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.
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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