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How the Acropolis became a Christian church and mosque and other little-known facts about the Athenian Parthenon
How the Acropolis became a Christian church and mosque and other little-known facts about the Athenian Parthenon

The Acropolis of Athens is without doubt the most popular attraction in the Greek capital. Approximately seven million tourists annually climb the Acropolis hill to "teleport" to Ancient Greece and take a closer look at the Parthenon. A place steeped in history, the Acropolis has many fascinating stories to tell. In this article, you will find twelve little-known facts about this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of the Parthenon. \ Photo:

Acropolis in Greek means a high point within the city. Many ancient Greek cities had their own Acropolis, which was usually a hilltop citadel. The most famous Acropolis is Athens. In the era of classical Greece, it was a sacred site dedicated to the cult of the patron goddess of the city of Athens, as well as other local heroes and deities.

Although the Acropolis has been the center of Athens' religious life for centuries, it became famous in the 5th century BC, the golden age of Athenian democracy. At the time, Athens had just defeated the Persians and led an alliance of Greek city-states challenging the Spartan hegemony of Greece.

Pericles, a prominent political figure of the time, vigorously promoted the idea of ​​a new Acropolis. This Acropolis will make Athens a city of undeniable beauty and grandeur. At the expense of the legendary sum of money, the Athenians completely transformed the rock of the Acropolis into a place of miracles, and it certainly did not stop developing after the classical period. The sacred hill of Athens continued to change with each new civilization leaving the city. The Romans, Byzantines, Latin Crusaders, Ottomans and finally the modern Greek state all left their mark on the rocky hill.

1. Acropolis was inhabited in prehistoric times

Mycenaean signet ring called Theseus Ring from the Acropolis of Athens, 15th century BC. \ Photo:

Finds on the Acropolis of Athens indicate that the hill has been inhabited since at least the 4th millennium BC. During the heyday of the so-called Mycenaean civilization, the Acropolis became a significant center. Great Cyclopean walls, like the one at Mycenae, protected the palace (anactoron) and the settlement on the hill. A well was also dug, which no doubt proved useful during the siege.

The walls were called Pelasgian and are still partially visible to visitors when they enter from the Propylaea. The Athenians of the Archaic period inherited the ruins of the Mycenaean Acropolis, which was rich enough to ignite a whole mythology about the city's past. The Mycenaean Tomb on the Acropolis, also known as the tomb of the legendary Athenian king Cecrops, has become the most sacred site in all of Athens.

2. The Persians razed the first Parthenon to the ground

Parthenon plan. \ Photo:

Immediately after the first victory over the Persians in Marathon (490 BC), the Athenians decided to celebrate this event by building the grandiose Temple of Athena. To do this, they dismantled another temple, called Hecatompedon, which means one hundred feet (ancient unit of length), and used its material to build a new temple.

However, the Persians soon recalled themselves again. In 480 BC, the Persian king Xerxes I again invaded Greece. Realizing that they were unable to defend the city, the Athenians made one of the most important decisions in the history of Athens. They decided to leave the city and retreat to the island of Salamis in order to lure the Persians into a naval battle.In the end, the Athenians emerged victorious from the naval battle of Salamis, but paid a high price for it.

Before the battle, the Persians entered Athens and razed the city to the ground. The unfinished Parthenon did not escape the wrath of the invaders, who, among other things, destroyed the oldest temple of Athena. When the Athenians returned to their city, they decided to leave the ruins of the old temple of Athena in place as a reminder of these difficult times. In addition, thirty-three years later, they built a new Parthenon atop the ruins of the Prophenon.

3. Ancient art gallery of Propylaea

Model of the Athenian Acropolis as it was in the 5th century BC, with the Propylaea complex in the center. \ Photo:

One of the most beautiful buildings on the Acropolis is the Propylaea. The Propylaea was a monumental entrance to the sacred hill designed by the architect Mnesicles. The building was part of Pericles' construction program, and although it took five years (437-342 BC) to build, it remained unfinished.

The propylaea were made from high quality local Pentelian marble and Eleusinian limestone for parts of the building. The south side of the building was probably used for a ritual meal. The north side was especially interesting as it was an early art gallery of sorts. Pausanias, a Roman author, describes this part of the Propylaea as the Pinacoteca, that is, an art gallery. He even describes some of the paintings, which included works on various religious themes by renowned artists such as the Greek ethos painters Polygnotus and Aglaophon.

Interestingly, the Pinakothek was open to the public, at least for those who were allowed to enter the Acropolis (slaves and those who were not considered clean were not allowed to enter). This seemingly public character of the Pinakothek makes it an interesting example in the ancient history of museums.

4. Statue of Athena Promachos

Acropolis of Athens, Leo von Klenze, 1846 \ Photo:

In ancient times, a colossal bronze statue of Athena stood on the Acropolis. The statue was called Athena Promachos, that is, the one who fights on the front lines. This statue was made by Phidias, who also created the famous statue of Athena Parthenos, which was inside the Parthenon. According to Pausanias (1.28.2), the Athenians built a statue in gratitude to Athena after defeating the Persians at Marathon.

5. The Acropolis was a colorful place

Phidias and frieze of the Parthenon, Alma-Tadema, 1868-9 \ Photo:

Many people today think that ancient Greek art, especially architecture and sculpture, was exclusively white. If someone visits the Parthenon in the Acropolis today, they will see a white or rather grayish monument next to the same white ancient ruins. However, in ancient times, this simply did not exist.

The ancient Greeks were people who loved color. Their statues were painted in vibrant color combinations. The same was true for their temples. Greek architecture was actually so colorful that it was closer to today's kitsch than to the white classical ideal found in school textbooks.

The reason the ruins of classical antiquity are white today is because the pigments decay over time. However, in many cases, they are traceable or even observed with the naked eye. The curators of the British Museum have found traces of pigment on the Parthenon marble since they first arrived at the museum in the early 19th century.

A truly beautiful depiction of the Parthenon in color appears in Alma-Tadema's painting Phidias showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his friends. The painting dates from 1868 and is a visually stimulating exploration of the Parthenon frieze.

6. The tree of Athena and the water of Poseidon

Erechtheion of the Acropolis. \ Photo by Peter Mitchell. \

The Erechtheion was the most sacred site in Athens. It was a building consisting of two temples, one for Athena and one for Poseidon. To understand why these two gods shared the building, we need to go back to the old myth of how Athens got its name. According to legend, Athena and Poseidon wanted to take the city under their protection. To avoid conflict, Zeus intervened and staged a bloodless competition.

Athena and Poseidon came to the place where the Erechtheion now stands, and the people of Athens gathered to watch the competition. First, Poseidon revealed his gift to the city by striking the ground with a trident and producing water.In turn, Athena planted a seed that instantly grew into an olive tree.

The Athenians appreciated both gifts. However, they already had access to a lot of water. Therefore, they chose the Athena olive tree, which was an excellent source of food and wood. Athena became the patron deity of the city and named it Athens in her honor.

The Erechtheion is a monument to this myth. The Athenians swore they heard the sound of Poseidon's ocean under the building. In addition, the hole in the floor was supposed to be where the god struck with his trident, competing with Athena. In the Athenian half of the temple, there was a small courtyard built around the legendary Athena tree.

7. Caryatids

Copies of the caryatids at the Erechtheion of the Acropolis. \ Photo:

The caryatids of the Erechtheion are one of the finest sculptures in the history of art. They are unique in that they combine elegance and functionality. Today, visitors to the Acropolis Museum can find five of the six caryatids (the sixth is in the British Museum) exhibited as freestanding sculptures. However, originally they served as fancy columns on the "Porch of the Maidens" of the Erechtheion.

The name Caryatids means the Virgin of Caria, a city in southern Greece. The city of Caria had an exceptional relationship with the goddess Artemis. More specifically, their cult was directed towards Artemis Caryatid. Therefore, many scholars believe that the Caryatids represent the priestesses of Artemis from Caria.

The six women of the Erechtheion maintain a roof over a Mycenaean tomb, attributed to the legendary Athenian king Cecrops. Cecrops was an interesting figure in the Athenian mythical tradition. It was said that he was born from the earth (autochthon), and for this reason he was half-human, half-snake (snakes were predominantly terrestrial creatures for the Greeks). The Caryatids may simply be protecting one of the most sacred sites in Athens. They can also accompany the mythical king of Athens in the afterlife.

8. The Acropolis has many cave sanctuaries

Caves of Zeus and Apollo. \ Photo:

At the top of the Acropolis, the state primarily glorified Athena and a number of other gods and heroes. However, there were many small caves-sanctuaries around the rocky hill that met a different need. Unlike the official cults promoted by the Athenian bourgeoisie at the top of the hill, these shrines were small cult sites that offered individual contact with deities who addressed the needs of the common people.

Three of the most important caves were dedicated to Zeus, Apollo and Pan. Other notable ones include the sanctuaries of Aphrodite and Eros. Another was dedicated to Aglavra (Agravla), the mythical daughter of Cecrops. According to legend, Athens was under a difficult siege when the prophecy said that only through a voluntary sacrifice Athens could be saved. Hearing this, Aglavra immediately threw herself off the cliff of the Acropolis. The Athenians held a holiday in her memory every year. During this event, the young Athenians donned their armor and vowed to defend the city in front of the sanctuary of Aglavra.

9. The Parthenon as a Christian church and a mosque

Ottoman mosque built on the ruins of the Parthenon after 1715, Pierre Peytier, 1830s. \ Photo:

The Parthenon of the Acropolis may now be known as the temple of the goddess Athena, but over its long life of two and a half thousand years, the temple changed hands many times. After the 4th century AD, the old pagan religion began to fade before Christianity. The Christianized late Roman Empire and its continuation, better known as the Byzantine Empire, ensured that the new dogma would not meet with competition. During his reign, Emperor Theodosius II ordered the closure of all temples associated with paganism.

By the end of the sixth century, the Parthenon was converted into one of the Christian churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which became a clear replacement for Athena. The Fourth Crusade was aimed at destroying the Christian remnants of the Eastern Empire known as Byzantium. Athens became Latin Holland and the Parthenon became the Catholic Church for about two hundred and fifty years.

In 1458, the Ottomans conquered Athens and turned the Parthenon into a mosque with a minaret. The next chapter in the history of the monument began with the Greek Revolution (1821-1832), which created the modern Greek state.Since then, the Parthenon has been a historical monument, and since 1933, nine restoration projects have been carried out.

10. The Parthenon has gone through a lot of destruction

Ruins of the Parthenon, Sanford Robinsonford, 1880. \ Photo:

The first major destruction occurred in the 3rd century AD, when a fire destroyed the roof of the temple. In 276, the Germanic Herul tribe sacked Athens and destroyed the Parthenon, which was soon rebuilt.

The Parthenon has undergone many transformations from pagan to Orthodox, from the Roman Catholic Church to a mosque. In addition, the monumental statue of Athena was moved to Constantinople. However, this constant use of the Parthenon meant that the building was well preserved.

Everything changed in 1687 when Venetian troops under the command of General Morosini laid siege to Athens. The Ottoman Guards then fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder store. Learning that the Ottomans were keeping gunpowder in the Parthenon, Morosini set his sights on the temple. One cannonball was enough to devastate the temple and kill three hundred people.

After the explosion, only one of the four walls of the Parthenon survived. More than half of the frieze had collapsed, the roof had disappeared, and the east porch was now a single column. The Parthenon never recovered from this destruction.

Yet a century later, in 1801, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador, put the finishing touch to the symphony of destruction. Elgin removed most of the frieze and pediments of the temple, as well as the caryatid from the Erechtheion and part from the temple of Athena Nike.

The loot made it to the British Museum after a long and painful journey. It is worth noting that the ship that was carrying the marble sank shortly after leaving Athens, and a group of Greek divers helped retrieve the boxes of marble.

11. The Bavarian king was thinking about building a palace

Plan of the Royal Palace of the Acropolis, lithograph of a drawing by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. \ Photo:

In 1832 Greece became an independent state under the protection of the largest European powers (England, France, Russia). At a time when the Holy Alliance existed, and the idea of ​​democracy seemed heretical, Europeans could not allow the existence of a new state without an absolute monarch.

The European powers finally put the Bavarian prince Otto Friedrich Ludwig on the throne of the newfound kingdom. Shortly after arriving in his new capital, Athens, Otto faced a problem: there was no suitable royal palace. Karl Friedrich Schinkel, renowned painter and architect, came up with an innovative solution. The proposal was for the new monarch's palace to be located at the top of the Acropolis. His palace plans were aimed at creating a monumental royal complex.

View of the Royal Palace of the Acropolis, lithograph of a drawing by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. \ Photo:

Fortunately for future archaeologists, the king dismissed this idea as impractical. However, the depictions of the plans drawn by Karl Friedrich Schinkel provide a charming glimpse into an alternate reality.

12. Act of resistance to Nazism on the Acropolis

German soldiers raise the Swastika on the Acropolis, 1941. \ Photo:

In April 1941, Athens came under the rule of Hitler. The swastika fluttered on the Acropolis hill, replacing the flag of the Greek kingdom. On May 30, 1941, two Greek university students named Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas secretly climbed the Acropolis through the Pandroseion Cave. Escaping the German guard who was getting drunk near the Propylaea, they removed the swastika and left unnoticed. The inhabitants of Athens woke up to the sight of the Acropolis, free from the symbol of the conqueror. This was the first act of resistance in Greece and one of the first in Europe. This news raised the spirit of the occupied European peoples as a symbolic victory over fascism.

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