Friday, 10 January 2014


Acropolis (Greek akros, “highest”; polis, “city”), fortified natural stronghold or citadel in ancient Greece. The Greeks built their towns in plains near or around a rocky hill that could easily be fortified and defended. The word acropolis referred both to the hill and to what was built on it. Almost every Greek city had its acropolis, which provided a place of refuge for townspeople during times of war. Sometimes the ruler of the town lived within the walls of this stronghold. In many cases the acropolis became the site of temples and public buildings and thus served as the town’s religious center and the focal point of its public life and as a place of refuge.
The best-known acropolis of the ancient world is the Acropolis of Athens. The ruins of its temples and their sculptures are widely regarded as the finest examples of ancient Greek art and architecture. Built on a limestone hill that rises about 150 m (about 500 ft) above sea level, the Acropolis dominates the city of Athens. It houses the remains of the Parthenon, a magnificent temple dedicated to the goddess Athena; the Propylaea, a monumental marble gateway and the main entrance to the Acropolis; the Erechtheum, a temple famous for the perfection of its details; and the Temple of Athena Nike.
The Athenian Acropolis has been occupied since Neolithic times, but archaeologists have found few remains of its early inhabitants. During the late Bronze Age (1450 to 1200 bc), a heavily fortified palace citadel was built on the hill, and a massive stone wall was built around it. Scholars know little about the Acropolis of Athens in the period from the late Bronze Age to the Archaic period (750 to 480 bc) because later building activities obscured the traces. The Acropolis probably remained a fortified citadel while also becoming a religious sanctuary. The first stone temple to Athena, the patron goddess and protector of the city, was built on the Acropolis at the beginning of the 6th century bc. It may have stood roughly where the Parthenon now stands. Simpler temples probably preceded it.
A Greek victory in the Battle of Marathon (490 bc) near Athens inspired the Athenians to undertake an ambitious program to build new temples in celebration of their defeat of the Persians (see Persian Wars). Construction of the first temple was underway when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 bc, plundering and burning the temples and monuments on the Acropolis. The Greeks finally defeated the Persians in 479 bc, but no building took place on the Acropolis for nearly 30 years. An enormous project to rebuild the Acropolis began about 450 bc under Pericles, the leading figure in Athenian politics of the 5th century bc. The masterpieces that resulted reflect Athens at the height of its power in the ancient world.
A The Propylaea
The principal entrance to the Acropolis is a monumental gateway called the Propylaea, which is made of white marble. It is located at the western end of a walled enclosure near the top of the Acropolis, at the head of a steep, winding path. It was begun in 437 bc, but work on it stopped five years later, probably because of a threat of war. The Peloponnesian War, between Athens and an alliance led by Sparta, finally broke out in 431 bc. Sparta’s alliance defeated Athens, and the Propylaea was never completed.
The Propylaea was designed by Greek architect Mnesicles to have a central section with wide openings and two wings, one to the north and the other to the south. The facade of the central section consists of six widely spaced columns in the simple Doric order (style). Inside, two rows of columns in the more elegant Ionic order divide the central area into three sections through which visitors proceed. The north wing was to house a gallery of paintings, and the south wing was to provide a passageway to the Temple of Athena Nike. The wings were never completed.
B Temple of Athena Nike
The small marble Temple of Athena Nike stands just outside the Propylaea, on a projecting ridge to the south and west. This temple is the first building visitors see as they make their way up the Acropolis. It was designed by the architect Callicrates, who also worked on the Parthenon, and was built in the 420s bc in the Ionic style. Four Ionic columns stand in a row at the front and the back of this temple, which measures only 8.2 by 5.4 m (27 by 18 ft). A carved frieze (continuous horizontal band) runs around the temple just below the roof. On the east side it depicts a conference of the gods and on the other sides battle scenes from Greek mythology. The goddess Athena was the patron and protector of the city of Athens; nike (pronounced nee-kay) is Greek for “victory.” The temple is thus dedicated to Athena as the bringer of victory.
C The Parthenon
The Parthenon comes immediately into view after the visitor enters the Acropolis through the Propylaea. Also dedicated to Athena, this large temple built entirely of marble is considered the greatest masterpiece of Greek architecture for its harmonious proportions, its architectural refinements, and the elegant sculptures that decorated it. The temple was designed by Greek architects Ictinus and Callicrates and was constructed from 447 to 438 bc. It measures 31 by 70 m (102 by 230 ft).
The Parthenon was built in the simple and powerful Doric order, with 8 columns along each end and 17 columns along each side. Through careful adjustments to the design and location of the Parthenon’s columns and floor platform, the architects counteracted optical illusions that could have distorted the building’s appearance from a distance. Without such adjustments, the platform might seem to sag in the middle, for example, and the columns might appear to have a slight curve in profile. A central structure with two chambers once housed a statue of Athena made of ivory and gold that was perhaps 10 m (33 ft) tall.
Phidias, considered by many to have been the finest Greek sculptor, supervised the design and execution of the sculpture on the Parthenon, which was completed in 432 bc. Sculpture adorned the pediments (triangular elements) below the roof at each end, the metopes (square panels) beneath the pediments and on all four sides of the Parthenon, and the frieze around the interior chamber. Sculpture in the west pediment depicted Athena’s contest with the god Poseidon for rule over Athens; sculptures showing Athena’s birth, flanked by gods and goddesses, decorated the east pediment. Sculptures carved on the metopes depicted legendary battles fought by the Greeks. A procession in honor of Athena ran along the frieze. Little of the original Parthenon sculpture remains in place. Many of the surviving sculptures can be seen at the British Museum in London, England. An Acropolis Museum in Athens also houses sculpture and objects from the site.
D The Erechtheum
Beyond the Parthenon and near the north wall of the Acropolis stands the Erechtheum, which takes its name from Erechtheus, a hero and, according to some mythological genealogies, a king of Athens. This temple was dedicated to several deities, including Athena and Poseidon, and housed the Athenians’ most sacred statue, a wooden image of Athena Polias (Athena, goddess of the city). The Erechtheum, like the Propylaea, was probably designed by Mnesicles. Construction of it began in the 430s or 420s bc and ended in 405 bc.
The Erechtheum is one of the most elaborate buildings on the Acropolis. Its plan is irregular, probably because of the sloping site and the need to preserve earlier places of worship on the site or nearby. Porches project from three sides of the Erechtheum, but they are at different heights and are not centered on each side. Graceful Ionic columns support the porches on the eastern and northern sides. Elegant caryatids (columns carved in the shape of draped female figures) support the Porch of the Maidens on the south side.
The fate of the buildings on the Acropolis reflects the history of Athens. As Christianity spread through the ancient world, some of the buildings on the Acropolis were converted to churches. The Parthenon, for example, became a church in ad 426 and was rededicated to the Virgin Mary and named Our Lady of Athens in 622. After Athens came under control of the Ottoman Empire in 1458, the Parthenon became a mosque, and the Acropolis later became a garrison. In 1687 Venetian general Francesco Morosini besieged and bombarded the Acropolis, causing great damage when a cannonball ignited gunpowder stored in the Parthenon.
In the early 1800s the British ambassador to the Ottoman sultan, Lord Elgin, obtained permission to “take away pieces of stones with inscriptions or figures.” He thereafter removed most of the decoration from the Parthenon, transported the pieces to Britain, and later sold them to the British Museum, where they are on display as the Elgin Marbles. Successive Greek governments have unsuccessfully sought the return of the Parthenon sculptures.
The Acropolis was gradually restored after Greece gained its independence from Ottoman rule in 1829. Early restoration efforts concentrated on removing all additions constructed after the classical period ended in 323 bc. In the 20th century air pollution and the thousands of annual visitors to the Acropolis also caused serious damage, and measures taken from the 1970s on have focused on protecting and preserving the buildings on the Acropolis. The Erechtheum’s caryatids, for example, were removed and replaced with marble casts of the originals. Visitors can view the original caryatids in the Acropolis Museum and the British Museum. A major reconstruction project began on the Acropolis in 1981 after the buildings suffered earthquake damage. Work on the Propylaea was completed by the 2004 Summer Olympic Games held in Athens, but the Parthenon remained partially hidden by scaffolding.

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