Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Olympieion, Areopagus, Pnyx, Agora (MARCH 31, 2009)

Hello again! Sorry about the late post...I passed out from sheer exhaustion from the past two days, which is really a good thing, because it means that I'm enjoying it. If I weren't, I wouldn't be tired, I'd be crabby. Anyhow, the day started off with a rendezvous at the Athens Centre, from where we walked through the National Gardens to the Olympieion, or the Temple of Olympian Zeus, once the largest temple on mainland Greece, now relegated to the ranks of ruins, with columns both standing and toppled, and taken over by the nature from which it ultimately came. We entered through the old gateway to the sanctuary (the grounds surrounding the temple), first admiring the unique history of the temple, which started off as a small Archaic temple, was overtaken by the beginnings of a massive temple by the Pisistratids (the column drum segments left over from the Pisistratid temple were enormous, at least 5 feet in diameter if not more), was later revived by Atiochus IV, and finally completed in the 2nd century AD by Roman Emperor Hadrian, whose temple remains are those that exist today (identified by the typically Roman Corinthian capitals), and the stone from the other stages was likely used to build the many defensive walls erected in Athens in the period before Hadrian completed it. We walked around the temple to get a sense of the sheer size, but also to see the valley of the river Ilissos, where there was ongoing excavation. After we had made the trek around the temple, we came upon the Arch of Hadrian, erected by the Emperor to mark the boundary between the Athens of Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens (AKA the old city), and the Athens of Hadrian, the legendary renovator of Athens. Hadrian was so important to Athens that a tribe/deme of Athens was named after him, the Hadrianis, putting him among the ranks of the eponymous heroes. After the Arch of Hadrian, where we were nearly blind-sided by a bendy-bus, we headed towards the Acropolis, but not to it, as Helma felt it good to tease us with the high city. We passed a random ruin in the middle of a square, and found the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, erected around 335 BC by himself in honor of his benefaction as a choregos of a winning play in the Theatre of Dionysus. It is a drum-like structure on a podium adorned by engaged columns of the Corinthian order, one of the first pieces of monumental architecture to use acanthus-leaf capitals. The monument was once home to poet Lord Byron in his frequent visits to Athens in the early 19th century, and there is a plaque commemorating his tenancy. From there we made our way further uphill to the base of the Acropolis, passing by the new Acropolis Museum, not open until June 20th but built specifically to house the finds from the Acropolis, including the so-called "Elgin marbles" in the British Museum taken by Lord Elgin in 1801-2. Along the way we had attracted a host of dogs, who quickly dispersed when we arrived at the tourist trap at the base of the hill. Passing by, we ventured first to the Areopagus, or "the hill of Ares," where the Athenian homicide court established in the tragic cycle of the Oresteia was located. The view from the top of the hill, reached by the more adventurous via the "original" slippery, worn stone stairs or by the more cautious/tired via modern metal stairs, was very impressive, overlooking the Ancient Agora and the Pnyx, as well as providing a view of the Propylaea on the Acropolis, as well as a strange red balloon floating over the Acropolis... Nevermind the balloon. From the Areopagus we hiked down and back up to the Pnyx, a site that until I saw it I honestly could not understand. Apparently, the Pnyx was the meeting place for the citizen assembly, where men could speak their mind from the bema (the Greek "soapbox") to the crowd collected in the semi-circular standing area. Unless you see how it is laid out, it is confusing, because during its lifetime the Pnyx was reversed to face the countryside (now the city) instead of the Acropolis and the sea, suggesting an emphasis on the importance of land-based sustenance and the shifting of political modes between democracy and oligarchy. Thus, instead of following the natural slope of the hill, a retaining wall was built to make a faux-horizontal area/terrace for the audience. Enough of this confusion. After enjoying the relatively unimpressive Pnyx, we walked down to the Ancient Agora, a site I will return to later in further detail, but for now will highlight. We entered near the Hephaesteion (or Theseion), a beautiful Doric order temple overlooking the agora with a frieze depicting the labors of Theseus, likely meant to imply connections between the temple's brain-child, Pericles, as well as revel in the toils of the Persian Wars, especially since the frieze also depicts the battle between the Lapiths (civilized men) and the Centaurs (barbarians). Making sure to cover all the bases, the metopes depict the labors of Heracles alongside those of Theseus. From the Hephaesteion we walked into the agora, wandering past the House of Simon, the Tholos (of Socratic fame), the monument of the Eponymous Heroes from whom the tribes of Athens derived their names, and a headless statue of Hadrian with Athena perched atop the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, a symbol establishing Rome as the stable foundation of Athens in the 2nd century AD. We the visited the Agora Museum, which is housed in the restored Stoa of Attalos, a roofed colonnade meant as a retreat from the blistering Greek sun in ancient times and today. After a quick gander at the pottery and other finds from the agora, I headed back to the apartment, grabbed some lunch, relaxed, talked to Katt, went to classes, and essentially passed out, thus why this post is a day late, and the post covering today will come tomorrow. So, reader, until next time...

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