Metis would be greater than he, Zeus swallowed Metis to prevent her from having children. However, Metis was already pregnant with Athena. Metis gave birth to Athena and nurtured her inside Zeus until Zeus complained of headaches and called for Hephaestus to split open his head with smithing tools. Athena burst forth from Zeus’s forehead armed with weapons given her by her mother.

The large statue of Athena continued to stand until the fifth century AD when a Roman emperor looted it and took it to Constantinople where it was later destroyed, perhaps during the siege of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 AD. A modern replica, almost 42 feet tall, based on descriptions given of the original, is in Nashville, Tennessee, which also has a replica of the Parthenon. The picture below, which I did not take, is off the Nashville Athena.
The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the Church of the Parthenos Maria) in the 6th century AD where it was an important pilgrimage in the Eastern Roman Empire. Conversion involved removing internal columns and some of the walls of the cella and the creation of an apse at the eastern end. During the Latin occupation begun by the Fourth Crusade, it became a Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady until Athens fell in 1456 to the Ottomans. In the early 1460s, a minaret was added and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque. Aside from the roof, the Parthenon was pretty much intact until September 26, 1687. On that day, during an attack by the Venetians on the Ottoman Turks, a Venetian mortar blew up a gunpowder magazine located inside the Parthenon and the Parthenon and its sculptures were severely damaged. In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed some of the surviving sculptures with the Ottoman Turks’ permission. Known as the Elgin Marbles, and as indicated above, they were sold to the British Museum in 1816. In 1832, when independent Greece gained control of Athens, the visible section of the minaret was demolished and all medieval and Ottoman buildings on the Acropolis were destroyed. The Greek government is currently trying to get the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece, so far without success.

The central area of the Acropolis has no buildings, but is full of broken marble fragments from structures that have been destroyed. An earlier temple to Athena was located there, but it was burned down by the Persians in 480 BC when King Xerxes captured Athens as a reprisal for an act of terrorism of the Athenians. The Athenians, along with some other Greek city-states, had gone over to Asia Minor to the Persian capital at Sardis and burned the Temple of the Mother Goddess of Asia called Cybele. This gave the kings of the Persians, first Darius, then his son, Xerxes, cause for a holy war against the Greeks. The Athenians decided to leave the remains of Athena’s temple as a reminder to future generations of what they had suffered from the Persians and as a justification for perpetual war against the Persians. After the Athenians became the head of a league of Greeks, known as the Delian League, those Greeks paid them tribute to keep up the holy war with the Persians. The huge sums of money coming to the Athenians was what funded the new structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, in the 5th century BC.

The Parthenon was not really a temple. It had no altar and no priestess inside. There was no clan who claimed to worship Athena there. It was a war monument to congratulate the Athenians for their victories over the Persians. It was also a bank, with treasures piled up on the porches and in the interior rooms. The temple built to replace the one destroyed by the Persians was called the Erectheum, the building you see on your left when you walk through the Propylaea, on the north side of the Acropolis.
It was built between 421 and 407 BC. Its architect may have been Mnesicles and the sculptor and mason was Phidias. Its name may have come from the legendary king Erechtheus who is said to have been buried nearby. It was built entirely of marble from Mount Pentelikon, with friezes of black limestone from Eleusis which bore sculptures executed in relief in white marble. It had elaborately carved doorways and windows and columns were ornately decorated.
They were painted, gilded and highlighted with gilt bronze and multi-colored inset glass beads. The Erectheum was a combination of sacred precincts including the temples of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, and Cecrops, among others. The main structure has four compartments, the largest being the east cella, with an Ionic portico on its east end. On the north side is another large porch with columns,
and on the south, the famous “Porch of the Maidens,” with six draped female figures (caryatids) as supporting columns,
each sculpted in a manner different from the rest and engineered in such a way that their slenderest part, the neck, is capable of supporting the weight of the porch roof while remaining graceful and feminine. One of the caryatids was removed by Lord Elgin and was later sold to the British Museum as part of the Elgin Marbles.
Elgin also destroyed one of the caryatids while attempting to remove it from the Erectheum. The Erectheum housed some of the most holy relics of the Athenians, including the gifts from Athena’s and Poseidon’s competition: the marks of Poseidon’s trident, the salt water well that resulted from Poseidon’s strike, and the olive tree from Athena. The Erectheum also included the burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus, and the Palladion, a statue of Athena made of olive wood. Each summer, the Panathenaic festival was held, apparently in honor of Athena’s birthday. The young maidens of Athens wove a new wool robe for Athena’s statue called a peplos. A procession, including 100 oxen, assembled before dawn at the Dipylon gate in the northern sector of Athens. The new robe was hung like a sail from a parade float shaped like a ship. The procession, led by the Kanephoros (an honorific office given to an unmarried young woman), followed the Panathenaic Way through the Agora toward the Acropolis. Some sacrifices were offered on the Areopagus and in front of the Temple of Athena Nike next to the Propylaea. Only Athenian citizens were allowed to pass through the Propylaea and enter the Acropolis. The procession passed the Parthenon and stopped at the altar of Athena at the Erectheum. The new robe was ceremoniously placed on the statue of Athena and the oxen were sacrificed. Every four years, beginning in 566 BC, the Panathenaic Games were held as part of the festival.

South of the Propylaea is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike. It was the earliest Ionic temple on the Acropolis. It has a prominent position on a steep bastion at the south west corner of the Acropolis to the right of the Propylaea. While we were there it was under heavy scaffolding and we did not get a good picture of it.
It was open, entered from the Propylaia’s southwest wing and from a narrow stair on the north. It is a four column Ionic structure with a colonnaded portico at both front and rear facades, designed by the architect Callicrates. After it was completed, about 410 BC, a parapet was added around it to prevent people from falling from the steep bastion. Pausanias in the 2nd century, described a statue of Athena Nike in the center, inside the small cella. The statue was made of wood, holding a helmet in her left hand, and a pomegranate (symbol of fertility ) in the right hand. Nike means “victory” in Greek. The main structure, stylobate and columns are largely intact, minus the roof and most of the typanae.

South of the platform that forms the top of the Acropolis there are also the remains of an outdoor theater called the Theater of Dionysus, dedicated to the god of wine and fertility, patron of drama and liberator of man from his everyday worries.
Plays were performed there on a flat circular area, beginning in 500 BC, then an enlarged, stone version of the theater was built in 325 BC, seating 14,000 to 17,000 spectators and major renovations were made by the Emperor Nero in 61 AD. There is also a partially reconstructed Theater of Herodes Atticus.
It was built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus. It was a steep-sloped amphitheater with a three-story stone front wall and a wooden roof.
It was used for music concerts and had a capacity of 5,000.
Sources: Wikipedia “Acropolis of Athens,” “Archaic Greece,” “Athena,” “Athena Parthenos,” “Classical Greece,” “Cecrops I,” “Erectheum,” “Erechtheus,” “Greek Dark Ages,” “Kanephoros,” “Kerameikos,” “Latin Empire,” “Megaron,” “Menestheus,” “Metopes of the Parthenon,” “Odeon of Herodes Atticus,” “Older Parthenon,” “Panathenaic festival,” “Parthenon,” “Parthenon Frieze,” “Propylaea,” “Temple of Athena Nike,” “Theatre of Dionysus”; John R. Hale, professor at University of Louisville, Exploring the Roots of Religion, “Deities of the Acropolis,” (The Teaching Company: 2009)

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying my armchair journey. Judy said it was magical, beautiful and I can see why.

    ReplyDelete