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Flying the flag in Athens

© By Mike Keenan




























  In the capital city, Athens, on March 25, their national holiday, cheerful Greeks know how to stage an Independence Day parade. I was one of thousands lined up 4-5 deep on both sides of the street for a lengthy display of every Greek military force and piece of equipment imaginable. Children sat on the curbs clutching blue and white flags. And as each section passed by, cheers and applause sprang from the crowd. The fascinating aspect about this display was that after the motley assortment of tanks, rocket launchers and armoured vehicles had passed, after the soldiers, sailors, airmen and women were gone, bringing up the rear were the lowly fire brigades, but they received by far the most applause. Children were dressed in native garb, and the ubiquitous blue and white flag was flown above, held in hands, attached to cars, buildings and street posts.
     We stayed in a downtown hotel, close to the action. Athens is full of scooters, narrow streets, cars parked everywhere, orange trees, churches with little round Byzantine tops, countless stray dogs and cats, indecipherable street signs, if any, beer that tastes good, coffee that tastes like tar, baklava for the sweet tooth and the Plaka where one may purchase almost anything while encountering people wearing heavy coats in 18 degree weather.
     We wanted to explore the Parthenon, the ancient temple of the goddess, Athena, built in the 5th century BC on top of the Acropolis which dominates the city skyline and is beautifully lit at night. The Acropolis is the best known "Sacred Rock" in the world. Most major temples were rebuilt there under the leadership of Pericles during the "Golden Age" of Athens (460-430 BC). Phidias, a great Athenian sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates, two famous architects, were responsible for the reconstruction.
     The Parthenon, subject to the vicissitudes of war, bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball from victor to victor. After Persians destroyed it, it became a treasury, then a Christian church, mosque and later an ammunition dump during WWII. Unfortunately, the Turks allowed the ammunition to explode, helping Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin to scoop up loose sculptures and artifacts and transport them to the British Museum in London, where, much to the chagrin of modern Greeks, they remain on exhibit today.
     On top of the Acropolis, the Temple of Hephaestus is the most complete surviving example of a Doric order temple, but the Parthenon is regarded as the finest. The platform on which the Parthenon's columns stand curves slightly up, and there is a slight tapering of vertical columns as they rise, the temple appearing more symmetrical than it actually is. The mathematical principles are taught today as an exemplar of perfection in architectural schools. Iktinos used the artificial curvatures to correct optical illusions from the imperfect human eye. Not a straight line exists in the entire structure, rendering this clever system one of the architectural wonders of the world.
     After 2,500 years of war, pollution, poor conservation, plunder and defacement, the Parthenon's existence and that of adjacent buildings is actually a major accomplishment, but needs constant attention. The environmental impact of Athenian growth and the corrosion of the marble from acid rain and automobile exhaust has caused irreparable damage to some sculptures, and threaten remaining sculptures and the temple itself. We witnessed scaffolding erected at many sites.
     When independent Greece regained control of Athens in 1832, a visible section of an existing minaret was removed from the Parthenon, and soon, all the medieval and Ottoman buildings on the Acropolis were gone.
     Along with millions of tourists yearly, we walked up the path at the western end of the hill, through the restored Propylaea on the Panathenaic Way to the Parthenon. Every four years, Athens held Panathenaea, a festival that rivaled the Olympic Games in popularity. A procession moved through the city to the Acropolis and into the Parthenon. There, a vast robe of woven wool was ceremoniously placed on Phidias' massive ivory and gold statue of Athena.
     Glimpses of the ancient ruins from the city level engender a sense of wonder and history. One of the best views is from Aeolou Street, but for us, the rooftop view from our hotel was incredible.
     The Erechtheion to the north of the Parthenon was a sanctuary built to house ancient shrines connected with the mythology of the city's origin. Here, they worshipped both Athena and the city's old patrons, Poseidon and Erechtheus. This temple was the last of the great works of Pericles, composed of white marble, distinguished by the Caryatids, six statues of maidens who serve as columns to support the southern portico. Actually, what we encounter today are replicas of the originals, five exhibited only a few meters away in the museum on site. The 6th was appropriated along with the famous marbles by Lord Elgin.
     The Propylaea is the superb entrance hall on the west side of the Acropolis, leading to the sacred shrines built by Mnesikles in 437 BC. Towering and massive, its walls and Doric columns render us quite tiny, suggesting we enter a sacred place. On the right on a terrace in the southwest corner of the Acropolis, is the exquisite Ionic temple of Athena Nike overlooking the port of Piraeus where they filmed the movie, Never on Sunday, starring Melina Mercuri who played the part of a happy hooker, and later retired from films to become Greece's Minister of Culture.
     At the base of the Acropolis, we visited the Theatre of Herodes Atticus used in the summer for festivals, but we were not lucky enough to take in an ancient Greek drama. At the Panathinaikon Stadium, I explored where the first modern Olympics took place in 1896. The Agora or ancient marketplace is another must visit. If you take Dioskouron St., parallel to the Agora and proceed to the main entrance, you encounter the rock of Arios Pagos where St. Paul spoke to the Athenians, his words carved on a metal plate on the rock.
     A word of caution: be sure to wear good shoes for lots of climbing and walking, particularly on the Acropolis where, with some effort, you can take some incredible panoramic shots with your camera.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

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Greece National Tourism Office: http://www.gnto.gr/
Athens guide: http://www.athensguide.org/athens-tourist-information.html
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athens,_Greece
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Athens

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