Ancient Olympia is an incredible site, with the remains of the most epic of Olympic villages spread over a large area that is still only partly excavated. This was a sanctuary sacred to Zeus, an appropriate holy honoree for the first, the biggest, the most prestigious and the most famous of all the games on the Greek festival circuit. For “festival”, read “competitions for honor and glory.” There were other major festivals every four years at Delphi (the Pythian Games, see previous post), Corinth, and other key places in the Ancient Greek world.
You might be surprised to learn (I certainly was!) that the Olympic Games took place every four years WITHOUT PAUSE for nearly TWELVE HUNDRED YEARS. Just think about that for a moment. From 776 BC to 393 AD we have recorded evidence that the games were held every four years. That is to say, every four years, no matter what else was happening in the world, a month-long peace was called so that people could travel safely to Olympia. Athletes would come first; they were required to present themselves a month early so that the team of judges could ascertain 1) whether they were truly free-born Greek sons of free-born Greeks (AKA Greek citizens), 2) whether they had the skill to be a real contender, and 3) whether they demonstrated the ethics and sportsmanship of fair play. The athletes would train together and size up their competition throughout that month. After the athletes arrived, politicians, artists, philosophers, pilgrims, and all those who wanted to see and be seen would trickle into Olympia, swelling the sanctuary and town with Greeks from every city-state and colony. These events were both building blocks for and testament to a Panhellenic identity – a cultural Greek-ness that spanned many disparate city states, colonies, etc.
The busy layout of ruins delineating practice spaces, baths, temples, and stadium give mute evidence to the hive of activity this place must have been in those years when the Games took place. With the shuffling steps and murmurs from the masses of tourists off the cruise ships, all I had to do was close my eyes and take a seat and imagine the whole of the Olympic Village sprung to life. Though it was worth opening my eyes to see what those tourists would do with the starting line at the stadium...
The entrance to the Olympic Stadium was through a covered passageway directly connected to the temple where the athletes would have been sworn in and made offerings before the competition. On the day I was there, many visitors were humming “Chariots of Fire” as they walked through that same cut in the hill to emerge in the stadium; all I could of was how faithful our modern American football stadiums are to this original model.
Putting the games aside for just a moment, a very important Temple of Zeus was located here, with its own oracle that specialized in military advice. The statue of Zeus in that temple was considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a chryselephantine statue, which was something I’d never heard of before this trip. It’s a term specific to monumental statues fashioned in Ancient Greece that were covered in ivory and gold. This particular statue stood 40 feet tall – his head brushed the ceiling and his arms nearly touched the sides. He was covered in a “skin” made of plates of ivory that would have been soaked and then molded to a wooden core of the statue, and supposedly 500 pounds of gold adorned his clothes and throne. Can you imagine the awe pilgrims must have felt?? That statue is lost to time… earthquakes or Christians are the best guesses for its destruction, or perhaps it was carried off by the Byzantines and burned in fires that swept Constantinople… but it stood for 900 years, and many ancient travelers left descriptions of it behind. I can allllmost picture it, and like to think of the impact it would have had on anyone lucky enough to see it.
The artist who made that statue, Phedias, was also an architect, and he was the designer behind the buildings and monuments on the Acropolis in Athens as well. It blows my mind that we can talk about an Ancient Greek civilization spanning over a thousand years, and yet we can trace huge strides in architecture, art, theater, philosophy, and politics to just a handful of names in the 50 year span of the “Golden Age.” Excavation of Phedias’ workshop near the temple turned up a cup with his name still on it, and remnants of molds he and his craftsmen used, each with notations still on them. Talk about leaving your stamp on the world!
When archaeologists located the altar of the Temple of Zeus, they found a massively deep and wide pile of ashes from all the burnt offerings made to the god. From those ashes, they uncovered hundreds of small clay and metal offerings made by those not wealthy enough to sacrifice an actual bull or donate a cauldron of olive oil – Zeus’ preferred gifts, apparently. I think too of the local craftsmen who would have made these small votives, and that what they worked with their hands, we can sift out of the ashes today. Goose-bump worthy, right?
High on the slopes of Mount Parnassus sits Delphi.
Delphi is the site of a very famous Temple of Apollo (supposedly he slew a giant python and/or dragon at the springs there), and that temple was home to the most famous oracle in Ancient Greece. The Pythia is what the high priestess of the temple would have been called, and each high priestess would serve for life as the Delphic Oracle - for over 1000 years, hers was the ultimate authoritative word. The oracle was well established by 800 BC, but may have existed 600 years earlier as a place of cult worship for Gaia, Mother Earth.
It is a place that feels holy.
In the tradition of Greek Mythology, it is considered the navel - the center - of the world.
Parnassus is also a name that is linked to literature and poetry and learning. The whole mountain is supposedly sacred to Dionysus, perhaps because the Muses were said to live there. There is a beautifully preserved theater at the heart of the site, above the ruins of the temple, and looking out over the whole mountain range. The theater would have been used for music, drama, and poetry competitions during the festivals that took place at the site.
Above the theater, tucked high on the mountain, is a stadium that would have been used every four years for the Pythian games. This competition in physical prowess as well as the performances below at the theater were considered a natural and appropriate extension of worship, a celebration of the best of our human selves, in honor of the gods.
Below the stadium, the theater, and the sanctuary; down the slope lined with the remnants of treasure houses and statues that city-states and the wealthy would build in thanks for the oracle's advice; and past the springs where pilgrims would wash themselves before approaching the temple... you find the remnants of a small temple to Athena. I got there just before sunset and had the place to myself. It was utterly peaceful.
It was easy for me, looking down, to imagine the arduous climb that pilgrims and supplicants would have made up the slopes of Parnassus to reach the sanctuary & oracle at Delphi.
So Athens obviously has a wealth of historical sites, but I also found simply wandering the old town to be enchanting. There is graffiti everywhere (see above, or the slideshow in the previous post), beautiful views from the many hills, and a cafe-culture that begs you to sit down and relax. Many streets are lined and sometimes filled with tables and chairs for people to sit and sip coffee. In the evenings, the restaurants add candles and live music and it feels like the whole city is outside, relaxing together. Here's where I had dinner my first night, at a taverna by the base of the Acropolis:
The next day while I had a late lunch, the waiters were busily pruning back the grape vines that shaded the street and patio but were overtaking the electric wires. Shady spots and family restaurants like these abound. Every day I made multiple stops to sip coffee or juice, rest from the sun, and read or chat with locals who had stopped in for the same reasons.
There is a wide and curving pedestrian path that edges two sides of the base of the Acropolis, and at night musicians and artists set up shop all along these streets, cafes and restaurants fill up, and people of all ages stroll by. One evening, I decided to follow these streets around to the Thissio district to do some people-watching and catch a movie at Cine Thissio, one of the many outdoor move theaters that operate in the summer here. Eyes on a tree-lined path ahead, I missed my turn and ended up high on the Hill of the Muses, part of a huge park where Athenians had come to let their dogs off leash and watch the sunset. The breeze and views were gorgeous, there was honeysuckle in the air, the cicadas were buzzing, and I happily crisscrossed the summit for an hour before finding my way down a steep street into the heart of Thissio.
I was a little late by the time I made it to Cine Thissio, but caught most of The Long Hot Summer, a 1958 Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward treat. A lot of the outdoor cinemas in Athens show a mix of classics and new films, and always show them in their original language, with Greek subtitles. With the Acropolis looming above us, a mixed crowd of old and young, good popcorn and cheap drinks, I couldn't have been happier to spend a few hours there. As I walked home close to midnight - the air warm, people laughing, music everywhere - the pedestrian paths were still packed until I curved around the Acropolis for the final short stretch home. There the crowds thinned out and it got a little quieter. Behind me, in the dark somewhere, a sax player started wailing out "What a Wonderful World" and I sat down abruptly on the curb because... is this real life?
A moment later a woman pulled up on her moped, talking loudly into her phone, headlight shining directly in my face... and I concluded that it certainly was, and took myself off to bed.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the museums. Air-conditioned and thoughtfully laid out, these were a pleasure to visit. The very new Acropolis museum is beautifully designed to give context to the Parthenon directly across the way, as well as the art that would have been found there. I'm so glad to have seen the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles while in London last year, and hope the Greeks' fervent desire to have them brought home to Athens and installed in this space prepared for them will come to fruition.
The National Archaeological Museum, as promised by all guide books and everyone I'd met, was fantastic. Organized to show the shifts and developments in artistic skill and aesthetic through ancient Greek history, it showcased incredible works. The exhibition also heightened my awareness of how art stands witness to history, a reminder of how cultural shifts are molded by interactions between peoples and cultures - both through trade and force - and reflected in the art and architecture left behind. A reminder, too, of how awesomely advanced the Greek artists of the Classical period had become! Check out the slide-show below for some of the highlights.
On my second day in Athens, I set out to make my rounds through the historical sites that dot the old city. As I strolled, I was struck by how young the United States is: our cities are planned, and they do not lie upon thick layers of cities gone before. In Athens, you may rest for a moment on a bench in the middle of a hip shopping district and look to your right to see this small Byzantine church. You may look down, startled not to feel the marble or stone that make up so many of the walkways in the old town, and realize you are standing on a pane of glass protecting a 1500 year old mosaic.
As quickly as possible, I turned off the crowded streets of the Plaka, the heavily touristed old town area of hotels and restaurants and shops, and wound my way up the east slope of the Acropolis, through the picturesque Anafiotika neighborhood, filled with flowers and cats, white-washed walls with bright shutters, tiny paths, a few closed up alleys filled with graffiti, and, near the top, beautiful views of the city.
After a pause for some coffee and shade, I walked first through the dusty remains of the Roman forum, built to be a center of commerce when the Romans conquered Athens 2100 years ago. To be honest, it was hard for me to picture a bustling market place, though the fragments of columns, here as elsewhere, are evocative, holding millenia of silent stories.
My next stop hit closer to home for me. Hadrian's library, a sprawling complex built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a gift for Athens, only functioned as a cultural center for about 150 years before it was destroyed, yet it captured much of what Hadrian, a true grecophile, admired most about Athenian culture. A large wall at the back of the complex, pockmarked with small niches, is the remains of a library hall that was once lined with shelves for manuscripts and book-ended by small auditoriums for text study and lectures. There would have been an art museum and a small theater as well. This space I recognize. Libraries, classrooms, auditoriums... standing there, I was swept by the feeling that what I do was happening on that spot a thousand years ago and was capturing politics, philosophy and aesthetics initiated in Athens a thousand years before that. That sense of connection to the sites, of the vitality and culture rooted in the Athenian ruins, stayed with me the rest of this day.
The Ancient Agora was up next, what had been the beating heart of the city. This was where roads crossed, where political leaders met, where Plato and Aristotle taught, where trade happened, where people went to see and be seen. The footprints of stoas (shopping complexes), the City Council building, a huge theater... they're all there. In the museum you can see "machines" used to select citizens for jury duty through small voting chips, pairs of bowls between which water would flow specifically to time the speeches of elected officials (one pair for 6.5 minute speeches, one for 8 minutes...) - so many of the trappings of democracy were first put into place right on that square of land. And over it all looms the Acropolis. From this perspective, I saw better what the buildings on the hill must have meant to the Athenians living below, ascending part way for meetings, a little higher for dramatic and musical performances, and to the top to make offerings.
The incredibly intact Temple of Hephaestus, seen at right, and the awesome Temple of Zeus (below), looking like it has become the plaything of giants, rounded out my visit to the ruins of Athens.
My final stop on the Acropolis that first evening was Mars Hill, an extra slippery mound of boulders overlooking the heart of Ancient Athens (the Agora) as well as the modern city. This hill was sometimes a meeting place for local government leaders, and Paul the Apostle supposedly stood here to preach to the Athenians, though apparently they weren't much interested in what he had to say. It was a nice spot to watch the sun slip low in the sky, and dry off with the fabulous breezes that sweep the whole hilltop.
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