The Acropolis of Athens and its monuments are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek Antiquity to the world. In the second half of the fifth century bc, Athens, following the victory against the Persians and the establishment of democracy, took a leading position amongst the other city-states of the ancient world. In the age that followed, as thought and art flourished, an exceptional group of artists put into effect the ambitious plans of Athenian statesman Pericles and, under the inspired guidance of the sculptor Pheidias, transformed the rocky hill into a unique monument of thought and the arts. The most important monuments were built during that time: the Parthenon, built by Ictinus, the Erechtheon, the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, designed by Mnesicles and the small temple Athena Nike.
The Acropolis of Athens is the most striking and complete ancient Greek monumental complex still existing in our times. It is situated on a hill of average height (156m) that rises in the basin of Athens. Its overall dimensions are approximately 170 by 350m. The hill is rocky and steep on all sides except for the western side, and has an extensive, nearly flat top. Strong fortification walls have surrounded the summit of the Acropolis for more than 3,300 years. The first fortification wall was built during the 13th century BC, and surrounded the residence of the local Mycenaean ruler. In the 8th century BC, the Acropolis gradually acquired a religious character with the establishment of the cult of Athena, the city’s patron goddess. The sanctuary reached its peak in the archaic period (mid-6th century to early 5th century BC). In the 5th century BC, the Athenians, empowered from their victory over the Persians, carried out an ambitious building programme under the leadership of the great statesman Perikles, comprising a large number of monuments including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia and the temple of Athena Nike. The monuments were developed by an exceptional group of architects (such as Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles) and sculptors (such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, Agorakritos), who transformed the rocky hill into a unique complex, which heralded the emergence of classical Greek thought and art. On this hill were born Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Freedom of Expression and Speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values. The Acropolis’ monuments, having survived for almost twenty-five centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations, have adapted to different uses and the civilizations, myths and religions that flourished in Greece through time.
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An `acropolis’ is any citadel or complex built on a high hill. The name derives from the Greek Akro, high or extreme/extremity or edge, and Polis, city, translated as 'High City’, 'City on the Edge’ or 'City in the Air’, the most famous being the Acropolis of Athens, Greece, built in the 5th century BCE. Though the word is Greek in origin, it has come to designate any such structure built on a high elevation anywhere in the world. The Castle Rock in Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, upon which looms the famous castle, was fortified as early as 850 BCE and would be known as an acropolis, as would be those cities of the Maya Civilization which fit that definition, even if they were not built on a natural elevation. Although there were other city-states in ancient Greece boasting an impressive acropolis (such as Thebes, Corinth and, most notably, at Kolona on the Island of Aegina), and the designation 'acropolis’ was also used in Ancient Rome for a series of buildings set on a higher elevation than the surrounding geography, in modern times the word 'acropolis’ is synonymous with the ancient site at Athens.
The Acropolis of Athens was planned, and construction begun, under the guidance of the great general and statesman Pericles of Athens. Over two years of detailed planning went into the specifications and contracting the labour for the Parthenon alone, and the first stone was laid on 28 July 447 BCE, during the Panathenaic festival. Wishing to create a lasting monument which would both honour the goddess Athena (who presided over Athens) and proclaim the glory of the city to the world, Pericles spared no expense in the construction of the Acropolis and, especially, the Parthenon, hiring the skilled architects Callicrates, Mnesikles, and Iktinos and the sculptor Phidias (recognized as the finest sculptor in the ancient world who created the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) to work on the project. According to the historian Pedley, “the work…was carried out under the supervision of Phidias. In fact, Plutarch says that Phidias was in charge of the whole of Pericles’ scheme” (251). Hundreds of artisans, metal workers, craftspeople, painters, woodcarvers, and literally thousands of unskilled labourers worked on the Acropolis. Phidias created a gold and ivory statue of Athena which stood either in the Parthenon, known as the Temple of Athena Parthenos ('Athena the Virgin’ in Greek), or in the centre of the Acropolis near the smaller temple of Athena. During the Panathenaic festival, celebrants would carry a new robe to the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena, housed in the Erechtheion.
The Acropolis rises 490 feet (150 metres) into the sky above the city of Athens and has a surface area of approximately 7 acres (3 hectares). The site was a natural choice for a fortification and was inhabited at least as early as the Mycenaean Period in Greece (1900-1100 BCE) if not earlier. There was already a complex built on the hill, and a temple to Athena in progress, which was destroyed by the Persians under Xerxes in 480 BCE when they sacked Athens. The later structures, famous today, were built as a testament to the resilience of the Athenians following the defeat of Xerxes’ forces at the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) and to exemplify the glory of the city. The four main buildings in the original plan for the Acropolis were the Propylaia, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Propylaia was the ornate entranceway into the temple complex, while the Parthenon was the central attraction.
Other buildings were added as the Acropolis was in use, and the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) added his own flourishes to the city, and the Acropolis, during his reign. With the rise of Christianity after Constantine the Great (272-337 CE) the Parthenon became a church and the Acropolis a center of Christian devotion. In keeping with the church’s common practice, all pagan images were destroyed and modifications made to the temples to bring them into alignment with Christian sensibilities. After the fall of Rome in the West (476 CE) and then that of the Byzantine Empire in the East (1453 CE) to the Turks, the Acropolis was transformed into a Muslim place of worship and the Parthenon became a mosque. The buildings of the Acropolis were damaged through ill use and neglect during the Turkish occupation of Greece (when the Parthenon was used to garrison troop headquarters and the Erechtheion was turned into the governor’s harem) and suffered further damage during the Venetian siege of 1687 CE when the Italian forces sought to dislodge the Turks from Greece. Following the War of Independence of 1821 CE, the Greeks reclaimed the Acropolis and attempted to restore it to its former glory. The English Lord Elgin, however, with the Turks approval, had “removed a number of the pedimental figures and large chunks of the frieze of the Parthenon, and sold them to the British Museum in 1816” (Pedley, 263). Further, the damage to much of the Acropolis, after years of occupation and neglect, seemed irreparable. Only in the latter part of the 20th century CE was serious restoration and preservation work initiated on the Acropolis site. Such work is on-going in the present day including a new museum which houses significant artifacts from the site.
The Acropolis hill (acro - edge, polis - city), so called the "Sacred Rock" of Athens, is the most important site of the city and constitutes one of the most recognizable monuments of the world. It is the most significant reference point of ancient Greek culture, as well as the symbol of the city of Athens itself as it represent the apogee of artistic development in the 5th century BC. During Perikles' Golden Age, ancient Greek civilization was represented in an ideal way on the hill and some of the architectural masterpieces of the period were erected on its ground.
The Propylaea are the monumental entrances to the sacred area dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. Built by the architect Mnesicles with Pentelic marble, their design was avant-garde. To the south-west of the Propylaea, on a rampart protecting the main entrance to the Acropolis, is the Ionian temple of Apteros Nike, which is now being restored.
The first habitation remains on the Acropolis date from the Neolithic period. Over the centuries, the rocky hill was continuously used either as a cult place or as a residential area or both. The inscriptions on the numerous and precious offerings to the sanctuary of Athena (marble korai, bronze and clay statuettes and vases) indicate that the cult of the city's patron goddess was established as early as the Archaic period (650-480 B.C.).
The Acropolis is the one historical site you can't miss. You can take a tour or wander up there yourself but during the summer, whatever you do, unless it is overcast, go early or late in the day. It can get very hot up there and gasping for breath can take way from your ability to marvel at the greatest of all archaeological sites. Getting to the Acropolis is easy and more pleasant than ever because the large avenues which border the south and west of the site (Apostolou Pavlou in Thission and Dionissiou Areopagitou in Makrianni) have been turned into giant pedestrian streets with cafes and restaurants and the walk is quite pleasant. From the Plaka and Monastiraki side it has always been a car-less, enjoyable walk and all you have to do is walk uphill from wherever you are and when you get to the top and there are woods instead of buildings, and steps, take a right.