The Acropolis monuments, magnificent creations of the Athenian Democracy at its greatest moment, comprise the most significant architectural and artistic complex that Greek antiquity bequeathed to the world. However, the unique appearance that the Acropolis acquired during the classical period was not the outcome of just one historical period but of a long development since very ancient times.
The rocky outcrop, 156 meters above sea level, located at the centre of the attic basin, naturally fortified, with plenty of water springs on its slopes, was already inhabited in 3000 BC. It was the seat of the most powerful ruler of Attica during the Mycenaean period from 1500 – 1100 BC. It became an exclusively religious centre during the geometric and archaic periods during which the first monumental buildings were constructed: Propylaia, the Hekatompedon temple at the site where the Parthenon was later built, the Old Temple south of the Erechtheion etc. These buildings, as well as the countless votives dedicated by the worshippers, were destroyed during the invasion of the Persians in 480 BC.
After the Persian wars, the splendid monuments were constructed at the initiative of the enlightened leader Pericles: At the highest point of the hill the Parthenon was built between 447-432 BC, by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates. However, the main instigator of its plan and supervisor of its construction was the sculptor Phidias. The Parthenon consists of the pronaos (antechamber), main temple and opisthodomos and is surrounded by a colonnade consisting of 8X17 columns. It is the most perfect Doric temple, measuring 69,5 X 31 meters and having unique proportions, excellent novelties, combination of Doric and Ionic elements and above all, unsurpassed sculptural decorations on the metopes, pediments and frieze, executed by the most eminent sculptors of the time such as Agorakritos, Alkamenes, Kresilas etc.
The temple was dedicated to the protecting deity of the city Pallas Athena, in her aspect of a warrior, whose colossal gold and ivory cult statue, made by the sculptor Phidias, was placed at the inner part of the cella. The metopes represented mythical battles (Gigantomachy – Amazonomachy – The Sack of Troy – Centauromachy), which were symbolic of the prevalence of moral order over barbarian forces. The pediments represented myths that related to the patron deity Athena: The birth of the goddess from the head of her father Zeus in the presence of the Olympian gods in the east pediment and the contest between the goddess and Poseidon for the patronage of the city in the west pediment. The subject of the frieze, which was 160 meters long and extended along the exterior upper part of the cella was taken from the life of the city. It depicted in relief the Panathenaic Procession with 960 figures in total (magistrates, horsemen, chariot races, water-jar carriers, tray carriers) during the greatest festival that honored goddess Athena on her birthday. It was a work of ultimate perfection in its conception and execution.
Later on, between 421-406 BC, the Erechtheion was constructed at the northern part of the hill in order to house the cult of Athena Polias as peace keeper, and a large number of very ancient cults. It was also meant to incorporate the sacred spots, which according to a long tradition were located in this area. A light outline, elaborate ornaments and the unique southern porch that is supported by the Karyatids, the statues of elegant korai, which have made the monument one of the most famous in the world, distinguish this monument, in contrast to the robustness of the Parthenon.
The Propylaia, a grand entrance, worthy of the Acropolis monuments, was built between 437-432 BC by the architect Mnesikles. It consists of the central entrance with two side wings and resembles an embrace ready to receive the visitor at the end of the path to the Acropolis. The monument, which was subjected to architectural solutions in order to deal with the irregular terrain, was admired already in antiquity for its placement, its architecture, as well as for its glittering decorated ceiling consisting of golden stars against a blue background within coffers.
To the right of the Propylaia on the way up, the temple of Athena Nike, an elegant amphiprostyle Ionic structure was built on the fortification wall by the architect Kallikrates between 425-421 BC. It has remarkable relief decorations on its frieze representing scenes from the Persian wars. Relief scenes depicting goddess Athena and winged figures of Nike decorated the protective parapet that was placed around the tower in 409 BC.
Through the centuries numerous events left their marks on the Acropolis. Despite the fact that the Hellenistic rulers and Roman conquerors respected the monuments, with the establishment of Christianity they were subjected to various alterations and additions since they were converted to Christian churches (6th century).
The Frankish occupation (13th-14th century) and the Ottoman occupation (15th century-1833) also left their marks on the monuments. The bombardment by Morosini during the Venetian -Turkish war (1687), the plundering of the sculptures by lord Elgin (1801-11) and the destructions that occurred through the Hellenic revolution (1822-1827) left indelible marks on the monuments, which, nevertheless, preserved their beauty and their initial form.
Dr. Alkestis Choremi – Spetsieri
Ephor of Antiquities Emeritus