Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Acropolis of Athens, a Bedrock Foundation under Ruins

Athens is a dichotomy, a mix of magnificent ancient ruin and modern debasement. I expected something epic, and I found that, but I also found an ordinary city. Residents eat, sleep, work and play there, living out daily life without much awe of, or reflection on, their storied surroundings. It reminds me of the difference between a summer cottage and a winterized house on a lake. One is a dream; the other is reality, with bills, chores and a daily drive to work. Some districts of Athens are visually appealing, and some can only generously be called shambolic. But ancient Athens surely had its own lowbrow districts too, probably in the same areas. How time does soften our perceptions.

I'm pondering this as I sit by the terrace pool of the Ruby Princess, overlooking the port of Piraeus and Athens. It's hot, but not quite the sweltering of recent days. In the hazy distance is the Acropolis, our main destination this morning. My son Thomas is not here, preferring to read in our suite. He hasn't put on his swimsuit except for reluctantly at Glyfada beach on Corfu. I'm starting to think I should have just got us a hotel room in New Jersey for two weeks and called it Rome. It would have saved some coin.

A floating hotel is not a bad way to skirt the coastline and islands of Greece.

Modern Athens from the port of Piraeus. The hill of the Acropolis stands far in the hazy distance (center).
We started early, sparing ourselves exertion and exposure in the heat of the afternoon. The bus trip to the Acropolis from Piraeus takes about 30 minutes. It takes about eighty steps from the base of the edifice to the Propylea, the monumental gate to the temple complex. A few elderly tourists dropped off in the face of that, waiting out the tour in a shady spot below1. How many had yearned for a lifetime to come here and were finally defeated by the last sets of stairs? I wondered how they felt. Outwardly, there appeared to be stoic acceptance. Maybe with age it's easier to accept the disappointing outcome of a well-fought struggle, like a farmer who has learned not to cry over blighted crops, but has found solace in the effort.

The rest of us clambered up to a highlighted item on my life's list.

The additional stubs on the ticket allowed for entry to other archeological sites in the city.

Porch of the Propylea, massive gateway to the terrace of the Acropolis.

There were crowds at the great gate that might echo those of this important site in antiquity.

It's still a wonder of the world; how else can it be described? The Acropolis is a monument to what civilized, focused humans can collectively achieve when there's no one to shoot at. That so much has survived a sizeable dose of adversity over the centuries attests to the strength of its foundations. I can understand proud Greeks resenting the looters, pilferers of antiquities (English) and military adventurism that despoiled the still impressive site more than natural degradation. But the human race hasn't progressed so far in the 25 centuries since Greece's golden era; the philosophical descendants of such aforementioned despoilers apparently comprise a measurable portion of Athens' population considering how few square inches of the modern city aren't covered in amateurish graffiti within arm's reach. It's as if the entire city was a freight train car. You can estimate the maximum height of today's vandals by how far tagging extends up shop walls.

Happily, there are skilled people working to preserve what's left of the past. Some new marble is quarried of different stock than the ancient's, and is precisely shaped with lasers to hold together and/or reassemble portions of the site where the majority of original material can still be found amongst the rubble. The contrast of colors is stark, but not displeasing, and it allows the original building material to be distinguished. Everywhere it seems are numbered and neatly organized blocks, cornices, column pieces and rubble bits that may someday be fitted back together. I didn't mind the bit of scaffolding considering the restoration work that's being done, but progress is slow. Restoration began in 1975 and has another 15 years left at least. That's longer than the golden age of Athens. I'm not sure Greece can afford the bill.

An example of anastylosis, an archaeological term for reconstruction using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible. New materials (for example the block to the right) are only added for structural stability. In this case the statuary friezes are also careful reproductions, as continued smog of recent centuries would further degrade the originals, now in a museum.

Some people say we don't have the technology to put a person on the moon anymore. I don't agree with that. But after seeing only a portion of the materials and craftsmanship that went into the Acropolis and surrounding theater and temple complexes, I feel safe saying we couldn't build ancient Athens again. If attempted today, the result would be like Saddam Hussein's costume-jewelry palaces--cheap imitations, with just a façade of quality. We just can't justify the budget for natural resources and skilled trades at such a scale as the Acropolis, and we don't have the collective will. The few remaining friezes (expert reproductions) on the Parthenon, the Erechtheion (and Caryatides), the seamless fit of solid marble elements to Doric columns-- these were built with no expense spared. The fact that so much survives after 25 centuries of thievery, earthquakes, bombings, acid rain and general neglect attests to that. I suspect no one will be visiting a Trump Tower in two millennia.

I usually prefer pictures with people in them. In this case it's me. This not because I want to show that I was there, but I find my pictures solely of monuments or natural wonders to be lacking compared to those of professional photographers. If I want a picture only of the Grand Canyon, I'd rather have one taken by someone who does it justice.
For the purists. Looking north at the temple of Erechtheion and its famous porch of the Caryatids, from the Parthenon. The "Porch of the Maidens" was built to conceal a giant 15-ft beam that was required to support the southwest corner over the metropolis, after the building was reduced in size and budget during the Peloponnesian war. Note the modern, whiter blocks of marble used to maintain structural integrity, another example of anastylosis.

If only crumbling modern buildings stirred the soul, Lackawanna and Detroit might be world heritage sites too.

Venetian lions at the gate were a reminder of the ebb and flow of history and economy. From the top of the citadel, we had good views of a Roman-era theater--the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the adjacent theater of Dionysus, and a monument to the Syrian prince and Roman consul, Philopappus. Athens and the port city of Piraeus spread as one over most of the visible landscape beyond, dissipating into distant haze.

Statue of lion sculpted during the Venetian rule of Athens (Italian Renaissance-era), reposing within the Beulé Gate at the Acropolis. The Gate was built in the 3rd century AD re-using previously used marble blocks. The ancients were not shy about recycling.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone theatre on the southwest slope of the Acropolis, built in AD 161 by the Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife. Wikipedia states it was originally a steep-sloped amphitheater with a three-story stone front wall and a wooden roof made of expensive, cedar of Lebanon timber. The seating has been renovated, and the structure is used as a venue for music concerts, with a capacity of 5,000.

The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, one of the earliest preserved open-air theaters in Athens. It was used for festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. 

Monument of Philopappos.

Modern Athens and Piraeus from the Acropolis.

Our guided tour lasted for about an hour, which left us an additional hour to explore the Acropolis on our own. Footing was uneven, and the bedrock conglomerate was worn and polished by centuries of feet. Details like that helped bring the site to life for me. Whose footsteps was I crossing? I thought particularly of Mark Twain, visiting in secret under the light of the full moon in 1867 while his ship was held offshore for quarantine. The cream-colored  marble must glow on a clear night, if not for the garish assistance of man-made lighting. It certainly reflects in the summer sun. There is little shelter, and sunscreen is essential for people who aren't actively courting cancer. 

I'm at the back (east) side of the Propylea.

The Doric-order Parthenon, dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena, completed 438 BC and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. Coming here fulfilled a dream of mine, sparked during some European history class when I was in secondary school.

The original marble head of the horse of Selene, goddess of the moon, was carved around 438-432 BC. It is one of the sculptures from the east pediment, or gable, of the Parthenon.

A place for the Greek people to rightly be proud of, still a wonder after 2500 years.

Tom managed to find and photograph all the local cat population at the base of the edifice. Athens has a lot of mangy dogs lying around too, which shows it's an egalitarian society concerning domesticated vagrants.

Thomas finds an Athenian dog in its natural state. What will he do with that picture in 20 years?

After the Acropolis and a brief photo stop at the Theater of Dionysus, we hustled back to the bus again for a quick drive-by tour of the city. Our guide spoke in English about as good as my Greek, but he waved his arms a lot, which my Italian heritage understood perfectly. Otherwise my eyes were fixed out the window.

The public buildings, those behind security fences, have mostly escaped the ubiquitous graffiti, which I suspect is largely crude political jabber bemoaning the collapse of Greece's unsustainable free ride, mixed with plain juvenile scribble. Most of the city is not public buildings. I've read stories by other visitors revelling in Athens' vibrant street art scene. I'll concede we passed some wall murals that suggested real artistic talent, but for every Picasso there are apparently ten thousand monkeys with a spray can. I can only wonder, has centuries of weathering worn away similar commentary from the temples of the Acropolis?

Detail from a bench in the Theater of Dionysus.

Our motor coach paused at Greece's Tomb of the Unknowns, fortuitously during the changing of the evzones, presidential guards whose uniform of pom-pom shoes and a short kilt is based on the wardrobe of the klephts, mountain guerillas who fought the occupying Ottomans during Greece's War of Independence.

We passed Hadrian's Arch and ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, now just a handful of Doric columns remaining from one of the ancient's seven wonders. At Olympia, across the Saronic Gulf on the other side of the Peloponnese, there was once a statue of Zeus that was also one of the wonders. Now nary a toe remains. The god must have been hedging his bets, but he rolled snake eyes. We also drove by a monument to England's Lord Byron, a national hero of the Greek War of Independence. Of particular note was a short stop at the 1896 Olympic Stadium, built to the specifications of an underlying ancient structure dating from the Roman era. It seats over 69,000 people, but is now mainly just a tomb-like monument, rarely used.

Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from the Acropolis.
The Panathenaic Stadium or Panathinaiko hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Back on the Ruby, we sat for dinner tonight with a couple from Taiwan. She has Alzheimer's disease and her husband recently retired for her full time care. They travel a lot, so the variety of stimulating experience may help slow the progression of the disease. I admired the personal attention and patience her husband displayed. She is much like Athens. A lot has been forgotten, but her husband treasures their shared history and sees the glory that is still there. Later, we ran across him searching for her; she has apparently wandered off before. It's a big boat. But like anyone who seeks the real treasure, I think he will find what he's looking for.

Goodbye Athens.

1The Acropolis does offer wheelchair access for the disabled via a stair climber lift and an elevator, though uneven ground on the top makes getting around problematic. It can be difficult to find.

Next is Delos and Mykonos
August 10, 2013