The Acropolis has had a long and varied history. Sitting atop a high point above the city of Athens it was originally a walled fortress. It provided a safe place to retreat to during times of war. At least that was the hope. It also became a religious center where temples were built to honor the goddess Athena who is Athens patron goddess.
During the wars with Persia the Greeks had retreated into the walls hoping to outlast the Persians but due to Plague and famine were eventually defeated. The Persian troops destroyed the Acropolis in 480 BC. Athenians vowed to keep the Acropolis in ruins as a memorial to all who had suffered and died there.
Later, Pericles, convinced them to rebuild it to it’s former magnificence. The hope was that by honoring Athenian and providing her with a ‘home’ she would stay close by and protect Athens from her enemies. Pericles also recognized that restoring the site would raise the status of Athens above the other city-states as it would demonstrate her power, wealth, and importance. Pheidias, a renowned sculptor, was put in charge of the rebuilding and employed an army of the most talented artists in Athens.
There were many religious buildings on the hilltop along with multitudes of statues. The majority of the temples were dedicated to Athena, each highlighting a different aspect of her divinity. Although visitors could see into the temples to the statues of the goddess they did not actually enter the temple. The temple was considered the ‘home’ of the goddess and people wandering in and out would invade her privacy making her less likely to stay in the city. Priest and priestesses entered the temple and various people during the many celebrations and commemorations that were observed.
One of the most famous celebrations was performed by the women of the city of Athens. Every four years they would process through the streets and up to the Acropolis proceeding to one of the smaller statues of Athena. This statue was ancient to these Athenians and was a holy relic. The women would weave a new peplos to drape over the statue and present it to her every four years.
One of the most famous areas on the acropolis is the Erechtheion This is a unique temple in that it housed multiple shrines, was asymmetrical, and was built on several levels to accommodate the hillside. According to Greek mythology Poseidon and Athena engaged in a contest to see who would gain patronage over Athens. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident bringing forth a spring of salt water, but Athena gave the Olive tree and won the contest. The Erechtheion is supposedly built on the site of this contest and one of the shrines within it encloses the sacred spring that Poseidon created. Another shrine is dedicated to a legendary king of Athens, Erechiheus. During his lifetime the goddess Demeter instructed the Athenians in the agricultural arts. And it was within this building that the venerable wooden cult statue of Athena was kept.
Architecturally the most famous part of this temple is the Porch of the Maidens. On this porch the columns have been carved as maidens. You will notice that the artist created elaborate hairstyles that fell down the necks of the maidens allowing him to strengthen that weakest part of the statues so that they could hold up under the weight of the building.
The Parthenon is the most imposing structure on the Acropolis and is often a symbol of ancient Greece, representing the height of their culture. It’s form is still an icon for democratic values and independent thought and has been copied throughout the western world.
The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena and is an excellent example of the Doric order. The sculptural decorations around the Parthenon follow the same political and ideological themes: the triumph of Greece over Persia, the preeminence of Athens over the other
city-states, and the triumph of enlightenment over despotism and barbarism.
Around the pediment there were sculptures set on deep shelves and held in place with metal pins. The west pediment told the story of the contest between Athena and Poseidon. The east pediment shows the birth of Athena, fully grown and clad in armor, from the brow of her father, Zeus.
In the center Cella of the temple is the statue of Athena, standing 40 feet high and made of gold and ivory. The Doric frieze on the exterior of the building was decorated with 92 metopes. There were fourteen on each end, and 32 along each side. All of these reliefs depicted legendary battles.
On the inside of the temple there was an Ionic frieze that extend for 525 feet and told the story of the festival that took place every 4 years as the women of the city presented Athena with a new peplos.
When visualizing the Parthenon and other Greek statues and temples it is important to remember that much of the building and sculptures would have been brightly painted leaving an entirely different impression.
Over the centuries the Parthenon has been used for many different things., among them a Christian church, an Islamic mosque (at which time a spinneret was added), and a Turkish munitions storage facility. It was in this last usage that the Parthenon became a ruin. Having survived in tact into the 1600 there was a war going on between the Turks and the Venetians. The Venetians were shooting cannonballs onto the Acropolis and happened to hit the munitions being stored in the Parthenon…turning the Parthenon into a ruin overnight.