The Acropolis is one of those magical places. I have never been quite so awed by any place that I’ve visited before this. Sure there were hordes of fellow tourists, ongoing restoration works and a merciless sun beating down but these did little to detract from the sense of wonder such a place evokes. To think that such a place was constructed in the 5th Century BC is in itself enough to impress any visitor. To think that at the same time as people here in Britain were living in wattle and daub structures people were able to construct such engineering marvels as the Parthenon with it subtle use of perspective and geometry is shocking.
If you do visit the Acropolis make sure you get a guided tour. The structures are beautiful but the stories, myths and legends conveyed by a guide do so much to give a sense of the people that inhabited the place. For example, our guide pointed out the Areopagus a rock where murderers were tried so that they didn’t taint the city of Athens. We were also told that the Areopagus was the place where Orestes was tried for killing his mother and her lover. As well as this, the Areopagus is supposedly the spot where the Gods tried Ares for the murder of Poseidon’s son according to Greek mythology. These little bits of culture are not available on the few information signs scattered around the site and really did wonders for creating just that. A sense of wonder.
Most interestingly for myself, I was drawn to the Temple of Athena Nike rather than the far more impressive buildings constructed at the summit. This building is rarely open to visitors but our guide gave us a wonderful sense of the importance of what is otherwise a comparatively boring temple. She told us that the Temple is oriented to face the island of Salamis where the Athenian people sheltered as the Persian army under Xerxes I destroyed Athens in 480BC. It was here that the Athenian fleet beat the Persian fleet leaving Xerxes with no option but to withdraw his army from Greece. Whilst the battle story is interesting it is the consequences of the Athenian victory at Salamis that the Athena Nike really reveals. Fundamentally, Salamis was a battle where West beat East. Without Salamis, there would be no democracy, citizenship, philosophy, theatre and even trial by Jury. Salamis catapulted Athens to the forefront of classical civilisation and allowed many new ideas to flourish. The small unremarkable Temple of Athena Nike encapsulates some of the most important drama to unfurl in the history of Europe and it is far too easily overlooked by visitors in favour of the Parthenon.