10/12 Roamin’ the Mediterranean Day Eight: Athens

I woke up this morning still feeling a bit ill, but not nearly as bad as the day before. I took a bunch more cold medicine, packed a pocketful of tissues, and set out on a 9-hour excursion into one of the most important cities in the world.

Athens, Greece, is one of the world’s oldest cities, and its contributions to the world are immeasurable. As the birthplace of western thought and democracy, Athens has single handedly affected the way the western world still operates today. I was looking forward to walking the footsteps of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, and all the other great Greek artists, writers, and philosophers as I roamed through this magnificent city.

The city of Athens is named after the Greek goddess Athena (equivalent to the Roman goddess Minerva). Athena was a daughter of Zeus (supreme deity of all the Greek gods) and one of the most worshipped goddesses in the Greek world, as she was a deity of many different things, notably war and victory (which she is also known as Nike), but also wisdom and crafts. Athena was very active in human interaction, as she helped several of the Greek heroes in their journeys. She helped Odysseus in “The Odyssey,” Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, Perseus in his quest to defeat the gorgon Medusa, and her half-brother Heracles (equivalent to the Roman Hercules) on various occasions.

It is said Athena gained the status of protector of Athens after a contest with Poseidon, the god of the sea. In the contest each was to provide Athens with the most valuable resource and the winner would become patron of the city. Poseidon provided a spring, but the water was salt water so it did not have much benefit, while Athena provided the city with an olive tree, which would provide food and oil for sacrifices and was a symbol of peace. Athena won the contest and became the owner and protector of Athens.

We docked in the port city of Piraeus, which is technically not Athens. However, the buildings just keep going and going between Athens and Piraeus, so it is hard to eyeball where Piraeus ends and Athens begins. After we boarded our coach in Piraeus, we passed by several of the stadiums used when the Olympics were held in Athens in 2004. As we passed the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, we then stopped to see the original modern-era Olympic stadium called the Panathinaiko (Panathenaic) Stadium, used at the Games of the I Olympiad in 1896.

This stadium is the only stadium in the world to be made entirely of white marble. It had previously been used in ancient times for the Panathenaic Games to honor Athena. When the first modern-era Summer Olympics were held, it was felt Athens should be the host city since the Olympics were an ancient Greek invention, and the Panathinaiko Stadium became the site. The ancient Olympic games took place in Olympia and may have been started, according to legend, by either Heracles or Zeus as a festival to honor the gods on Mt. Olympus.

After heading from the stadium we were shuttled around the city. One of the most interesting things about Athens is that there are ancient ruins scattered about everywhere, right in the middle of modern buildings. Being from America where we don’t have structures even close to being that old (with many of these structures from BC times), it seems weird to imagine how this is commonplace for the people living in Athens, and other cities like this as well. It is an interesting mixture of old and new, which gives present-day Athens its own personality, while staying true to the city’s rich, historic past.

We then stopped at the Greek Archeological Museum, which is one of the richest storehouses of ancient artifacts in the world. This museum is packed with statues from the ancient Greeks, with many returned home to Greece after being plundered by other countries as spoils of war. As we entered the museum we were instructed that though we were allowed to take pictures, we were not allowed to use flash. Well, just like children many people in our group could not follow these simple instructions.

In the first room, right after we had been told this, flashes starting popping off. One of the security women ran over and started yelling at us. Our tour guide then started yelling at the security guard to chill out and I thought they were about to get in a fight. The security guard was so mad she was shaking after this altercation, then immediately after this flashes started popping off again and I thought she was about to lose it.

What really ticked me off about this was I was following instructions, not necessarily because I am always about always following rules per se, but out of respect for the ancient objects in the museum that are damaged by flash. I took a picture at the same time one of these people using flash popped one off, and the security guard came up and started screaming at me, thinking I was the one using flash.

This trend continued the entire time we were in the museum. The pattern went like this: we enter a room and a few flashes start going off, then the security person in the room would yell at us (there was a new one in each room), then people would chill on the flash for awhile then maybe pop a few more off for good measure, getting us yelled at again, then we would enter the next room and repeat the cycle.

I don’t know if these people just didn’t care, didn’t know how to turn off their flash, or didn’t understand what the guards were saying, but it was getting annoying. Our guide didn’t seem to care so that could be another reason, as she even had words with a few more security guards throughout the visit.

Anyway, we went through several different rooms showing art from different ancient Greek periods, to show the differences in art movements. Most of the pieces from the earlier periods were huge, larger-than-life statues, and all the males were nude while the females were clothed. These statues were of several Greek gods and goddesses, Greek heroes, and just normal Greeks performing daily life activities. In a later period, these statues were scaled more to the actual size of people, and then the art went back to the original huge statues again. Women also began to be portrayed in the nude in these later works as well. Some of the statues were made of stone and a few of them were made of bronze.

One of the most famous items in the museum is the death mask of Agamemnon, the Greek leader who sacked Troy during the Trojan War. German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (the same archeologist that is believed to have discovered Troy) found this golden mask during his excavation of Mycenae, though there is controversy over if it is really Agamemnon’s mask.

It was amazing looking at all these artifacts and statues, and imagining the ancient Greek cities being loaded with them. Looking at these statues helped paint a picture in my mind of the ancient Greek world, though much of this was a fanciful mythological image. During this trip, one of my goals is to really let my mind loose to immerse myself in these ancient times as much as possible (much like I did on my trip to Scotland). I have a very active (often overactive) imagination so it is easy for me to do this. While others are walking through these ruins and looking at these statues thinking, “That’s pretty neat,” I am actually walking through my interpretation of these ancient worlds and trying my best to picture both what it was really like, and imagining the mythic world these people believed they lived in through their art. I’m kind of nerdy and weird like that.

The pinnacle of this journey through the ancient Greek world would reach its peak at the next stop, as we journeyed up the massive hill to the Acropolis. When people think of Athens, probably the first thing that pops in their head is the Acropolis and Parthenon. The word “acropolis” means “city on the edge” or “high city” and is used to describe an elevated area that becomes the center of a city. On this area is one or more huge structures used primarily for defense, and the city spreads out from this center (Castle Rock in Edinburgh, Scotland, could be referred to as an acropolis). There are many cities that have an acropolis, but usually when someone says “The Acropolis” they are referring to the one in Athens.

Athenian ruler Pericles is responsible for most of the ancient structures in Athens that are still visible today. These were built during Athens’ “Golden Age” from 460-430 BC, and the Acropolis is covered with these massive structures. As I first stepped onto the grounds to climb the Acropolis I was awestruck with how huge it is. You can see the Acropolis from virtually anywhere in Athens, as long as a tall building isn’t blocking it. It is a massive rise towering above the city, but it becomes even more imposing when looking straight up from the bottom.

Much like my previous experience at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, this area was flooded with a sea of people, and I was separated from my group again during the climb, but eventually found them. There are numerous steps winding up to the top between various temples built in honor of various Greek gods and goddesses. I imagined what it would have been like when these buildings were shiny and new white marble, and everyone was walking around in sandals and togas. Looking down from the top also provided an amazing view of the ancient Theatre of Dionysus.

Of all the buildings on the Acropolis, the grandest and most famous is the Parthenon. The Parthenon was built in honor of Athena. The name Parthenon refers to Athena Parthenos, the “Virgin Athena,” as Athena never lost her maidenhood. Later on when Christianity moved into the city, the virgin theme continued as it then honored the “Virgin Mary.” When the Ottoman Empire took over the city, it was turned into a mosque with a minaret. Much of the building was partially destroyed after an explosion in 1687 when the Venetians attacked the Ottomans, and it is currently under reconstruction.

Even with all the work being done on the Parthenon while I was there, it was still an amazing sight, once you look past the crane and metal braces holding it up. It was truly a marvel to build something this massive during ancient times, as they didn’t have all the nifty cranes and machinery we have today to reconstruct it.

After spending some time walking around the Acropolis we then ventured down the other side towards Plaka, and stopped at a Greek taverna for lunch. A taverna is not actually a “tavern” but a small Greek restaurant serving traditional Greek cuisine. It was a charming little taverna set down an alleyway along side several other tavernas with vine-covered canopies and brightly colored flowers, and we had a grand lunch with wine and several Greek dishes. We had some Greek salad with feta cheese, bread, and a dip called tzatziki made with yogurt and cucumber. We also had these pies called spanakopita (spinach filled) and tyropita (cheese filled) that were dripping with butter and delicious. For the main course we had chicken kebabs and roasted potatoes, then loukoumas (deep fried dough soaked with honey) for dessert. This was a pretty unhealthy meal, but was very delicious and totally worth it.

After lunch we set off down into Plaka, the shopping center of Athens, where we would get some free time to ourselves. Plaka is built on top of the old residential area of ancient Athens and consists of narrow streets cars can’t fit through, so there is no automotive traffic. This is one of the busiest areas of Athens for foot traffic however, so it is lined with shops and preserved historical structures.

I walked around and found a couple small medieval churches that were only big enough to maybe hold about thirty people. There was another larger cathedral that replaced one of the small churches and was adorned with gold carvings on the interior. I was wearing shorts (which is a big no-no in religious buildings over there), and though no one said anything to me about it, I decided to leave out of respect once I realized it. I also saw the ruins of an ancient bathhouse called the Bathhouse of the Winds in this area.

I purchased a kind of Greek liqueur called ouzo, which is made from a plant called anise, and has a very strange taste to it. I would compare the taste to something like licorice schnapps, and I didn’t really like it, but is widely consumed in Greece so I at least wanted to try it. After our free time in Plaka we then boarded the coach and headed back to the ship.

The sea was angry that night my friends, as if Poseidon plunged his trident into the sea as the sun went down. Tall waves pounded the sides of the ship a short time after we sat out from Piraeus, though the view of the city was phenomenal as we first sat out. There hadn’t really been much movement on the ship thus far because it is so big, but this night it was vigorously rocking back and forth. If anyone were going to get seasick, tonight would be the night. Fortunately I was okay, though still battling my cold from the day before.

I had a great day in Athens, and it was one of the best stops of the trip so far. We are taught so much about the ancient Greeks and their impact on western thought and culture, so it was an amazing experience to walk around an area so saturated with history.


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