Greece #02 – Athens (Part 2)

November 14, 2019  •  4 Comments

APRIL 2019

Greece #02 – Athens (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece.  Except for a few days on our own in Athens and surrounding area, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.

This installment is part 2 of our time in the city of Athens.  Subsequent sections will include some areas near Athens and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

Full Trip Map
01 Map Full Trip01 Map Full Trip

Map of our wanderings in Athens
02 Map #01a Athens route02 Map #01a Athens route


Roman Agora

The word “Agora” translates roughly to Meeting or Gathering place.  Typically though the term refers to open markets where people from a wide area come to buy and sell goods, but also a general hang out place.  In the area around the Acropolis there are two of these and I am constantly getting the names mixed up.  One is called the Roman Agora (aka Market of Caesar and Augustus) and the other is the Ancient Agora

The Roman Agora is just north of the Acropolis and quite close to the Anafiotika area we talked about last time. The main entrance is on the west side through the Gate of Athena and an inscription on this gate says that Julius Caesar and Augustus provided the funds for its construction in the 1st century B.C.  On the east side was a secondary entrance accompanied by a public restroom (what a concept) and an astronomical observatory called the Tower of the Winds.  While the Tower of the Winds is intact, the remainder of this site is not much.  Just some of the columns which had formed the portico, a fair amount of the Gate of Athena Archegeris, and some old marble flooring are left.

The Tower of the Winds - which is officially the Horologion of Andronikos of Kyrrhos (if you can get your tongue around it) - is an octagonal building, maybe 3 stories high at the east end of the Roman Agora and is still quite intact.  It was designed by a famous astronomer (Andronikos of Kyrrhos) to be an elaborate water clock (on the inside), sundial (on the outside), and weather vane (on the top). The nickname "Tower of the Winds" is derived from the personifications of the 8 winds carved on the 8 sides of the building.  Although the building is intact, the water clock inside is missing.  So, all you can see, other than some explanatory signage are slots in the floor that channeled water for (or from) the clock.

The agora itself continued operation till some time in the 19th century, but no one is quite sure exactly when it stopped operation.  When in operation the main feature of the agora was a large rectangular building with an open central courtyard surrounded by an iconic portico with shops of various kinds.  At some point a concert hall, several stories high, was erected at one end of the Agora, pretty much blocking much of the view of the Agora itself.

East end of the Roman Agora
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West end of the Roman Agora and the Gate of Athena Archegetis
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Some remaining columns of the main building
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Ancient Agora

What is known as the Ancient Agora predates the Roman Agora but this one has some important history to it.  If any of you were awake during history class in high school and assuming your school acknowledged anything that happened outside of North America before the First World War, you may know that Greece is said to be the cradle of democracy world wide.  Well, this is the place where that idea started and took root.  That’s pretty impressive credentials, globally speaking. 

As was noted above, an “Agora” was a meeting place or market place.  But in ancient times it was much more than just a market.  It also served as a civic center, government center, central park, artist conclave, a gathering place to exchange philosophical and political opinions and a place to stand up and make a speech to whoever would listen about whatever it was that moved you.  It was also the place where elections were held, government officials announced policy, trials were conducted, legal verdicts were announced and in many cases punishment applied.  And, during the “classical era”, among all these other goings on, it was at the heart of the democracy movement that lives on today.

One can just imagine Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates wandering these paths followed by a flock of their students hanging on every word and being challenged by the philosopher at every turn.  This Agora really was at the center of the Greek Universe and utilized by all strata of Greek life.  For free Athenian citizens (which of course leaves out the slaves) participating in such “common” activities as those taking place in the Agora was not just a civic and social duty, but a privilege and an honor.  At the time, there was a Greek word used to mock those who avoided participation in the common citizen activities.  That word was ‘idiotis’ which translates to ‘he who acts on his/her own’.  Today that word is just plain ‘idiot’.

The Ancient Agora sits below the northwest corner of the Acropolis and the current site is a bit under 3 acres making it quite a bit larger than the Roman Agora which came along later.  The best view of the site is from the Acropolis where you can take in the entire grounds all at once, but to really appreciate what’s there you have to pay a fee and go onto the grounds themselves.

Excavations have found that this Agora contained several notable buildings including the city’s arsenal, the Tholos (where the elected generals lived at public expense) and numerous stoas.  Stoas were massive covered porticos designed for public usage, where merchants could sell their goods and where people could catch some shade on a scorching summer day.

One of the features of the Ancient Agora is that two of the old Grecian buildings are intact and pretty much in good condition.  In most of the other sites one is left to ones own imagination about how it must have looked when all the parts were still standing way back when.  But, here you can actually see what it was like and in one case even walk around inside the completely restored building. 

The restored building is the The Stoa of Atallos. This building was completed in 138 BC but then destroyed in 267 AD and then rebuilt in the mid 1950’s.  In its heyday it was the main commercial building or shopping center in the Agora – there were others but this was the ‘big daddy’ of them all.  There are enclosed rooms along the back side of this two story building but the entire front half is open to the outside behind a long row of columns.  Today this building houses a museum and some governmental offices.

The Stoa of Atallos
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Open portico inside the Stoa of Atallos
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The second building that is intact is on the top of a small hill and is the Temple of Hephaistos.  While most other buildings from ancient times were destroyed by invading armies or just abandoned and left to decay on their own, this one owes its good fortune to being continually in use from the 7th century until 1834.  During that period it served as the Greek Orthodox church of Saint George Akamates.  This is a very traditional style building from the era and in that regard is quite similar to many others like the Parthenon – albeit on a smaller scale.  You can’t go inside this building but can walk all around it quite close.

View of Temple of Hephaistos from the Acropolis
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Temple of Hephaistos
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Temple of Hephaistos from the middle of the agora
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Even though we have these two standing buildings, most of what’s visible and known of the Ancient Agora was a mystery until the American School in Athens began excavating in 1934.  Before that, much of the site was covered by a refugee camp made up of Greeks who fled Turkey during the events following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The excavations uncovered most of the 30+ known major buildings from the ancient Athenian Agora, along with thousands of artifacts. Conservation efforts have restored thousands of pieces of pottery, studied thousands of marble statues and reliefs, and analyzed the remains of human and animal bones to give a better understanding of what life was like in the ancient Athenian world.  This excavation is ongoing each summer with a digging team made up of qualified students from many different disciplines.  Most of their day is taken up squatting in the hot Greek sun, pick axing through layers of never-ending dirt, and sweeping all of the dirt and rocks away to reveal pottery, walls, bones, and coins, but most often, just more dirt.


The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel located on top of a flat topped rocky butte.  The top of this rocky protrusion contains the remnants of several ancient buildings the most famous being the Parthenon.  When someone says “Acropolis” we immediately think about Athens but the word itself is generic.  Many Greek cities have an Acropolis.  The word acropolis means "highest point in the city”.  Although the term acropolis is generic and there are many others in Greece, the significance of this one is such that it is commonly known as "The Acropolis" without qualification.

Going back in time, there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, well before the Greeks, or anyone else, contemplated building massive monumental size buildings on its top but it was Pericles in the fifth century BC who coordinated the construction of the site's most important structures including the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.  The Parthenon and the other buildings were damaged seriously during the 1687 siege by the Venetians during the Morean War when gunpowder being stored in the Parthenon was hit by a cannonball and exploded.  Okay, here’s another great idea:  Store your high explosives in a building visible from everywhere in the city.

The best known structures at this Acropolis such as the Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike were built on the flat top, but several other structures like theaters were built just below the towering cliffs of the butte but all where on the South side.  However the Ancient Agora (talked about above) and Areopagus Hill are on the Northwest side. 

The Areopagus is a round top rock outcropping also known as Mars Hill or Ares Rock.  In classical times, it was used as a court room for trying the most serious of crimes such as murder, wounding, arson, and religious matters.  And for some unknown reason it was also used to try cases involving olive trees.  Boy, if you murdered an olive tree, you were really in trouble.  Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Halirrhothius. 

But, getting back to the Acropolis itself the sides on the south, east and north are tall sheer cliffs descending down to where normal people lived but at the west and northwest sides it is more tapered.  So, it was at this end that the entrance was made.  In keeping with the grandiose mantra of the times, they didn’t just build a set of stairs and a gate.  Instead they built an elaborate entry structure with wide marble stairs flanked by temples on both sides as the way to get up on top.  Of course during ancient times you really had to be somebody to be allowed up there at all.  This wasn’t a place where the riff raff of town could come to spend an afternoon chatting it up with the gods.

The centerpiece of the buildings is, of course, the Parthenon, visible from most of the city.  The Parthenon is a former temple dedicated to the goddess Athena (and after whom the city was named), and who was the patron god of the city. Construction began in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power. It was completed 9 years later in 438 BC.  It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.  Much of the decorative reliefs which adorned the structure have been moved to the museum and replicas put in their place.

The Parthenon itself replaced an older temple of Athena that was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 480 BC.   Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon has served several different purposes over time.  It has been the city treasury,  the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire and in the final decade of the 6th century AD, it was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  After the Ottoman conquest, it was turned into a mosque and later an Ottoman ammunition dump which the Venetians managed to blow up severely damaging not only the building but much of its sculptures.

Since 1975 numerous large-scale restoration projects have been undertaken; the latest is still underway and is expected to be completed next year, in 2020.

Parthenon on the Acropolis from our Hotel Room
Parthenon at night from Divani Acropolis HotelParthenon at night from Divani Acropolis Hotel

Some (replicas) of sculptures have been inserted where the real ones were removed to the museum.  This one is supposed to look like it is holding up the roof
Parthenon #4Parthenon #4

Another building that is somewhat intact is the Erechtheion or Erechtheum on the north side of the top of the Acropolis.  This one was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon.  The temple as seen today was built between 421 and 406 BC.  Erechtheus was mentioned in Homer's Iliad as a great king and ruler of Athens

On the north side of this building, there is a large porch called the Porch of the Caryatids with six Ionic columns and on the south side of the building is the famous "Porch of the Maidens", with six draped female figures as supporting columns. The porch was built to conceal the giant 15-ft beam needed to support the southwest corner after the building was drastically reduced in size and budget following the onset of the Peloponnesian war.

Porch of the Caryatids on North side of the Erechtheion building
Erechtheion temple #2Erechtheion temple #2

Porch of the Maidens on South side of the Erechtheion building
Erechtheion templeErechtheion temple

Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum is an archaeological museum focused on the findings on the archaeological site of the Acropolis in Athens. The museum was built to house every artifact found on the rock and on the surrounding slopes, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece.

The museum, first completed in 1874 was on the Acropolis itself.  It was expanded in the 1950’s but still remained on the top of the Acropolis next to the Parthenon.  However, as excavations have continued on the site this museum ran out of space.  In addition the museum itself was covering up a significant area of the Acropolis which itself could contain additional artifacts and ancient structure remnants from the Roman and early Byzantine era of Athens. 

To remedy this, building a new, larger, museum had been discussed for decades but those discussions went nowhere.  However those discussions were pushed into high gear due to the United Kingdom.  On many occasions, the Greeks had requested the British to return Parthenon Marbles and artifacts which the Brits had come by in a “controversial manner” (in other words they stole).  By the end of the 20th century many such requests from ancient countries such as Egypt, and much of the Middle East were being agreed to by various western countries.  So, the Brits – in true British style – suggested that they’d be happy to return the loot if only Greece had a suitable place to house and display the items.  Well, that got the attention of the sluggish Greek legislature and moved the discussions of building a new facility off the back burner.

So, a new museum was to be built but this time it would not occupy space on the top of Acropolis.  Rather, it would be built below and just outside the fenced off historical reserve.  But, as with any such undertaking, things got messy.  They decided to hold a competition for the design of the new building which was held in 1976.  This competition was restricted to entries from Greek.  At it turned out none of the entries were deemed to be viable.  So, another competition was held in 1979 which produced the same result.  It turned out that these results were due mainly to the designated piece of land being unsuitable for that purpose. 

So, ten years later, in 1989, a third competition was announced and this one was not restricted to entries from Greece.  In addition, the architects could choose one of 3 potential sites for their design.  This competition was won by an Italian architectural firm using the large unused old police barracks opposite the Theater of Dionysus. The barracks were built on public land and a limited number of surrounding private houses were needed to free up the necessary space. The main building of the old barracks (the neoclassical "Weiler Building") was to be renovated for the Museum of the Center for the Acropolis Studies and would wind up next door to the new Acropolis museum.

But, due to various delays throughout the 1990’s, the only progress was the demolition of the prior buildings on the site and the excavation for the foundation.  But then this too was stopped upon the discovery of sensitive archaeological remains (foundations of ancient buildings) being discovered.  As one of our guides later said, you can’t dig a post hole in central Athens without hitting a buried historic structure so it should not have been a big surprise to find such when excavating for a large building.  But surprise it was.  In fact, this “discovery” caused the design competition to be annulled in 1999.

So a fourth competition came about which was won by a New York firm in association with a Greek firm.  But strangely enough, the fourth competition also had no provision for the preservation of the ancient site underneath which had caused the demise of the 3rd competition.  But once this was noticed, and a fair amount of wrangling was undertaken, all was put to right and the new plans were modified so the new building would be elevated above ground, on pillars.  So work could be started once again.

During excavation it turns out that there are at least 3 layers of modest, private roadside houses and workshops, one from the early Byzantine era and another from the classical era.  Once the layout of these ancient features were established, suitable locations for the foundation pillars of the new building were agreed upon and actual construction could commence. These pillars go all the way down to bedrock and float on roller bearings able to withstand a Richter scale magnitude 10 earthquake. 

The new museum opened in June 2009 with close to 4,000 objects.  It took over 4 months to just move artifacts the 300 yards from the old museum on top of the Acropolis to the new museum.  To do this required the use three tower cranes.  At this juncture, Greek officials expressed their hope that the new museum would help in the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from Great Britain.  As far as I know, so far, it hasn’t.

Uncovered foundation from ancient structures under the front entrance to the museum
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Much of the museum flooring is glass, permitting light and visibility down to lower floors and area below the building
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Original columns from the acropolis.  I think these are from the Porch of the Maidens
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Parthenon from Acropolis Museum
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Relief from Parthenon
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National Archaeological Museum

The National Archaeological Museum houses some of the most important artifacts from a variety of locations around Greece from prehistory to late antiquity. It is considered one of the greatest museums in the world and contains the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity worldwide.  It was first established by the governor of Greece in 1829 and since that time has been in several different locations.

During World War II the museum was closed and the antiquities were sealed in special protective boxes and buried, in order to avoid their destruction and looting and were put back on display in 1945.

Steer head handle vase, National Archaeological Museum, Athens GreeceSteer head handle vase, National Archaeological Museum, Athens Greece

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Greek sculpture shadowGreek sculpture shadow

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Bronze horse and child riderBronze horse and child rider

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iPhone’s  I, II, III, and IV
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I hope you enjoyed reading the first part for Athens and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.


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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.


Thanks to our tour guide, Vasilis Germanis who drove us on a full day tour of the Peloponnese peninsula (in the rain), led us on a walking tour of the Anafiotika area of the Plaka, drove us out for a sunset shoot at Poseidon’s  temple on Cape Sounio and a night shoot at various locations in Athens




boy, those guys spent a lot of time chipping away at rock. it seems that most every culture finds a need to do that, to erect pretty-much-useless great piles of stone. that's a lot of work. they're trying to outlive death, i guess -- as a culture, as individuals. another aim, i suppose, is that community effort builds cohesion among the group. (that's useful, but religion accomplishes the same thing with a lot less effort.) ego trip, too, by the guy in charge.
Margie Strayer(non-registered)
I look forward to each of your Additions, enjoying learning of areas the Rd. Sch. group did not see as well as the reviewing sites we shared with you. Your commentary adds such valuable information and helps me understand The significance of each area.
I saw Jesse in Philadelphia recently and he will visit Karen and me in San Antonio in December.
Happy holidays to you and your darling wife. Margie
Sheila Gattis (New Zealand Road Scholar trip)(non-registered)
You do a great job researching and documenting your trips. I was with you in New Zealand and learned a lot from your blog
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Thanks, Dan - great photos, and you've saved me the urgency to try to see that stuff! I have a little interest in the ancient history stuff, but not enough to really trudge around and see it all. The National Museum looks like it was really great - the really best stuff, all brought together for your viewing pleasure!
Looking forward to the rest of your tour!
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