At about 3:30 in the morning, a storm blows through. Aeolus whips the tiny trees below our balcony and water pours from the sky as if some invisible giant had tipped a massive ewer. Zeus’ temper is on display, and his thundering bellows shake the air. From a few blocks away, the fallen pillar at Zeus’ temple seems to shudder silently at the reminder of the god’s wrath. When daylight arrives, it is gray and overcast. It will be a cool morning in Athens.
Our schedule today is… odd. Race orientation at 11, group dinner with the tour at 6 p.m. It doesn’t really leave a good block of either morning or afternoon to do any larger tours so we decide to range freely around Athens. After breakfast, we make our way to the pedestrian path and turn left, past the Acropolis entry and around its western slope.
It seems that early in the morning on a Saturday is prime dog-walking time in Athens. While we have noticed many free-ranging dogs and cats in Athens (and every archaeological site seems to have a clutter of resident felines), this morning we see leashed dogs and their people all along the pedestrian way.
Our first stop is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, for which our hotel is named. The theater is not open to the public, but we are able to walk its façade and look in through its arches. Greek theaters have a space between the audience and the stage – the platform at the center of the arch is in front of the stage, and it would seem that the center arch we are staring through may have been at the back of it – so it is possible to stand there and imagine what it must have been to perform before an audience lined up in their marble seats.
The seats are marked with modern placards numbering the rows, and out front the tunnels that lead to the under-stage areas have modern doors, which are locked. Clearly, this theater is sometimes used for modern audiences.
We continue along the path and find ourselves on a hill whose sign reads “The Hill of the Muses, The Hill of the Nymphs.” We are not clear whether these are two hills, or two versions of the name of one hill (two hills, it turns out, though we never really knew which was which or where the boundaries were). Plutarch says that this is where Theseus battled the Amazons. This area, the sign tells us, was continually inhabited from the Dark Ages through the Byzantine.
An unmarked side path beckons and we find ourselves at the “Prison of Socrates,” a three-room cave complex in the hillside. Though there is no historical evidence for the name, local legend does say this is where Socrates was held at the end of his life. In WWII, the treasures of the Acropolis and its museum were hidden here, and the caves concreted shut to protect them.
We follow along part of the Diateichisma, a fortification wall built along the crests of the Hills of Muses and Nymphs, until we reach its ancient gate, the “Dipylon over the Gates” still standing and marking the spot. Since medieval times, this location has also been a center for reverence of Saint Demetreos Loumbardaires, and across the path we find a church dedicated in his name tucked almost invisibly into a corner of the wall.
A little further up the road, we find the Sanctuary of Pan. An unassuming place, it is tightly tied to our mission in Greece. Although Herodotus does not report the tale of Pheidippides running to Athens, he does report the earlier messenger runs between Athens and Sparta. He tells us that as Pheidippides traveled, the runner met Pan on the slopes of Mount Parthenium. The god asked him why the Athenians neglected him, when he had been useful to them in the past and would be again in the future. The Athenians built this shrine in the shadow of the acropolis, and held torch-races and sacrifices each year to invoke the protection of the god. It is said that at the Battle of Marathon, Pan struck terror in the hearts of the Persians (causing them to PAN-ic), helping the Greeks to win the day.
We continue on, following the path around the base of the hill and find ourselves at the ancient Agora. Agorae were marketplaces, centers of commerce. However, the Athenian Agora was eventually taken over by the learned. Philosophers and great thinkers spoke here, to such an extent that the Romans, despairing of doing business, built an entirely new Agora nearby. Today, though, we are in the Ancient Agora, and we view the ruins of the four houses of philosophical study. From the “Animal House” generation, we cannot help but smile as we read the sign: “Omega House,” a center of philosophical education. The owner was, the sign tells us, likely persecuted when Justinian issued his pro-Christian edict. The house was taken over by a new Christian owner, who destroyed its floor mosaic and replaced it with a marble cross.
We wander the area of the Agora, but do not pass through the controlled-entry gate. It is nearly time to head back to the hotel for our race orientation, and we decide to save our tickets until we can take more time. On our way back to Herodion, we stroll past Hadrian’s Library.
Jeff Galloway can’t come this year, for the first time – he has a conflicting obligation with his Disney contract and has sent a proxy, someone whose name the runners in the room seem to know. He talks about the marathon course, and the Galloway Method for marathon running. Then, unexpectedly, he encourages people not to run for time; he points out that this is an historic adventure, and runners should take the time to enjoy the experience.
When the race briefing is done, we find Strofi, a restaurant recommended by the cabbie who drove Bernie and Margy from the airport. We have lunch looking out a second-floor window to the Parthenon. Afterward, we will spend the afternoon at the New Acropolis Museum.
The museum is a beautiful place – extremely modern, and built in the shadow of the Acropolis. It is, at its heart, a Greek response to British patronization. When Athens was under the control of the Ottoman Turks, the British Ambassador got the Turks’ permission to take artifacts back to Britain – including many of the carvings that used to adorn the Parthenon. Chipping blocks of stone away from the building, Lord Elgin dismantled the friezes that used to adorn the building. They remain in the British Museum to this day.
As the world has moved more toward the idea of repatriating cultural heritage, the Greeks have requested the return of these treasures, which were taken without Greek permission. The British at first responded that Athens was too polluted, and the Greeks unable to care for the marbles – they were safer in the controlled environs of the British Museum. So the Athenians built the new museum. On its top floor – built askew from the rest of the building, but parallel with the Parthenon – the center room mimics the Parthenon’s size exactly. The Parthenon friezes are displayed there – dark stone marking the pieces the Greeks recovered, bright white marking imitations, made from casts of the marbles in Britain. With this perfectly climate-controlled replica of the original environment, the Greeks have no need to say a word.
The Brits have moved on to new arguments. There is certainly validity to their case that expansive museums showing many cultures side by side and across time contribute to our knowledge and understanding in a way that a single-target museum cannot. When one considers how sad it would have been if all of Iraqi history had been contained within the Baghdad museum when it was looted, the case for this is clear.
As I examine the friezes and replicas, I fail to understand how the mission of the Brit would be diminished if the replicas were in London, and the originals in Athens…
As a “Diana” I can hardly avoid being interested in Artemis while we are here… I learn from the museum that the Acropolis also includes an Artemisian temple – the Temple of Artemis Bruaronia (“Artemis of the Bears”). Apparently it functioned as an outpost of her temple at Brauron. Every five years, a procession wound from here to Brauron. 10-year-old girls (“arctoi,” little bears) would live at Brauron, engaging in bear-dances and rituals (arcteia) which represented the passage from childhood to adolescence. Bears were Artemis’ sacred animal.
At 6, we are back at the hotel for the pre-race dinner (carb-loading the runners with pasta!) and a new person joins our team. An Artillery officer from Vilseck (a little town where I once attended classes while in the Army), his leave had been postponed, causing him to miss the beginning of the weekend – but he is here in time to race. He walked in to the restaurant and randomly chose the nearest table with an open seat – ours.
I turn from a conversation with Jessica to find our new companion wearing a Seahawks shirt. He is from Woodinville! We fill him in on the important details from our race briefing, and after dinner we briefly visit the hotel’s rooftop garden, looking up at the glowing acropolis, and over at the museum, whose top floor is brightly lit. You can clearly see the outlines of the sculptures and friezes, which remain lit throughout the night.