By: Emma Livingston, Staff Writer
The allure of place is the reason I travel. I travel to soak in the rhythms, the verve, the ancient energy of a place. I love places with history, because I can imagine the stories, the lives of humans thousands of years before me who stood where I am standing. I love young, vibrant places because the commotion and the bustle reminds me of all the billions of people in this world who I do not know, living their lives just like me, and how we are all connected in this beehive of activity called planet Earth. Athens, a city of 3 million people with over 3400 years of recorded history, is a unique place charged with both ancient history and youthful energy.
The energy struck me first as soon as I left the airport and got stuck in a massive traffic jam. Gray, dingy apartment buildings crowded the streets. People on motorcycles, usually two to a bike, zipped in between lanes of traffic and the only space to park cars was on the sidewalk in front of the shops. Little kiosks dotted the sidewalk, selling soda and snacks and magazines. Narrow clothing stores with racks spilling out into the street blurred the line between inside and outside.
The bus let me off in Syntagma Square, where the energy reached a fevered pitch. The National Armenian Committee had a booth set up near the metro station commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide with heart-breaking pictures and angry dance music that reverberated throughout the square. Big dogs lay in the middle of the path. Lovers teased each other on benches. And people laughed and drank at the big fountain that glowed pink and green and blue in the middle of the square. I was digging the atmosphere, but my bag was heavy and I was about to dip down into the metro to make my way to my hostel, when a haunting sight stopped me in my tracks. High above the music and the crowds, the cluttered apartment buildings and the claustrophobic traffic, the Acropolis, the ancient Greek citadel, glowed on a hillside. It was an incongruous reminder of times long gone but still very much present in this city.
The Acropolis is one of the few places you can go in Athens and still get a feel for the ancient glory of the Greek city-state.Despite the hoards of tourists that clamor all over this pre-eminent historical monument, a visit here, and to the incredible Acropolis Museum nearby, is a must for anyone visiting Greece. The Acropolis, especially its most famous building, the Parthenon, which housed the giant golden statue of the goddess Athena, is fascinating not just for its heyday grandeur. This building bears the scars of over 2 millennia of plunder, destruction, and blundered attempts at preservation and is made the more beautiful because of this history.
To give just a small sampling of the Parthenon’s turbulent history: It was built in the 5th century BC at the height of Athens’ power and was considered the zenith of Greek architecture and art. In the 6th century AD, it was converted into a Christian church and many of its beautiful statues and artwork were defaced and destroyed by Christian zealots who disapproved of the old Greek religion. Once the Ottoman Turks conquered Athens in the 1460s, the Parthenon was converted into a mosque and, later, an ammunition dump. In 1687, during the Venetian invasion, the Parthenon suffered a direct hit from a cannonball. The stockpile of ammunition exploded, causing severe damage to the building and the collapse of the roof. In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, a Scottish diplomat depicted as a villain on all the signs around the Acropolis, forcefully removed many of the marble statues that had survived the centuries and scurried them off to England where they remain to this day. In the late 19th century, archeologists attempting to restore the Parthenon made a hodgepodge job of it and the Parthenon today is undergoing a multi-year project to attempt to repair the damage wrought by the unscientific restoration process.
My visit to the Acropolis and learning about the turbulent history of the Parthenon stirred up mixed emotions for me: On the one hand, I was sad at how destructive human beings can be, but I was also awestruck at the huge variety of people who have worshipped here and the long history of human aspirations, hatreds, beliefs, and desires that scar the marble rubble of the Parthenon. That restless energy that so defines us as human beings has built up, destroyed, and rebuilt again the buildings of the Acropolis on the hills above Athens. And you can still feel that same energy in its living form, buzzing through the modern streets of this ancient city.