Athens, part 2: the Acropolis

(This is the second post about my trip to Athens. Part 1 is here.)

My first stop in Athens was the Acropolis. Before my trip, I’d dreamed of visiting the Parthenon for well over a decade. My family doctor grew up in Athens, and her descriptions of growing up in the shadows of history planted the initial seed. Photos and paintings in my art history class in college sealed the deal.

When I finally made it this February, I was in awe of being present at the “original” building. Echoes of the Parthenon are everywhere in Western society. Nearly every bank built prior to the 1950s owes at least some of its architectural structure to the Athenian ideals, as do many government buildings and museums. Standing in front of the Parthenon, you realize that somebody had to invent the style, even if it is quite old. Furthermore, the the Athenian society that built the Parthenon gave us much more than architecture. I greatly appreciate the right to vote for my leaders, even if the choices may not always be that attractive.

The Acropolis dominates the Athenian skyline, which is convenient in such a walkable city. It is hard to get lost when you have such a handy reference point.

Many travelers think of jet lag as mainly a curse. In a magnificent city like Athens, I consider jet lag to be partly a benefit. Waking up before dawn gives you a chance to explore a quiet city and photograph during the magical light of sunrise. (I did find that when I would leave my hotel at 5:30 am, there were often crowds of clubbers heading home. Athenian streets were much quieter around 6 am.) Arising early also helps beat the crowds. I arrived at the Acropolis when it opened, and until around 9:15 in the morning, there were less than a dozen tourists exploring the site.

The entry to the Acropolis is through a massive gate, seen here early in the day in a waxing sun:

Naturally, most people who visit the Acropolis do so to see the Parthenon. I have many pictures of the Parthenon, but I think this is my favorite, showing the gleaming marble against the blue sky:

It is not obvious from the picture of the south face just how busy the site is. Even early in the morning, the top of the Acropolis was a busy work site. My contemplative walk was punctuated by the sound of hammers, chisels, cranes, and diamond-tipped saws cutting marble blocks for the immense restoration efforts. At the entrance, the Temple of Athena Nike is being completely restored stone by stone and is now only really appreciated as a sign.

Restoration work is proceeding on the Parthenon itself. Columns are being carefully and painstakingly reconstructed. Missing parts of the columns are being carved to fit with the existing remnants. Most of the work is taking place on the north face. This photo shows the scaffholding supporting the restoration. The lighter colored marble in the columns is the marble that has been carved to complete the column blocks. The tight fit of the restoration pieces is clearly shown by the pieces in the foreground.

My previous experience with photographs did not prepare me for finding a building I liked better than the Parthenon on the Acropolis. I was captivated by the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, and Erechthus and the other deities of Athens. Pictures I’ve seen focus on the “porch” structure held up by the Caryatids, but rarely put it in context with the rest of the Erechtheion.

In conjunction with the restoration work on the structures of the Parthenon itself, the New Acropolis Museum is taking shape at base of the Acropolis, replacing a much older museum on the summit. At ten times the size of the old museum, I expect that the New Acropolis Museum will provide a far better environment for exhibiting artifacts and telling the story of the Acropolis. Although it is scheduled to open in 2008, the new museum is open for a few hours every day. Strikingly, it is built on a historical site that is actively being excavated. Glass floors allow museum visitors to look down and see an active archaeological site. In this somewhat self-referential photo, I’m looking down through the floor into the work site.

Tourists are not allowed inside any of the temples, which is not particularly surprising. I had expected they would be restricted to prevent them from being loved to death. Ongoing restoration and construction work is also an ever-present danger. Restoration workers were constantly going in and out, and several large cranes were operating throughout most of my half-day visit.

As I wandered around the site, I tried to imagine what it must be like to be working on the Acropolis. It is one of the foremost historical sites of Western civilization, and a towering monument to Greek culture. For an American, the closest comparison I can think of would be the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s.

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