A city for the ages

  • Uday K Chakraborty | New Delhi

    May 14, 2017 | 05:35 AM
Acropolis

Acropolis (GETTY IMAGES)

Athens is not only the site of the greatest achievements of the classical age of Greece, but also the entire Western Civilisation. But where are those spectacular sights? Athens makes a few efforts to display them. The past is scattered here and there without much thought for continuity. Monuments erected a thousand years apart stand cheek-by-jowl, and two built in the same era may be divided by housing blocks, thrown up thousand years later.

Most of the interesting sights of Athens are within easy walking distance of one another. But one has to find them amid the cacophony of modern day entities like shops, apartments and traffic. For example, one had to cross a busy and dangerous thoroughfare to reach the Arch of Hadrian. Roman emperor Hadrian had the arch constructed in 132 AD to demarcate the city he built from the earlier city.

For more than 2,000 years, the Acropolis hill has dominated the city - first as a spiritual centre and fortress; later as the site of Parthenon, a temple honouring Athena, the patron Goddess of Athens. Near the base of the hill, the first ancient monument is the theatre of Dionysus, where great ancient plays by Sophocles and others were first performed. Then one walked up the hill to the Propylaea or the entrance gateway. Though the roof was damaged, the rows of columns, Doric on the outside and Ionic on the inside, still line the way. On the south side is the temple of Nike Apteros (Wingless Victory) and on the north side is a Roman tower.

On the highest part of the hill stands the Parthenon, the main temple of Acropolis, built of white Pentelic marble columns - eight on each end, 17 at each side. The Parthenon is considered to be a masterpiece because of its perfect execution. Built on the "golden rectangle" concept, the Parthenon does not, however, contain straight lines - the shaft of the columns incline slightly inward, the lines of the cornices of the gables are oblique, and the entablature rises gradually to a point, three inches higher in the middle than at either end. The result is that the structure looks perfectly straight and square from a distance.

To the north is the Erechthion, a temple honouring both Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea. The Ionic structure contains several novelties of architecture, including the Caryatids, the sculptures of lovely maidens that support a porch. Athena is the patron god of Athens because she gave men the gift of olive, and her olive tree stands at the west of the temple.

Acropolis commands an excellent view of the surrounding Attica plain and overlapping layers of Western civilisation. Immediately below the walls lies the Agora; adjacent is the Plaka. The Agora was the main commercial and public centre in ancient times. Leaders, philosophers and common people gathered there to discuss current events and metaphysics. Much of what remains -- columns and statues -- are in ruins, but one can recreate the scene imaginatively.

Hugging the north and northeast slopes of the Acropolis, Plaka, was built in the 19th century. It retains its essential nature despite burgeoning commercialism. The narrow, winding streets are lined with restored oneand two-story houses, shops selling popular Greek art, and lively tavernas. At the west side of the Plaka is the unusual Tower of the Winds Monument. Dating from the first century BC, this marble octagonal-shaped structure has eight reliefs, each personifying a wind blowing from a different direction.

Traditions of metal-smiting and marketing first carried on in the adjacent Agora continue at Monastiraki today. This place has a strong oriental look. Numerous shops have a wide variety of items, including antiques and jewellery. One can see coppersmiths work in the back of these shops but it must be kept in mind that bargaining is the name of the game there!

From there to find the awesome Temple of the Olympian Zeus is not very difficult. Honouring Zeus, the supreme god of heaven and earth, the massive temple was built over a 700- year period beginning in the sixth century BCE. The temple was the largest of the elaborate Corinthian style but only 14 columns remain intact, one has fallen but all are beautifully carved.

In such a historical city, it is always worthwhile to spend a whole day in the National Archeological Museum. Nearby, the House of Parliament, a large lemoncoloured structure, occupies the high ground. In front of it is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. Keeping watch over the tomb is a pair of elite soldiers called Evzones, an honour guard, which changes every hour. On Sundays and holidays, those men wear the Uniform of the Revolutionary mountain fighters, short white foustenella -- a cotton kilt with 400 pleats -- and white stockings, embroidered velvet jacket and heel-less red shoes with pompoms, called tsarouhi. On Sundays there is a formal company parade and band.

The daily life of Athens is most colourfully visible at Syntagma square. There one will find big offices, hotels, restaurants and fast food joints and all kinds of Athenians and visitors. In the centre of the square is a circular fountain surrounded by shade trees, benches, many tavernas and outdoor cafes, where occasionally street musicians and acrobats perform. Athenians sit and sip small coffees and look at foreigners looking at Athenians -- people-watching is a favourite occupation of the Greeks.