October 16, 2012

I visited the Acropolis today! And the Parthenon! Eeeee! (FYI: the Acropolis is the name of the fortified hilltop and the Parthenon is the name of the iconic temple atop the Acropolis. There are other buildings atop the Acropolis, but the Parthenon is the largest and best preserved.)

I started my visit in the New Acropolis museum to see all of the artifacts that have been discovered on the hill and in the temples. I saw all sorts of things: vases, amphorae, jewelry, lamps, etc, some of which were 5500 years old. 5500 YEARS OLD. It was neat to see some of the vase shards pieced back together like a puzzle. That must be a fun job.

You know what’s odd? Six of the twelve main gods were female. Temples were built in their honor, sacrifices made on their behalf, and rituals built entirely around their happiness. And yet, women in Ancient Greece were married off between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and then could only leave the house when accompanied by their husbands, and then only to religious ceremonies. There are millions of cases of gender inequality throughout history, but I find its presence in a society built on powerful female deities curious. The Cycladic and Minoan people were matriarchal, but were eventually subsumed by the patriarchal Mycenaean people. My guess is that the patriarchal communities took on some of the customs of their matriarchal forbearers, in the same way that Christianity later incorporated many elements of Paganism.

(Side note: I’ve always thought of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as a powerful feminist anti-war play. And it is, now. I learned today, however, that when it was written it was a kind of comic absurdism. “What would happen if women were in charge?” was such a ridiculous and impossible concept that the audiences would have considered it a farce. It could have very well been “What if babies were in charge of the country?” Ha ha ho ha ha.)

So from the years 1801 to 1812, a guy named Thomas Bruce (the Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) basically stole over half of the Parthenon’s artwork. He obtained a “permit” from the Turks to conspicuously sneak past the guards with many workers and a bunch of tools, and cut the friezes right off the front of the Parthenon. In 1816, Elgin sold them to Great Britain, and they were installed as a permanent exhibit in the British National Museum, where they can still be seen today. Greece has been asking for its stolen property back for two hundred years now, but Britain refused based on the fact that Greece didn’t have a proper way to store and display the art. Ugghhh, so patronizing. So a few years ago, Athens builds this shiny (and beautiful) New Acropolis Museum, including a huge exhibit hall built solely for the display and preservation of the Parthenon marble. At which point they called up Britain and said, “hey, can we have our art back now?” and Britain was all, “umm… nah…” GREAT BRITAIN WON’T GIVE IT BACK. They just refuse.

Listen, I’m all in favor of museums displaying artifacts from around the world. I think it’s an important experience for people to be able to go to their own country’s museums and have access to world history, not just local history. But, you know, maybe it could be done without thievery? Maybe it could be up to the countries themselves what they would like to share?? I find this infuriating. To protest the the matter, Greece decided to display both their original Parthenon friezes alongside white plaster models of the pieces displayed in London. You see, when the friezes are put in order, they tell a story. So now it is glaringly obvious that less than half of the friezes are originals. This will hopefully create enough of a public stir that such valuable stolen property will be returned to its rightful owners.

(Side note: the Greek are very proud of their ancient art. You are welcome to take as many pictures as you want of the statues, but if you try to goof around in the pictures (aping what the statues are doing, for example), you will have a guard at your side within seconds. I respect this.)

After leaving the museum, I walked up the steep slopes of the Acropolis, marveling at the views of the city. I didn’t realize how HUGE Athens is. There are eleven million people in the whole of Greece, and 3.8 million of them live in the Athens greater metropolitan area. From above, the city spreads out densely in all directions, looking like a beach of crowded white stones. Periodically stopping to look at the views, I proceeded up up up the winding marble ramps and stairs, eventually crossing under the ruins of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the hilltop. Seeing the columns rising into the blue blue sky was stirring to say the least, and then completely minimalized when I crossed under the archway to see the Parthenon itself.

Built between the years 447 and 438 BC, the Parthenon towers over everything else, and presenting an iconic representation and enduring symbol of Western Civilization. (There’s a reason UNESCO adopted its image as their logo.) The Parthenon was built to honor Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, and was later used as a Catholic Church (hello Roman Empire) and then a Muslim Mosque (hello Ottoman Empire). It has survived wars and fires, vandalism and theft, and still stands, a romantic shell, “like some impregnable fortress not made by human agency… a work less of human hands than of Heaven itself, [it] should remain standing for all time” (Evliya Çelebi, 1667).

When Greece proclaimed its independent nationhood and gained control of Athens in 1832, the Parthenon thankfully became an official monument of tremendous historical significance. The Parthenon is now visited by millions of people every year.

I wandered around for a while atop the shadeless hill, baking in the hot sun, admiring the Parthenon and several other ruins from all angles, and stopping ever so often to look out over the city. From up here, there is no graffiti, no crowds, no smells… just gleaming white distant chaos.

I eventually made my way to the base of the Acropolis to explore the Theatre of Dionysus, where my inner theatre history dork had a major nerdgasm. THIS WAS WHERE DRAMA BEGAN, GUYS. The Theatre of Dionysus hosted the City Dionysia festival in the 5th century BC, at which many classical greats competed. We’re talking AESCHYLUS, SOPHOCLES, EURIPEDES, ARISTOPHANES… We’re talking the premiers of THE ORESTEIA, PROMETHEUS UNBOUND, ANTIGONE, OEDIPUS REX, THE BACCHAE, MEDEA… Wowowowow.

By the end of the afternoon, I was thoroughly baked from the sun and drenched with humidity. Thankfully, I found something to make everything better: Greek yogurt frozen smoothies. Yes. Yes. Orange and chocolate shavings mixed with homemade Greek yogurt, ice, and honey. My God. Er. Gods.

Even though I was starting to feel a bit drained, I took these walkin’ shoes into the Plaka to find the Anafiotika. This neighborhood was built by Greek islanders who were brought to Athens under Otto of Greece to construct a new palace. The islanders wanted to make their new home look as much like their old home as possible, so the entire neighborhood has a distinct Greek islands feel: tiny whitewashed plaster houses with bright blue doors and roofs, even tinier plaster passageways between the houses, stairs winding and Bougainvillea vines weaving around windows and doors. I am going to an actual Greek island on Saturday, but this gave me a taste of what I am to see.

I followed the paths and steps of the Anafiotika up and down the northeastern slope of the Acropolis, admiring the striking scenery, and meowing to all of the stray cats lounging in the sun. There are thousands of stray cats and dogs in Athens, due primarily to the fact that most people in Greece (indeed, in Europe) don’t spay or neuter animals. The strays are often cared for, however, by animal lovers who give them scraps or even carry around small bags of kibble in their bags. The city of Athens has also started to pitch in by spaying and neutering strays, providing some medical care, and leaving out food and water.

I eventually made it back to Eleni’s house, where showered and ate dinner, and then chatted with Eleni about Greek’s financial state. The way I understand it is that Greece was in trouble before the collapse, and in even bigger trouble when the global markets went south, with the country owing far more than it earned. To try to alleviate some of the debt, the government introduced higher taxes and other austerity measures, which contributed to a massive unemployment rate. Tax fraud, tax evasion, and bribery already run rampant in this cash-based country, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Nobody seems to know what’s going to happen, but the strikes and rallies all give a clear message that the current state of affairs is unacceptable (and unsustainable) for the people of Greece.

Off to bed! Goodnight!

(Oh, also, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst were at the Acropolis today. That was weird.)

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