A Walk through Athens, Then and Now

Article excerpt

More than 5,000 years ago, the Acropolis began as a fortress designed to keep foreigners out. But with the Olympic Games expected to effectively double Greek tourism this year, the "Sacred Rock" and other architectural achievements of classical Athens will attract visitors as never before.

Wedged between the two peaks of Arditos Hill, the Panathenaic Stadium sits at an angle to Vassileos Constantinou, the main thoroughfare east of downtown. A shallow, oblong structure ribbed like corduroy with rows of long white benches, it seats more than 60,000 spectators.

The sliver of playing surface (223 yards long by 36 yards wide) distinguishes this facility from its modern counterparts. Built in 330 BC, the Panathenaic Stadium was a venue of the ancient Panhellenic Games and hosted events such as wrestling matches and chariot races.

Over centuries, though, the stadium fell into ruin. It was fully restored at the end of the 19th century and, in 1896, Athens hosted the first Olympic Games of the modern era.

The simple, sinewy design of the reconstruction evokes an age when sports weren't such a flashy affair. Stripped down for a new multimillion-dollar Olympic renovation, the stadium looks as naked as the athletes of its ancient competitions.

A 15-minute walk to the west lies the Sanctuary of Zeus. Also called the Olympeion, the original temple, with more than 100 columns, was the largest on the Greek mainland.

Today, tall, muscular supports in the southeast corner prop up chunks of the architrave, or lower entablature. The other end of the foundation is a tragicsight: Two lonely shafts stand over a fallen comrade whose marble drums are splayed like tipped dominoes.

Construction began under Pisistratus the Younger in 515 BC, and continued for more than 600 years. In AD 132, the Roman emperor Hadrian arrived in Athens to dedicate the finished temple and promptly filled the holy building with statues of himself.

Just outside the sanctuary site, the emperor also erected a marble gate, marking his territory. The inscription on the side facing the Acropolis and the rest of old Athens reads: THIS IS ATHENS, THE ANCIENT CITY OF THESEUS. But the side facing the Olympeion declares: THIS IS THE CITY OF HADRIAN AND NOT OF THESEUS.

Since all that's left of his city is a few scattered stones, Hadrian's Arch actually helps glorify the Athens of his Greek predecessors. Walking through it does provide a ceremonious entrance to "the ancient city of Theseus," and when the gate is not hidden (as it is now) behind a mask of temporary metal scaffolding, it offers a nicely framed view of the Acropolis emerging from its rock like a giant wisdom tooth.

Quiet, narrow streets lead to the southeast entrance of the Acropolis site. From there the path up to the ancient city's highest and most sacred point is literally strewn with ancient remains.

Embedded in the steep southern slope is the Theater of Dionysus, where Western drama first came to life. At spring festivals in 5th- century Athens, paragons Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles all presented their plays on this stage - in competition, no less.

Overall, the theater is in a state of elegant decay. Tufts of grass push their way up between the flagstones of the lumpy floor, backed by an altar featuring shrines to Dionysus. The front-row seating is a line of now-battered thrones that were reserved for the VIPs of ancient Greece. There is no sign, however, of the imperial box that Hadrian had installed for himself.

What remains of the peripatos, the road that encircled the Acropolis in antiquity, leads to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an impressive Roman theater still in use today.

Above the Odeon, however, all the glory belongs to the Greeks, even if the star-studded Sacred Rock is going through a bit of a transitional stage. Two of the four structures - the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, called the Propylaea, and the petite Temple of Athena Nike - are caged in scaffolding, as is the north side of the prized Parthenon. …