Democracy was born, and philosophy, drama, and public architecture flourished. The Acropolis and its monuments are emblems of this legacy.
The Acropolis, view from the southwest
Now the capital of Greece, the city of Athens has a history that extends millennia into the past. The origins of Western civilization trace to its Classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.).
Acropolis means “city at the top,” and indeed, at about 150 meters above sea level, the Acropolis of Athens overlooks much of the rest of the city. Since well before the Classical period, the Acropolis served as the citadel of Athens.
Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, was the patron of Athens. The Parthenon was her main temple and was built in the mid-5th century, a few decades after the Persians had destroyed much of Athens.
The Propylaea was the main gate to the Acropolis at its western end. Construction on the Parthenon was interrupted in 432 B.C. by the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. In the end, Sparta defeated Athens.
The Agora of an ancient Greek city was its center of civic life, with public buildings, temples, and shops. The Agora of ancient Athens is northwest of the Acropolis, on a site that’s been continuously occupied since 3000 B.C.
The Acropolis, View from the East
Describing the political situation in 5th-century Athens, the historian Thucydides wrote: “In name democracy, but in fact the rule of one man.” That “one man” was Pericles, the most prominent Athenian statesman in the years between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
Portrait Head of Thucydides (second half of 2nd century A.D.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The Parthenon and Propylaea were built due to his leadership.
The magnificent colonnades of the Parthenon create an appearance of symmetry and harmony that is founded on an optical illusion. Despite their seeming regularity, the colonnades include no vertical straight lines.
Ancient Athens ( S.A. B 329) (1944) by Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection
The Erechtheum is another temple of Athena, built at the end of the 5th-century B.C. The columns that support its southern porch are in the form of women. These six “caryatids” are the most famous examples of their kind.
Rising more than 275 meters above Athens, Mount Lycabettus is now a popular tourist destination, mainly for its views. Its slopes are still covered with pines.
The View of the City
Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. At the time, its capital city was hardly a city. Only about 4,000 Athenians remained, living in houses north of the Acropolis. In the years since, Athens has grown rapidly.
Those who go up to the peak on foot may imagine the time when, according to legend, wolves dwelt there (ycabettus literally means “place of wolves”).
The Chapel of St. George
The whitewashed chapel of St. George faces Mount Lycabettus’ observation platform. It’s a Greek Orthodox chapel. Through centuries of Turkish rule over Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church helped to maintain the Greek language and traditions of its people.
The ancient Greeks called this island Calliste, meaning “most beautiful.” Under Venetian rule, beginning in the 13th century, it became known as Santorini. Though many still call it Santorini, the Greeks themselves now call the island Thíra. It lies in the Aegean Sea.
Santorini is the site of one of the largest known volcanic eruptions, which occurred sometime around 1500 B.C. The lagoon to the west is actually a large caldera, and Santorini itself is the eastern half of the blasted-out volcano.
The village of Oía is at the northern end of Santorini. Once a lively port, the town was partially destroyed during a 1956 earthquake. Rebuilt in traditional style, the town’s seaside white-walled homes and blue-domed churches attract globetrotting photographers.
Perhaps you have heard tales of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived on top of pillars.
In 5th-century Syria, Saint Simeon Stylites was the first to make his home on a pillar, and many others followed, including the 7th-century Saint Alypius, who is said to have lived in this way for 67 years.
In about the 11th century, hermits began to make their homes among a group of vertical sandstone formations found in Thessaly, Greece. Eventually, they began to establish monasteries among and on top of the rocks.
The word Metéora means “suspended in air,” which describes the appearance of these sandstone megaliths well. Beginning some 60 million years ago, earthquakes, rain, and wind shaped these rocks. The average height of the rock formations is 300 meters.
From the 14th through the 16th centuries, 24 monasteries were built on the summits of these rocks. Only 6 of these monasteries remain today.
The Holy Monastery of Great Metéoron
Founded in the 14th century, the Holy Monastery of Great Metéoron was the first and most prominent of the monasteries to be built atop the rocks of Metéora. Its founder, Athanasios Koinovitis, was a monk from Mount Athos, another mountainous region where monasteries abound.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, as Ottoman rule over Greece was coming to an end, the hard-to-reach peaks of Metéora provided refuge to rebels and persecuted Greeks.
Paved roads came to this area in the 1960s. Now thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit every year, whereas only a few monks and nuns still live in Metéora.