“…like that star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.” – Homer
I was reading a blog posting where the author suggested that while the Acropolis is a place worth seeing there is not a lot else in Athens and recommended bypassing the Greek capital and going to Mykonos or Santorini instead.
Well I have to disagree with that because Athens is a wonderful city for visiting ancient monuments and buildings, in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky. They are all in very poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as an armoury store, most of the Agora is pretty much non existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing. It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:
“Please respect the Antiquity”
Just a little late for that I thought. What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (really, yes!) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain. But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps not because for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.
Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road. The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line. I wonder who thought that was a good idea? As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on? Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored. The Museum has a glass floor so that visitors can see the excavations below.
Actually the Agora is a wonderful site, admittedly not as dramatic as the Acropolis but the ancient ruins are in good shape and there is no major renovation work here to spoil it and there are far fewer people to jostle with for the best viewing positions.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked magnificent, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses). Only fifteen remain standing and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852. As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum. An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects.
Away from Athens, Delos is an interesting archaeological site that I visited in 2005 during a holiday to the island of Mykonos. Allegedly the birth place of Apollo it is the epicentre of the Cycladic ring and an uninhabited island ten kilometres from Mykonos, and is a vast archaeological site that together with Athens on the mainland and Knossos on Crete makes up the three most important archaeological sites in Greece. The reason we are not so aware of it is because whereas a lot of the work in Athens and Crete was undertaken by British and American archaeologists Delos is predominantly a French excavation site and we prefer to concentrate on British rather than Gallic achievements.
Delos is well worth a visit but here are two bits of advice, firstly don’t miss the last boat home or else you will be stuck on the rather remote island all night long and secondly take plenty of water and a snack because there is only one small shop on the island attached to the museum and it is meteorically expensive!