Athens, Greece

Visiting cradle of the modern European Civilisation

10 Feb 2020 by Andrey Omelyanchuk

Athens is one of those places — maybe it is the only place — that makes a modern traveler feel that the past is infinitely more interesting than the present. It’s an incredible city — maybe the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. There are olive trees here that are older than many countries. Walking along its streets, it seems that every bend reveals another monument to the human desire to create.

Visible from virtually every part of the city is the Acropolis, the massive outcropping of stone that towers over the city. From its ancient beginnings, apparently, it was both a place of reverence and a place of defense; its stunning height offered a place for Athenians to retreat when under attack but its natural wonders, its caves and springs, suggested the presence of the gods and made it a sacramental space. Humans once lived on the Acropolis, but in 510BC the Oracle at Delphi declared it the domain of the gods. It remained a sacred place for more than one thousand years.

Acropolis from the Philopappos Hill, Athens, Greece

View of Acropolis from the Philopappos Hill in the Morning, Athens, Greece

I spent days wandering around the Acropolis, wandering through the Parthenon, photographing it from every angle and in every light. Athens, after all, was built as a temple city — a massive public works project dedicated to the goddess Athena. In a city filled with temples and monuments honoring Athena, none are as grand as the Parthenon. Photographing the Parthenon by night, its columns suffused with golden light, I thought of what it must have been like to be an Athenian when the Parthenon was built. It was the Age of Pericles, the ruler who refined and expanded democracy, and who turned the ancient city, battered after years of war, into something majestic. Flush with their victory over the Persians, Athenians must have felt like masters of the world. Pericles, who had led Athenians into battle but whose heart was as moved by art as it was by warfare, determined to transform the once grand city into a still more glorious iteration of itself.

Acropolis and Parthenon from the Philopappos Hill, Athens

View of Acropolis and Parthenon from the Philopappos Hill in the Evening, Athens, Greece

Athens was at its cultural peak, and Pericles initiated a fifty-year building plan to turn Athens into the most resplendent city of the ancient world, a city worthy of the goddess Athena. He said at the time, “we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.” He spared no expense, bringing in the best architects and builders to create a city for the ages.

But it was the Parthenon that would be his greatest legacy. Built for an amount that would constitute billions today, the temple dedicated to Athena sits on the highest part of the Acropolis. More than 20,000 tons of Pentelic marble went into the Parthenon’s construction, and no other Greek temple had ever been so lavishly adorned with architectural details.

In another age, far removed from Pericles, the Greeks built the Temple of Olympian Zeus, dedicated to the most powerful of their gods. Construction on the temple was carried out in fits and starts over centuries, and at one point the Athenians abandoned it altogether, after coming to believe it was too big, that its grandiose scale was indicative of a people who believed themselves equal to the gods. Only a small part of the temple remains, and as I wondered among its columns — just a few meters away from the bustling traffic of modern-day Athens — I was struck by the scale of the structure. The remains alone — 15 columns of the original 104 — are enormous. It hardly seems possible that such a structure could be built in the ancient world.

Temple of Olympian Zeus and Mount Lycabettus, Athens, Greece

View of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Mount Lycabettus in the Evening, Athens, Greece

If you want to have an idea of the full expanse of human history in Athens, go to the Agora. In that one consecrated spot, temples built by ancient hands to honor Athena and Zeus coexist with the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Orthodox Christian church built in the 900s, well after Christianity made is indelible mark on the western world. The site was once home to several other churches, but many years later, the other churches were cleared away during excavation of the area. But the small Byzantine church, with its unusual shape and elaborate tilework, was saved.

Church of the Holy Apostles and Temple of Hephaestus, Athens

Church of the Holy Apostles and Temple of Hephaestus in Agora in the Morning, Athens, Greece

Even by modern standards, the church’s frescoes are remarkable. The detail and the striking use of color are astounding, even though the passage of time is clearly visible. Preservationists have done their work here, but it isn’t difficult to see the incredible skill and passion of the original painters. They were meant to evoke a sense of awe, of wonder. Even now, they do.

On my last days in Athens, I wandered the city, trying to take in all of its history and majesty in the time that I had left. There would never be enough time. Even years wouldn’t be enough time to explore all of the secrets that Athens still had to reveal. It’s a city worthy of a goddess.

But I tried, just the same. I climbed the city’s hills, of which the Acropolis is just one. I made the vertiginous climb up Mount Lycabettus, the tallest of the city’s peaks. It’s said that Lycabettus means “where the wolves roam,” and that in the Age of Pericles, wolves roamed the hill freely, as it was the last of their province not yet covered in marble and statuary. There are no wolves today and arriving at the peak, I was rewarded with a spectacular view of Parthenon at sunset. I can’t imagine that there is a better way to see the ancient temple than from the peak of Mount Lycabettus.

Athens and Mount Lycabettus, Athens, Greece

Aerial View of Athens and Mount Lycabettus from Areopagus Hill, Athens, Greece

But as my days in Athens passed, I was reminded that it is not only an ancient city flush with history. Athens defies time. It is timeless and yet awash with its own history. As enchanted as I was by the remnants of its bygone past, I was acutely aware that Athens is nothing if not modern. Its streets vibrate with traffic and nightclubs pulse with music and light. Street art is flourishing in Athens, and I could take a short walk from its historic temples and find vibrant murals, many of them political in nature, adorning the sides of buildings. It occurred to me that this ancient city is also a city of profound youthfulness, a willingness to adapt and to reinvent itself, without ever losing its essential identity.

My last photo of Athens was taken looking toward Mount Lycabettus, rather than away from it. I wanted a view that encompassed Athens and all of its incarnations — the ancient as well as the modern.

View Athens gallery

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