Ships visiting Athens dock in Piraeus, a singularly unattractive town about half an hour drive from the center city. Considering there were 10,000 cruisers there today and this number of visitors is typical, it is surprisingly that the town has few stores or services directed toward us. Many ferry boats also arrive there throughout the day and bring residents from the nearby islands who come and shop for the household goods of daily life. That’s mostly what we saw here today before we took a tour into town to see the Acropolis Museum.
The Parthenon, an amazing temple ruin high up on a hill, has been the symbol of Athens since the sixth century BC when 300 slaves spent nine years building it in honor of Athena. The forty foot statue of Athena inside made of marble and gold was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Elaborate three dimensional marble friezes on all four sides of the temple illustrated significant mythology from her life.
But since then, the Acropolis hill where the Parthenon sits has taken lots of abuse. Early Christians in the area damaged the heathen statues. Then Greece was under Ottoman (Turkish) rule for six centuries. They took down some of the marble and burned it to manufacture materials they would use in constructing their mosques. In 1688 Venetians tried to claim the area for themselves and bombed the Parthenon because they knew the Turks had stores explosives inside. After the bombing the Greeks dug a deep pit and put many of the remnants under ground. The Turks won that round and gave Lord Elgin permission to take any broken pieces he found back to England. He not only took the broken pieces; he also broke a lot more. Most famously he sliced off the front frieze, which has been known as the Elgin Marbles since then, and sold it to the British Museum. Whenever the Greeks objected, the British said, “You’re lucky we took them. You had nowhere to protect these valuable pieces.” And for many years that’w where things stood.
Two years ago the Greeks finally opened the Acropolis Museum at the bottom of Acropolis hill. It was a challenge to locate a museum nearby. They excavated the base of the hill where they found many remains from early residents and carefully placed the foundation supports where they would do the least damage. As we walked into the museum, we walked over glass which revealed these excavations and the ongoing work underneath us. The museum is a huge rather empty building. The first floor had cases displaying pottery and every day household items, and the second floor displayed statues that had been found in the area. The designers decided the statues should be viewed today as they were viewed long ago from 360º rather than in a glass case. It was interesting to see them from all sides, but this meant that guards were standing everywhere, keeping an eye on us and insuring that we kept our hands off. Those statues that had been buried in the pit had vestiges of the original color that decorated the marble.
The top floor was built with the same footprint of the original Parthenon to make us feel how amazing this temple truly was. Stainless steel pillars replace the marble ones and pieces of the original statues and friezes are intermingled with reproductions. A wall of glass allowed us to look up the hill at the original and turn back to ook more closely at the details of what had been. And now the Greeks have a beautiful spot to put those Elgin Marbles and take down the reproductions as well as lots of display space for all the other pieces housed in museums all over the world. It was also great to see the Caryatids, statues of six women who hold up the roof of a side building. Reproductions are outside on the hill, but inside we saw five of the originals. You can guess where the sixth one is housed. The delicate carving still visible on many of the pieces hinted at the magnificence of what most have been an awesome building.
With all the bad news about Greece in the news these days, we wondered whether we would stop here at all. During a short wander through the Plaka, the old town shopping district, we noticed a number of stores had closed and our guide confirmed that this was as a result of the economic crisis. As we drove past some of the Olympic venues built in 2004 she hinted that the huge expenses incurred to make the games happen, could factor into today’s problems.