image: The exterior of the Propylaea and the Parthenon Athens, Greece.
The exterior of the Propylaea and the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

Photograph © CORBIS

Acropolis, Greece
By Owen Edwards

The acropolis, awesome and aloof on its limestone mesa above hectic modern Athens, is so integral to the texts of our history books—and the subtexts of our imaginations—that it is one of those near-mythic monuments you feel you've seen even if you never have. Places like this, with their weighty psychic baggage, can often disappoint when finally encountered. Not so the Acropolis. On the long-ago bright September day when I landed for the first time in Greece aboard the S.S. Olympia, I took a taxi from Piraeus to Athens. Approaching the city from the southwest, as seaborne visitors have for more than 25 centuries, I gazed out of the left side of the cab and suddenly saw the Parthenon, its white marble shimmering in the sun. Having known that I would see the ancient temple, I was still astonished, as if I suspected that the entire Acropolis might be a figment of the collective Western Romantic imagination.

In fact, the place is a potent reminder of the Hellenic imagination, circa 490 B.C. Once a redoubt for Mycenean princes, the akropolis ("high city," or "head of the city") was ceded to the gods over the years as the agora below seemed more fitting for the gatherings of democracy. After the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, Pericles, who considered his city the citadel of the gods, embarked on a building program under the direction of the sculptor Phidias. The goal was to provide a crown that would proclaim the ascendancy of Athens as the greatest city on Earth. What arose during the next 50 years was nothing less than a declaration in architecture, art, and artifice of the glory that was Greece.

There are certain places on the Earth that exemplify what the poet Robert Penn Warren called "the gravity of stone." The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one, Yosemite Valley and Ayers Rock are others. A traveler is lucky to encounter a handful in a lifetime of journeys. For me, the Acropolis exerted an irresistible pull that drew me to it whenever I returned to Athens during the years I lived in Greece. I climbed up from the Hotel Phoebus in the old Plaka neighborhood in all seasons, in rain and even a rare snow. But my memory of long afternoons spent gazing at the hard-working caryatids who support the roof of the Erechtheion and the ravaged pediment of the Parthenon is always of the heroic old structures glowing in the sun of Greek summers, that incandescent light which by itself seems capable of eroding marble with its revelatory intensity.

I sometimes wonder if the temples of the Acropolis, created to glorify Athens, stand now as a reproof of what the city has become in modern times, like the fading photograph of an ancestor frowning on our wayward way of life. Yet for Greeks with roots deep in the past, the Acropolis supplies a daily spiritual boost. A rich man I knew whose view of the hill was threatened by a high-rise apartment going up across the street bought the entire top floor of the new building, then ordered that it not be built.

The centuries, the Turks, even the acquisitive Lord Elgin, have never weakened the hold the Acropolis has on the Greek soul, or on the souls of the inheritors of Athenian hope. The gravity of those particular stones, described by Plutarch as "untouched by time, as though the unfaltering breath of an ageless spirit had been infused into them," will move us as long as even the memory of democracy survives.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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