The Rock of the Acropolis dominates the center of modern Athens. It was chosen as a place of settlement as early as the Neolithic Period (4000/3500-3000 BCE), but it began to acquire its sacred character in the 8th century BCE after the establishment of the cult of Athena Polias (the Goddess Athena of the City) and the creation of a temple dedicated to her worship at the top of the rock.
The most important monuments that the visitor sees today – the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike – were built in the middle of the 5th century BCE when the treasury of the Delian League was transferred from Delos to the Acropolis. On the initiative of Pericles, an extremely ambitious building program was started that would last throughout the second half of the 5th century BCE. Thousands worked to complete these magnificent projects including brilliant craftsmen, Athenians and foreigners, citizens and slaves.
When Christianity prevailed, and especially from the 6th century CE, the monuments were converted into churches. During the Turkish occupation (1456-1833), the Acropolis once again became the fortress of the city and a mosque with a minaret was installed inside the Parthenon for use by the occupying forces. In 1687, a cannonball fired by Venetian Marauders from nearby Filopappou Hill caused the Parthenon to explode because of the gunpowder that was stored inside.
During the Greek Revolution, the Acropolis was adopted as a monument of freedom and resistance. It passed again into Greek hands in 1822 with the appointment of the first guard Odysseas Androutsos, eventually becoming one of the most important symbols of the Greek Nation.
The wider area of the Agora has signs of habitation since the Late Neolithic Age (c. 3000 BCE) while from the Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BCE) and through the Iron Age (1,100-700 BCE) it was used as a cemetery. At some point, a small settlement began to develop on the site.
Building activity in the Agora increased immediately after the democratic reforms of Kleisthenes (508/7 BCE) and resulted in the construction of the Tholos (the seat of the prytaneis), the Bouleuterion (the parliament that seated 500 citizens) and other important buildings. The Agora was also a place for trade and services, as all kinds of professionals (shoemakers, barbers, perfumers, etc.) had their offices and workshops organized there, making it into a place of gathering and exchanging news. Inevitably, the Agora was also the place where one found infamous hangouts, brothels, and taverns.
Buildings were added continuously until the Roman period, and although the Agora suffered great destruction by the Herulians and Visigoths in the middle of the 3rd and late 4th century CE, it continued to be a spiritual center and the home of several famous philosophical schools.
In the 18th century, the Temple of Hephaestus in the west end of the Agora (more commonly known as the Thissio because of the scenes with the exploits of Theseus in the frieze) was used as a burial place for many prominent Protestant Christians who died while living in Athens.
The stadium was renovated by Herodes Atticus during 144-140 BCE, giving it a horseshoe shape, and creating marble stands for the spectators. It is estimated that the stadium could host up to 50,000 spectators.
Over the centuries, the stadium fell into disrepair and much of its marble was looted. When it was decided to hold the first international modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1894, the Olympic Committee planned to install new marble, though the project was not completed until 1900. Consequently, during the first Olympic Games in 1896, many of the spectator seats were wooden benches painted white to look like marble.
It is noteworthy that participation during the first Olympic Games of the modern era was free. Most of the athletes were not professionals, but ordinary people and visitors of the city, moved by the idea of reviving the Olympic Games. The stadium remains the finish line of the Athens Marathon and has hosted a number of other sporting and artistic events.
The monument was made of Pentelic marble except for its wooden roof supports. The stone carving reached unprecedented levels of perfection, and scholars have long studied its elegant solutions for every technical problem. The architectural components can weigh as much as 10 tons, while the finished pieces were accurate to one-tenth of a millimeter even in places invisible to the eyes of visitors.
There were open windows in the eastern wall of the cella (the main section of ancient temples) where the cult statue was placed in order to better illuminate its interior – the first example of this feature in an ancient temple – while highlighting the gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos that filled the room.
The white appearance of the Parthenon of today was very different in antiquity. Colors have been found on both its architectural parts and sculptures. Researchers have confirmed the use of green, blue (the so-called "Egyptian blue" and another made from azurite) as well as reds, lead oxide and iron oxide.
The name of the “Pnyx” is etymologically associated with the concept of density. It hints at the functionality of the space, since the small area allowed as many as 15,000 people to be tightly packed together.
Of particular interest today is the way that Athenians punished those citizens who preferred to avoid the Assembly to instead spend their time in the Agora or other crowded places of the city. Public servants working in pairs held the ends of a rope covered in red paint. They approached the idlers from various sides, except the one leading to the Pnyx. Anyone who did not quickly make their way to the assembly risked being smeared with paint, as well as being fined.
The temple completed by Hadrian was one of the largest in the ancient world, 110 meters long and 45 meters wide. There were two rows of 20 columns on its long sides and three rows of 8 columns on the narrow sides. Each column had a height of 17 meters, as still visible today.
The traveler Pausanias described the monument by saying, among other things: “Before the columns stand bronze statues which the Athenians call ‘colonies’. The whole circumference of the precincts is about four stades, and they are full of statues; for every city has dedicated a likeness of the emperor Hadrian, and the Athenians have surpassed them in dedicating, behind the temple, the remarkable colossus”.
The monument suffered severe damage from natural causes as well as human interventions, as its marble was used to make lime important for construction. From its 104 columns, until 1852 only 16 survived, while another fell that year during a terrible storm. The last time the temple suffered serious harm was during the December Events of 1944 when bullets hit the columns.
The wider archaeological site of the Olympeion includes the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman baths, houses of the classical era, a basilica of the 5th century CE, as well as part of the fortification wall of the city. Outside the fenced archaeological site is Hadrian's Arch.
The structure of the Roman Agora measures 111 meters long and 98 meters wide, with a large rectangular courtyard in its center that is surrounded by arcades for shops and storage. There were two main entrances to the Agora: An Ionic propylon on the east side and a Doric gate on the west side, also known as the Gate of Athena Archegetis. A fountain is preserved today with a reservoir on its back.
Other buildings connected to the site include the Tower of the Winds and the so-called Agoranomeion. One should also notice the Vespasianae from the 1st century CE, the public toilets that were created to serve the crowds that frequented the Roman Agora in its heyday. The remains preserved include the traces of the rectangular building where there are benches with holes cut into the sides. Underneath the stalls was a deep sloping channel that fed waste into the city sewer.
During both the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, the area was occupied by houses, workshops and churches. The Fetiye Mosque was built in the area in the 17th century CE. During the 1920s, shanties were erected to house refugees from Asia Minor as also done at other archaeological sites and monuments around Greece.Info
The structure functioned as a weather vane and sundial on the outside and as a hydraulic clock and a planetarium on the inside. It is the oldest weather vane and meteorological center in the world. During the Byzantine period it functioned as a church, while during the Ottoman period it was a retreat of the Dervishes. This latter use, as a place of prayer, is even said to have thwarted Lord Elgin's plans to move the whole building to England in 1805.
Its metopes correspond to the eight points of the horizon. There we see the personified figures of the eight winds, while a rotating bronze Triton that once existed on the top of the roof showed with his staff the figure of the wind that was blowing. Below each wind figure, there are incised lines that create the sundial. Inside the tower there was a hydraulic clock that used water from a spring of the Acropolis that showed both the time and the season of the year.
The theater was radically transformed in the second half of the 4th century BCE when it acquired the all-stone form that we see today with a semi-circular koilon, 67 inscribed marble thrones for the officials, the orchestra and a marble stage. Here, for the first time, the circular design was invented and implemented in a theater, as well as the placement of the spectators on a sloping ground. These elements would become the model for the construction and development of all theatrical constructions. Its capacity is estimated between 17,000 and 19,000 spectators.
The sanctuary of Dionysus was buried for centuries under thick deposits and its location was unknown, therefore the area was mistakenly identified for many years. The British military officer and coin collector W.M. Leake played an important role in recognizing the site based on the representation of an Athenian coin of the 3rd century CE that depicted monuments on the southern slope of the Acropolis.
Today, the restored Herodeion hosts Greek and international performances under the Acropolis with some of the world’s most famous monuments serving as a background. The theater is named after Herodes Atticus, a scion of a great Athenian family, who donated the structure in memory of his murdered wife Regilla.
Built during the 2nd century BCE, its original form had a cedar roof and a stage building that rose three floors for a total height of 28 meters. The conservatory was mainly used for musical events and could hold up to 5,000 spectators. It was destroyed in 267 CE during a raid by the Herulians, as were many other monuments in Athens.
Performances have been hosted in the theater since 1867. The Herodeion was partially restored in 1950 to become one of the most important venues for the annual Athens-Epidaurus Festival. Legendary artists such as ballerina Margot Fonteyn, opera diva Maria Callas, and the singer Liza Minnelli have made appearances on its stage.
Kerameikos is where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration for those who died during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, a founding moment of Athenian democracy. It was also here that the newly founded republic left traces of another powerful weapon, the 9,500 pottery sherds (ostraka) from 471 BCE bearing the name of Themistocles that revealed how a democracy could banish one of its own.
The Athenians honored their gods in this area, especially Athena, as here was the starting point of the procession for the transfer of the veil of the goddess to the Acropolis during the Great Panathenaia that is represented on the famous frieze of the Parthenon.
The archaeological site of Kerameikos encloses only a small part of the ancient municipality of Kerameon that housed the workshops of potters and vase painters. Because of the Eridanos River that flowed through the low-lying areas often flooding it until the time of the Themistoclean fortifications, the area was generally considered unfit for housing and daily life. Due to its loamy soil, it was primarily used for workshops and burying the dead. Today, only a small stream flowing through the area reminds us of its past.
The first tombs of the area date to the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BCE) and the operation of the cemetery continued without interruption until about the 6th century CE. The most important examples of Athenian ceramic vases have been found here, among them the famous Dipylon Oinochoe (wine jug) that is one of the oldest finds carrying the Greek alphabet.
On your tour through the archaeological site and in its museum, look for the monumental marble bull that appears ready to charge from the burial complex of Dionysios of Kollytos. See the famous tomb relief depicting Ampharete holding her baby grandson with a touching description of love that continues after death, the mysterious sphinx on top of the tomb column, and the Grave Stele of Dexileos who was killed at the age of 20 fighting against the Corinthians.
The construction of the gymnasium began in the middle of the 4th century BCE and in the 1st century CE a cold bath tank was added to the north side of the courtyard.
Gymnasiums such as the one at the Lykeion played an important role in the education of young people because physical exercise was considered to parallel mental preparation. Thus, they gradually evolved into centers of spiritual exercise, and during the 4th century BCE, the first philosophical schools were founded in the gymnasiums. Aristotle founded his school at Lykeion in 335 BCE, otherwise known as peripatetic due to his method of teaching while walking.
Before the construction of the temple, the site was mentioned by Homer in the 8th century BCE as a sacred ground, while there are traces of human presence in the wider area from the 3 millennium BCE.
In antiquity, Cape Sounion was an important strategic point. From here, the Athenians controlled sea traffic to the Aegean and the port in Piraeus, as well as to Laurium with its valuable silver mines.
The temple was already extremely popular with early travelers, many of whom engraved their names on its marbles. Don’t forget to search the southern pilaster for the name of Lord Byron, the famous British poet and philhellene. Plan your visit around sunset for a spectacle that you will never forget.
The enclosed building extended around a large inner courtyard with arcades on its four sides and a grand entrance to the west. It was built on the site of a flourishing quarter of the late Hellenistic period that was probably expropriated and demolished in order to build the library. Don't forget to look for the recesses on the eastern wall where the papyrus scrolls were stored in antiquity.
During the period of Ottoman rule, the library served as the seat and residence of the Turkish governors, while later it was used as a customs building, a prison, and as a barracks during the reign of King Otto.
Built by the Athenians in 131-132 CE, as a sign of gratitude to the philhellene Roman Emperor Hadrian, the arch is constructed from Pentelic marble. Reaching 18 meters high and 13 meters wide, the structure has two nearly identical facades separated into distinct horizontal sections. The lower section follows the Roman form of the honorary arch, while the upper section imitates the Greek propylon.
During your visit, try to distinguish the two inscriptions engraved on the architrave of the lower part of the arch. On the northwest side facing the Acropolis, the inscription reads: Here is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus (Αιδ’ εισ’ Αθήναι Θησέως η πριν πόλις). On the southeastern side facing the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the inscription reads: Here is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus (Αιδ’ εισ’ Αδριανού και ουχί Θησέως πόλις).
Some scholars believe that the inscriptions indicated the boundaries between the ancient city of Theseus and the new city of Hadrian, while others interpret them simply as indicators of the expansion of the city.
This grove had been inhabited since prehistoric times and was used from the 6th century BCE as a training ground for athletes.
In 388 BCE, Plato founded his famous philosophical school on the site. Plato's School flourished especially with the so-called Neoplatonic philosophers and, stayed alive for nearly a thousand years until 529 CE when the Roman Emperor Justinian decreed that all the educational centers of Athens should be closed.
This open-air archaeological site will make you feel the thrill of knowing you're walking the same paths where Western Philosophy was first organized and taught. This was the world’s first university where the foundations of science and philosophy were laid some two and a half millennia ago.