Acropolis of Athens

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Satellite picture of the Acropolis
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The Acropolis of Athens, seen from the hill of the Pnyx to the west

The Acropolis of Athens is the best known acropolis (high city) in Greece. Although there are many other acropoleis in Greece, the significance of the Acropolis of Athens such that it is commonly known as The Acropolis without qualification. The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock which rises 150 metres (512 feet) above sea level in the city of Athens, Greece. It was also known as Cecropia in honor of the legendary serpent-man, Kekrops or Cecrops, the first Athenian king.

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Geology of the rock

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The Acropolis of Athens, seen from the north, with the restored Stoa of Attalus in the foreground

The Acropolis rises sharply from the plain of Attica with steep cliffs on three sides. It is accessible by foot only to the west, where it is linked by a low ridge to the hill of the Areopagus. It is formed by a layer of blue-grey limestone, which is very hard but water-permeable. This rests on a layer of schist-sandstone marl, softer than the limestone but water-impermeable. This arrangement leads to the ready formation of artesian springs, as well as sheltered caves at the hill's feet, which was also a factor that attracted human habitation on and around the rock from early on.

Early human presence

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The south wall of the Acropolis of Athens, seen from the Theatre of Dionysus

The earliest artefacts from the area point to the Middle Neolithic era, although there have been documented habitations in Attica from the Early Neolithic (6000 BCE). Once into the Bronze Age, there is little doubt that a Mycenaean megaron must have stood on top of the hill, housing the local potentate and his household, guards, the local cult facilities and a number of workshops and ordinary habitations. The compound was surrounded by a thick Cyclopean circuit wall (between 4.50 and 6onsisting of two parapets built with large stone blocks and cemented with an earth mortar called emplekton. The wall follows typical Mycenaean convention in that its gate was arranged obliquely, with a parapet and tower overhanging the incomers' right-hand side, thus facilitating defense. There were two lesser approaches up the hill on its north side, consisting of steep, narrow flights of steps cut in the rock. Homer must refer to this state of affairs when he mentions the "strong-built House of Erechtheus" (Odyssey 7.81). It was during that time that an earthquake caused a fissure near the northeastern edge, one that ran all the way down to the marl layer and in which water duly collected. An elaborate set of stairs was built and the well was used as a protected source of drinking water during some portion of the Mycenaean period, as it was invaluable in times of siege.

The Dark Ages

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The Acropolis of Athens, seen from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the south-east

It seems that the Acropolis might have been spared of the violent destruction of other Mycenaean palaces, as there are no signs of fire or other large-scale destruction in what few artefacts of that time survive. This ties with the standard Athenian folklore that the area resisted the Dorians successfully. Not much is known as to the precise state of building on the rock leading up to the archaic era, except that the Acropolis was taken over by Kylon in the Kylonian revolt, and twice by Pisistratus: all attempts directed at seizing political power by coups d' etat. Nevertheless it seems that a nine-gate wall, the Enneapylon, had been built around the biggest water spring, the "Clepsydra", at the northwestern foot. It was Pisistratus who initially established a precinct for Artemis Brauronia, the cult of his hometown, Brauron, on the southwestern side of the rock, next to the circuit wall.

Archaic Acropolis

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Stairs leading up to the Propylea

It is known with some certainty that a sizeable temple sacred to Athena Polias (Protectress of the City) was erected by mid-6th century BC. This Doric limestone building, from which many relics survive, is referred to as the "Bluebeard" temple, named after the pedimental three-bodied man-serpent sculpture, whose beards were painted dark blue. Whether this temple replaced an older one, or a mere sacred precinct or altar, is not known. In the late 6th century BC yet another temple was built, usually referred to as the Archaios Naos (Old Temple). It is thought that the so-called Doerpfeld foundations might have belonged to this temple, which may have been sacred not to Polias but to Athena Parthenos (Virgin), at least for as long as the Polias "Bluebeard" temple stood. It is not known how long these temples coexisted. To confuse matters further, by the time the "Bluebeard" Temple had been dismantled, a yet newer and grander marble building, the "Older Parthenon", was started following the victory at Marathon in 490 BCE. To accommodate it, the south part of the summit was cleared of older remnants, made level by adding some 8,000 two-ton blocks of Piraeus limestone, a foundation 11 meters deep at some points, and the rest filled with earth kept in place by the retaining wall. The Mycenaean gate was demolished and replaced with the Old Propylon, a monumental colonnaded structure whose purpose was strictly ceremonial, rather than defensive. The Older Parthenon was caught unfinished by the invading Persians in 480 BCE, and was razed to the ground and burnt, along with the Archaios Neos and practically everything else on the rock. Once the Persian Wars were over, the Athenians put the place in order, first ceremonially burying objects of worship and art that were rendered unsuitable for further use. This "Persian debris" is the richest archaeological treasure excavated on the Acropolis, as its burial had protected it from further destruction through the ages.

The Periclean building program

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The western side of the Parthenon

Most of the major temples were rebuilt under the leadership of Pericles during the Golden Age of Athens (460–430 BC). Phidias, a great Athenian sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates, two famous architects, were responsible for the reconstruction.

During the 5th century BC, the acropolis gained its final shape. After winning at Eurymedon in 468 BC, Cimon and Themistocles ordered the reconstruction of southern and northern walls, and Pericles entrusted the building of the Parthenon to Ictinus and Phidias. In 437 BC Mnesicles started building the Propylaea, monumental gates with columns of Penteli marble, partly built upon the old propylaea of Pisistratus. These colonnades were almost finished in the year 432 BC and had two wings, the northern one serving as picture gallery. At the same time, south of the propylaea, the building of the small Ionic temple of Athena Nike started. After an interruption caused by the Peloponnesian War, the temple was finished in the time of Nicias' peace, between 421 BC and 415 BC.

At the same period they started the building of the Erechtheum, a combination of sacred precincts including the temples of Athena Polias, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Cecrops, Erse, Pandrosos and Aglauros, with its so-called the Kore Porch (or Caryatids' balcony). Between the temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon there was the temenos of Artemis Brauronia, the goddess represented as a bear and worshipped in the deme of Brauron. The archaic xoanon of the goddess and a statue made by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC were both in the sanctuary. Behind the Propylaea, Phidias' gigantic bronze statue of Athena Promachos ("she who fights in the front line"), built between 450 BC and 448 BC, dominated the ensemble. The base was 1.50 meters high, while the total height of the statue was 9 meters. The goddess held a lance whose gilt tip could be seen as a reflection by crews on ships rounding Cape Sounion, and a giant shield on the left side, decorated by Mys with images of the fight between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. Other monuments that have left almost nothing visible to the present day are the Chalcotheke, the Pandroseion, Pandion's sanctuary, Athena's altar, Zeus Polieus's sanctuary and, from Roman times on, the circular temple of Augustus and Rome.

Cultural significance

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The Erechtheum and Athena's olive tree.

Every four years the Athenians held a festival called the Panathenaea that rivalled the Olympic Games in popularity. During the festival, a procession moved through Athens up to the Acropolis and into the Parthenon (as depicted in the frieze on the inside of the Parthenon). There, a vast robe of woven wool (peplos) was ceremoniously placed on Phidias' massive ivory and gold statue of Athena.

Art and architecture

The entrance to the Acropolis was a monumental gateway called the Propylaea. At the near right of the Propylaea is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike. A bronze statue of Athena, sculpted by Phidias, originally stood at its center. At the center of the acropolis is the Parthenon or Temple of Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). To the left of the Propylaea is the Erechtheum with columns known as caryatids sculpted as figures of women . There is also the remains of an outdoor theater called Theatre of Dionysus.

External links

el:Ακρόπολη es:Acrópolis de Atenas it:Acropoli di Atene nl:Akropolis van Athene no:Akropolis, Athen pl:Akropol ateński

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