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
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
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,
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. …