For most people, Athens and Greece are first of all associated with the Acropolis. It is difficult to imagine a more recognizable place in the Greek capital and in Greece itself as well. A rocky hill that is rising in the heart of Athens attracts the rapturous glances of both tourists and proud Greeks from afar.
The word “Acropolis” comes from the Greek words “ἄκρον” (“the highest point”) and “πόλις” (“the city”).
The Acropolis is quite an important contribution to the world history. Here, at an altitude of 150 m above the sea level, unique masterpieces of ancient architecture are located in harmony with nature. They clearly demonstrate the power, wealth and magnificence of Athens in ancient times.
Despite the fact that the term “Acropolis” also applies to some other objects in Greece, the value of the Acropolis of Athens is so great that no clarification is needed when referring to it.
According to historical data, the hill had been inhabited long before the first religious buildings dedicated to the patron goddess of Athens appeared there. In the 13th century BC, a fortification wall was built around it. It was more than 700 metres long and had been serving as the main protection of the Acropolis until the 5th century BC. The wall followed the natural terrain contour, and two narrow stepped ascents were cut into the rock along the hill. In the north-eastern part, a deep crack appeared as a result of an earthquake — a well was made there, which served as an invaluable protected source of water in case of a siege. The fortress itself was the centre of the Mycenaean kingdom — the Mycenaean Megaron palace was located here. All that remained of the palace is the base column and a few pieces of limestone steps.
During the 7th and the 6th centuries BC, as a result of attempted coups, the Acropolis got under the control of Quilon and of Pisistratus. Thanks to the latter, structures such as the Hecatompedon, which preceded the Parthenon, and the entrance gate of the Propylaea appeared on the hill. In addition, in the 6th century, under Pisistratus’ rule, the old temple of Athena appeared, which was the earliest building on the Acropolis dedicated to Athena Polias. Nowadays, only fragments of the basement and two stone columns are preserved. During the same period, the Brauroneion appeared to the south of Propylaea. This temple was erected in honour of the Brauronian Artemis, the defender of new mothers and of pregnant women. The large number of items of luxurious sacrificial offerings, which have been excavated here, make it possible to draw a conclusion about the greatness of the cult of Athena in the archaic period.
In the middle of the 5th century BC, the Acropolis became the seat of the Athenian League, and the city itself was the greatest cultural centre of its time. By order of Pericles, a construction program was established that lasted for the entire second half of the century. The greatest architects, sculptors and artists of that time were working on the objects that became the most important in the history of Ancient Greece — the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike appeared during this period.
The 5th century BC was the time of a significant economic growth and cultural development in Athens. This period is called the Golden age of Athens.
The Northern part of the Acropolis was dedicated to the cult of the Olympian gods, while the southern side was dedicated to the patron goddess of the city, Athena. The Athenians venerated the goddess for her many qualities, praising her for the help in defending the city (Athena Polias), in battle (Athena Promachos), in crafts (Athena Ergane), in victory (Athena Nike), and in many other areas.
During this time, several other sacred structures were erected on the Acropolis, but there is no evidence of their existence to date. During next several hundred years after the end of the Peloponnesian war, no new buildings were built on the Acropolis, only the damage to existing ones was repaired. In 27 BC, a small round temple of Augustus and Rome was erected to the east of the Parthenon. It was the last significant structure built on top of the rock.
In 161 AD a grand theatre appeared on the southern slope of the Acropolis — it was the Herod Atticus Odeon. During the Roman period, many shrines were ravaged and damaged, including the Odeon, which suffered from the Herulian invasion in the 3rd century. The walls of the Acropolis were repaired, and additional buildings were added, such as the Beule gate that returned the Acropolis to the function of a fortress.
After the establishment of Christianity, the temples of the Acropolis in Greece were turned into churches. The Parthenon became a church dedicated to Virgin Mary, and was later renamed the Church of Panagia Athiniotissa. Erechtheion was dedicated to the Saviour, the temple of Athena Nike was converted into a chapel, and the Propylaea became a Bishop's residence.
During the Latin period, the Acropolis served as the administrative centre of the city. The Parthenon was the city's Cathedral, and the Propylaea was a part of the duke’s palace. An additional tower was built — the Francopyrgos, which was later demolished in the 19th century.
During the Ottoman rule, the Parthenon became the headquarters of the Turkish army garrison, and the Erechtheion was turned into the governor's private harem. At the end of the 17th century, during the siege of the Acropolis, the buildings suffered significant damage, because the Parthenon was used then as a powder magazine, which led to an explosion because of a shell hit.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Acropolis suffered from the devastating by Lord Elgin, who brought a part of the sculptural decorations of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike and Erechtheion out of Greece.
After Greece gained its independence, most of the sites of the Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman periods were destroyed in order to restore the original appearance of the Acropolis of the Ancient Greece period.
Throughout the centuries-old history, the Acropolis has undergone changes and additions, but due to various circumstances, such as time, natural disasters, military actions and human impact, many structures did not survive to this day, and some are just barely distinguishable ruins.
There are 21 historical monuments on the Acropolis of Athens.
At the entrance to the ancient Acropolis, there was a monumental gateway, the Propylaea. Once a gate of Mycenaean fortification was located here, and later — the first gate of Pisistratus. The Propylaea, which has survived to the present day, was part of the Pericles’ ambitious construction program and was built from pentelic marble by the architect Mnesikles in the 5th century BC.
A small temple of Athena Nike was erected to the south of the entrance. A wooden cult statue of the goddess was set inside. The goddess was holding a helmet (a symbol of war) in one hand, and a branch of a pomegranate tree (a symbol of peace) in the other. Pausanias mentioned this temple, calling it "Apteros Nike" ("Wingless Victory"). He noted that the statue of the goddess did not have wings, so as not to be able to leave Athens.
The most famous monument of the Acropolis, the Parthenon is located in the very centre of the hill. The temple dedicated to the patroness of the city is a unique masterpiece of ancient Greeks. The architecture of the Parthenon included many unique decorations and the structure itself was phenomenal as well. In the cella of the Parthenon, an ivory and gold statue of Athena Parthenos was erected: the goddess in armour was carrying victory in her right hand to the inhabitants of the city.
A little northward of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion was located. The building had an unusual shape — the height difference between the western and the eastern parts of the structure was about 3 metres, which was due to the features of the landscape. The eastern side of the temple was dedicated to Athena Polias, and the western one was dedicated to the cult of Poseidon–Erechtheus. According to ancient mythology, this place was the home of Athena’s sacred snake. Inside, a cult statue of the goddess made of olive wood was set. Arrephoroi draped it with sacred ashes during the Panathenaic celebrations. The porch of one of the facades was decorated with female Caryatid statues that were supporting the roof.
Five statues of Caryatides, as well as many significant historical artifacts, are located in the Acropolis Museum. The sixth statue got to the British Museum being looted by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.
To the south of the platform, on the top of the Greek Acropolis the Dionysus theatre was located, where the works of famous ancient playwrights were first staged the ones by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus.
In order to experience all the Acropolis’ points of interest, you need to get to the centre of Athens. There are several ways to do this:
the ACROPOLIS underground station, then via Dionysiou Areopagitou street.
the ACROPOLIS underground station, then via the southern slope’ archaeological site, Dionysiou Areopagitou and Thrasyllou streets.
the MONASTIRAKI underground station, then through the archaeological site of the Ancient Agora or via the Plaka district.