Today our tour began with a visit to the Acropolis of Athens, the high city that contains not only the Parthenon, but many other structures as well.
Throngs of people filled every nook and cranny by the time we left the Acropolis; fortunately, our early arrival meant only a few crowds for us to navigate.
We arrived early at the Propylaia, the massive gate complex that provides entry to the top of the hill. More than just a gateway, this structure once included a rest area on one side, and a small temple on the other. There had even been plans to set up a restaurant, though that was never completed.
Kim Whitted in front of the Parthenon
Once through the gates, the first sight that greeted us was the magnificent Parthenon, the crowning structure of Athens. It was built as a temple of Athena, the virgin goddess (parthenos is the Greek word for virgin), the patron deity and namesake of Athens.
Ancient 1/12 scale copy of the 40 foot statue of Athena that once stood inside the Parthenon
For roughly one thousand years, from the 5th century BC onwards, a gigantic statue of Athena, covered in ivory and gold, was housed inside the Parthenon. Unfortunately, this statue was taken to Constantinople in the 5th century AD, and subsequently lost to history.
Carving of Dionysus, one of the few statues remaining on the pediments
Sad to say, the statue was not the only thing taken from the Parthenon, nor were ancient peoples the only ones to blame. In the 19th century, much of the rich decoration of the Parthenon, including the statuary of the pediment, the metope (carved panels around the outside), and the frieze around the inner wall were taken to the British Museum, where they still reside today.
A small portion of frieze remaining around the inner wall of the Parthenon
Even after suffering these losses, even after damage sustained through the ravages of time and of past wars, even partially obscured by the scaffolding of a decades-long and still ongoing restoration, the Parthenon remains a magnificent and awe-inspiring monument. Pictures simply cannot do it justice.
Painstaking renovation of the Parthenon includes the use of marble from the original quarry to reconstruct missing pieces
As magnificent as it is and was, however, it was not necessarily the most sacred temple on top of the Acropolis, according to our guide. That honor belonged to the Erechtheion, a three-part structure built to protect the three most sacred spots of Athens.
The porch at the back as seen in the picture above stood over the spot where, according to legend, Poseidon’s trident struck the earth and caused a salt spring to emerge. The middle section protected the olive tree that grew in the same spot where the current olive tree can be seen above. According to legend, this spring and olive tree were given by Poseidon and Athena when they were competing for the honor of being the patron deity of the city. (Athena won.)
The Porch of the Carytids
The third sacred spot was protected by the south porch of the Erechtheion, known as the Porch of the Caryatids for the six statues of young women serving as its columns. This porch is said to protect the tomb of Erechtheus, mythical king of Athens.
The modern city of Athens as seen from the Acropolis
Not surprisingly, the Acropolis provides amazing views of the city of Athens – both the modern city and many of the ancient ruins.
The Temple of Zeus, seen from the Acropolis, about a kilometer away
Also visible from the Acropolis, and quite nearby, was a lump of rock that seemed rather unimpressive … until we learned that it was the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.
Mars Hill as seen from the Acropolis
A little later in the day as we gathered on Mars Hill for a devotional, I reflected on its unexpected proximity to the Acropolis. When Paul talked with the Athenians about being very religious, I never knew that he could see so many magnificent temples, including the Parthenon, as he spoke.
A group shot on Mars Hill, with the Acropolis in the background
What could Paul possibly offer these highly cultured philosophers that could compare with the glorious works their ancestors had made? He told them about the God not made by human hands, the God who made all things, the God who raised Jesus from the dead – a concept that was too much even for these sophisticates to understand.
Josh Owens in front of the Olympic Stadium, built as an exact replica of the 19th century stadium that housed the first observance of the modern Olympic Games
After the ancient splendor of the Acropolis, we jumped ahead 2,500 years for a brief tour of modern Athens.
Golden treasures from the Mycenaen civilization, forerunners of classical Greece
One of the highlights of this tour was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attended by guards dressed in the traditional Greek military uniform of the 19th century.
Golden treasures from the Mycenaean civilization, forerunners of classical Greece
We then went to the National Archeological Museum of Athens, where we were able to see innumerable artifacts tracing the development of Greek culture and art from paleolithic times up through Byzantine times.
A statue salvaged from the Antikythera shipwreck; the portion that is undamaged was buried in the sand
One of the most fascinating exhibits was of artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck. This shipwreck occurred when a small freighter sank while rounding the Peloponnese. The ship sank some time in the 1st centurey BC, but it was carrying art and luxuries dating as far back as the 4th century BC.
Particularly interesting to me was the so-called Antikythera Mechanism, an intricate device with gears and scales that apparently was used for calculating the positions of stars, planets, and the moon – in effect, the 1st century BC equivalent of a GPS!
The "box seats" in the Theater of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis
After a late lunch, we once again had the remainder of the day free to explore on our own. Bryan Edwards and I decided to visit more of the Acropolis area.
The Cave of Pan, an ancient shrine on the slopes of the Acropolis
In the process, we wandered off the usual tourist track, discovering a number of ancient shrines, often centered on naturally occurring caves in the rock.
Eventually we made our way through the ancient forum and visited the Temple of Hephaestus, a structure much smaller than, but clearly following the same basic model as, the Parthenon. Unlike the latter, however, this temple has never been reconstructed; it has stood in essentially the same form for more than 2,000 years.
Random ruins exposed during construction of a tram line
As we made our way towards the hotel, we saw numerous examples of a very common phenomenon in an ancient city like Athens – miscellaneous ruins that were uncovered in the process of building something else. We also got a wee bit lost, but eventually we found our way back to the hotel, footsore but content after a very full day.
Tomorrow we make our way home. Stay tuned!