Αθήνα – capital of the Ελληνική Δημοκρατία (Hellenic Republic), “Cradle of Democracy” and “Cradle of Western Civilization.” This metropolis of four million people has played no small role in history over the course of its five millennia of existence on the Attic Peninsula of Greece.
Despite the famous landmarks I came to see, though, the Athens sight I recognized first was actually the Hellenic Parliament building in Syntagma Square. Even as recently as a few weeks before, the pastel yellow facade had been in the news as the backdrop for scenes of tear gas and molotov cocktails. Greeks were angry about the austerity measures they had been facing ever since their debt crisis flared up five years earlier. The economy was weak, unemployment extremely high, and corruption and tax evasion were rampant. At that time, the idea of “Grexit” – Greek exit from the E.U. – and the return of the drachma were imminent possibilities. It’s somewhat ironic that the “Cradle of Democracy” is today such a flawed example of one. A historian who served as my guide in Athens insists, though, that the Greek people have no one to blame for the crisis but themselves. He claims that collectively, Greeks have forgotten their own history and literature, which is so strong in democratic tradition, and have thereby allowed corruption to creep in. I can’t comment on the validity of that claim, but I found his perspective to be interesting. The ancient Greeks set a high bar for their modern descendants, but two thousand years of intervening history can change a lot, particularly given Greece’s location sandwiched between Western Europe and the Middle East. The neoclassical parliament building is lovely to look at, though, and fortunately I visited on a calm day in the square.
Despite Greece’s contemporary woes, it is still easy to admire the significance of Greece in world history. Throughout Athens, and really throughout all of Greece, countless ruins and artifacts testify to the advanced civilization that the ancient Greeks built, and to the profound impact Greece has had on the Western world.
One influence is the Greek language – as a language learner and an engineer, I find this to be particularly fascinating. Though it hangs out all by itself on an isolated branch of the Indo-European language family tree, nearly every European language has been impacted by Greek. The obvious influence is the alphabet. Without the Greek alphabet, there would be no Latin alphabet, and I shudder to think how we would ever solve differential equations without our δs and θs and λs! Around five percent of English words are of Greek origin – more, if you consider all of the scientific and medical terminology that is continuing to develop. One word I was particularly surprised to recognize is ευχαριστώ – “thank you.” It transliterates as “eucharistó” (pronounced “ef-ha-ree-sto”). Two weeks of saying ευχαριστώ for numerous bus tickets and meals gave me a better understanding of the English word Eucharist.
Nearly everywhere you go in Greece, you can be sure to find an archaeological museum, generally specializing in finds from the local region. Indeed, my hosts in both Vólos and Ioánnina proudly introduced me to their respective city’s museum and the artifacts they found most fascinating there. In Athens, one of the first things I visited was the vast National Archaeological Museum, where I spent several hours and still did not see everything. As expected, a large part of the museum’s collection consists of statues and other stone carvings such as grave steles. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but I was struck by the diversity and detail of artifacts in this museum. In particular, the ability of the carvings to convey real feelings or emotions impressed me. Another large part of the museum is dedicated to scientific artifacts from antiquity, and these did not disappoint either. The ancient Greeks developed a wide variety of mechanical tools and devices for taking accurate measurements and keeping time. One complex device on display accurately predicts an array of celestial and earthly phenomena – everything from planetary alignments to the date of the next Olympic Games!
Zig-zagging my way through the city, I stopped to admire many ancient sites that coexist among the labyrinth of modern apartment blocks. There are many temples in various states of disrepair – the Temple of Hephaestus, for example, is impressively completely intact, while the Temple of Olympian Zeus, once the largest temple in Greece, has been reduced to a handful of standing columns. Meanwhile, the Panathenaic Stadium, which dates back 2600 years, has been fully restored and now hosts Olympic ceremonies and other athletic events. The restoration was done using gleaming, newly-quarried white marble, and the stadium is the only one in the world made entirely of marble.
Of course, the most significant monument in Athens is the massive temple dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena. The Parthenon, along with several other smaller temples, sits atop the high rock outcropping called the Acropolis. The Acropolis citadel and the area immediately surrounding it were the heart of the ancient city where most of the temples, the agora (marketplace), and theaters were concentrated.
My first stop at the Acropolis was the New Acropolis Museum, where all of the artifacts excavated from the Acropolis area are preserved. The most incredible part of the museum is a full-scale reconstruction of the frieze and tympana (the carvings and lintel below the roofline) of the Parthenon, displayed at eye level with natural lighting through panoramic windows, allowing you to see the details up close. The original carvings are housed in the museum for protection, while replicas have been placed on the actual structure. Where sections of the original carvings no longer exist, the archaeologists have filled in the gaps with carvings based on what they believe those sections looked like. It is easy to differentiate the modern copies from the originals because the newer marble, though from the same quarry, is shinier and less weathered. The effort that has gone into filling in the gaps in the ancient ruins allows you to get a true sense of the scale and grandeur of the Parthenon. To add to the effect, panoramic windows in the museum frame a backdrop of the Parthenon itself perched on the clifftop high above.
After visiting the museum, I climbed up to the top of the Acropolis. On the way up, you pass by the ruins of several theaters and small temples, and after a steep flight of stairs, you pass through the grand entranceway called the Propylaea that opens onto the small plateau at the top of the hill. Although the Parthenon is the most prominent and most famous, there are actually several temples on top of the Acropolis, so I spent several hours wandering around and admiring the ruins and the views. The Parthenon itself is currently undergoing a major restoration. Much of its current ruinous state is due not to natural decay but to its ill-advised use as a gunpowder magazine in the seventeenth century – which unsurprisingly ended tragically with a flurry of marble debris raining down on the city. Several of the collapsed sections are being reconstructed, with newly-quarried marble being used to fill in the parts that are missing or beyond repair. I suppose some people might not like these modern touches, but in my opinion, a careful reconstruction is more impressive than a pile of rubble! Even when the restoration is complete, though, you will still have to use your imagination to picture it as it was intended to look: brightly painted and gilded, with a two-thousand pound statue of Athena made of pure gold towering inside.