Following the week on Poros Island, a friend and I were invited to stay at Zoi’s apartment while we toured Athens. Zoi’s son Andreas accompanied us in our explorations of the Acropolis and its surrounding neighborhoods. Since his father is German and his mother Greek, Andreas is perfectly bi-lingual. He wanted to practice his English as we spent the morning climbing the ancient hill that overlooks Athens.
Athens is dominated by the famous columns of the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis hill, its columns constantly reminding Greeks of Athens’ illustrious history as the founder of modern European culture and the first democracy. I learned that many of our English words are of Greek origin, including our adjective “porous” (= absorbs or passes liquids), which refers to a type of marble with holes used in constructing parts of the Acropolis, having been mined and transported from the island of Poros!
The Greek government is embarking on a years-long-process of restoring the Parthenon. Like a jigsaw puzzle, original blocks are put back in place whenever possible. New composite materials are used to fill in any gaps due to missing pieces. I watched as a large crane lifted a huge stone above the ancient walls. It was mind-boggling to try to imagine how the ancient Athenians managed to construct the original Parthenon, lifting huge sculpted stone blocks to the top of the walls, without the benefit of a modern crane. In spite of these difficulties, it was said that the building was built in only seven years, with the ornate sculptures being added in a few years following completion of the original structure. Amazingly, the current restoration, even with the aid of modern machinery, will probably take longer than the time needed for its original construction. This is, of course, a consequence of the limited resources available during the Greek government’s ongoing financial crisis. Also, the original Greeks used the relatively unlimited resource of slave labor to build these marvels, which have stood for over two thousand years.
Greece’s long history
Around the world, Christians think of history as basically starting from the time of Christ, Moslems from the time of Mohammed (seventh century AD). But Athens was at its height as the world’s leading culture centuries before Christ. The Persians invaded Greece in 480BC, destroying Athens, but were finally defeated by the Athenians who rallied other Greek city-states to fight with them. The Parthenon was built to honor the goddess Athena, who was believed to be the wise protector of Athens. There were temples to other gods and goddesses (such as Dionysus, Asclepius, and his daughter Hygiea, from whose name our word hygiene is derived). The Greek gods and goddesses remind me of panoply of Hindu deities, insofar as the deities embody human ideals but also suffer from human faults, such as cruelty, jealousy, envy, etc.
Greece’s democracy did not sustain it the world’s leading military power over the centuries. Within a couple centuries from Greece’s defeating the Persians, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian, conquered Greece (and most of the known world of that time). The Romans followed Alexander’s conquests with the greatest empire the world had ever seen, ruling Greece and much of the current Middle East from Rome. Eventually the Roman Empire fell from inner corruption that could not sustain the government-financed forces needed to maintain such a large empire.
Though the Romans conquered the Greeks, the Greeks “conquered” the Romans with their culture, influencing everything from their politics to their arts and architecture. Even though Athens was ruled by the Romans at the time of Christ, Athenians continued their local democratic practices. There was a poignant line that I read in the Acropolis Museum: “When Roman emperor Justinian decreed that the empire should be Christian, it was forbidden in Athens to teach law and philosophy. At this point, around 400 AD, though it had been diminishing over time, democracy in Greece was completely finished.”
There was so much content about the history of Athens and the Greeks in the Acropolis Museum (photos forbidden), that it would be impossible to relate it all here. The museum certainly reminded me of things I learned in high school world history classes. But history comes “alive” in the presence of refined art, architecture, and ideas created over two thousand years ago. In light of this first all-too-short two-week visit to this culturally rich country, I look forward to returning to Greece to continue my historical, philosophical, culinary, and touristic explorations.
Yaso! Yamas! (Cheers!)