(What follows is the second in a series of articles on a 2009 adventure through Europe and the Middle East. The previous commentary discussed the vibrancy of Jerusalem).
As my impromptu quest approached the Balkan Peninsula, a foremost sensation arose: supreme serenity, divergent from Jerusalem, palpable nonetheless. Idyllic islands peppering the vast Aegean Sea, wrapped in pine, cedar, and olive. Fishing boats, catamarans, cruise and industrial ships, arriving and departing the port at Piraeus. Arcing toward Athens International Airport, the searing sun overhead glimmered off contemporary towers fraternizing with antiquated remnants, set amidst seven sacred knolls.
Paging through a guidebook further exposed modernity commingling with antiquity: the Monastiraki Flea Market and the Central Market, each swarming with life. The once-exuberant Ancient and Roman Agoras, the commanding Roman Stadium, the seemingly incongruous Arch of Hadrian, and the enduring Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the imposing and iconic Parthenon standing dignified atop the city. The Municipal Art Gallery, exhibiting surrealist and impressionist pieces, and the National Archaeological Museum, with a myriad of artifacts spanning regions and eras of ancient Greece. Historic neighborhoods at the foot of the Acropolis: Monastiraki, Thissio, and Plaka, an animated bazaar. Anafiotika, a captivating, diminutive neighborhood with Greek isle ambiance, and Pysrri, a former industrial district, renewed with café’s, restaurants, and bars. Omonia Square, within a busy confluence of avenues, and Syntagma Square, the business district, present a mixture of Athenians and visitors from round the globe. The city bristles with dynamism, yet defies comprehension on initial impression.
The airport was constructed, and Athens Metro expanded, in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. Alas, on our arrival, the metro line to the airport sat idle. Instead, I loaded my pack onto a bus and examined the route into downtown from a window seat. After Palestine, from the Greek, Palaistine, with its’ diverse assortment of culture and custom, Athens bears a decisively Western impression, albeit with a primordial hint of history drifting through the soothing Mediterranean air. Shoppers navigate archaic lanes filled with trendy fashion and home furnishing stores. Modern hotels, pharmacies, supermarkets, and gas stations contour the roads.
A Tale of Olives
Athens originates with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspiration, and civilization. Plato identified her as Neith, an Egyptian deity. Greek devotees traditionally presented an olive branch in honor of Athena. Sources recount that Cecrops, the first king of Attica, preferred the offering of Athena, a local olive tree, to that of Poseidon, a spring of saltwater, and duly christened the fledgling city in her name.
Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean basin, and wild species continue to thrive here. Differing accounts place the olive’s domestication on the Greek island of Crete, or in the Levant, with the Canaanites. In Greece, a tradition of grafting valued cuttings onto wild olive trees has developed into an art. This method establishes a productive and yet resilient tree, yielding fruit over hundreds or thousands of years. Throughout the Mediterranean basin, natives point to an olive tree of considerable age. In Lebanon, a tree still stands from 4000 BC. In the Galilee, another endures from 3000 BC, and in Sardinia stands a tree from 2000 BC.
Today, the olive branch has morphed into a global icon of peace. This trend also extends its’ roots into Greece, where, historically, victors of friendly games or bloody wars were crowned with olive branches. Olive oil served as eternal flame during the original Olympics, while athletes and royalty were anointed with the esteemed oil. The Games launched not far from Athens, in the Peloponnese, and fittingly, when the modern-day Games returned in 1918, Athens accepted the nomination.
An Athenian Golden Age
The 5th Century BC, an era of powerful city-states, the golden age of Athens. The century began ominously, when the mighty Persian Empire invaded Greece in 492 BC. Two years later, Athenians routed the Persian army at Marathon, on the Greek coast. After the battle, a man named Pheidippides sprinted 26 miles to the central square in Athens to publicize the victory and perished on the spot. The race, in his memory, the marathon, thus tracks the distance Pheidippides covered that fateful day.
After defeating the Persian army, Athenians unabashedly relocated the regional treasury from Delos to Athens. Soon after, masons began construction on the Acropolis, and in 438 BC, finished the Parthenon. Democracy took firm hold of the region during this monumental century. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the philosophical triumvirate, called Athens home. So too did Sophocles and Euripides (playwrights), Herodotus and Thucydides (historians), as well as Hippocrates (a renowned physician).
Athens’ golden era began to crumble at the end of the century, during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Sparta skillfully defeated Athens and ascended to control the local seas. The wars also fostered the Plague of Athens, decimating the population by one-third. The Roman Empire conquered the region in the 2nd Century BC, and today, Roman ruins exist alongside Greek monuments. Athens then tumbled into obscurity for nearly two millennia, subjugated by northern and central European clans, and finally, in 1458, by the powerful Ottoman Empire.
By 1832, the city contained no more than 5000 residents. Two years later, Greeks designated Athens the capital of their neophyte state, and in 1837, constructed the University of Athens, a byline connecting two cultures: golden Greece and this modern version. Schools of theology, philosophy, law, economics, science, and education, once again, offer Socratic instruction. The Propylaea, a building designed to emulate the historic entrance to the Acropolis, where visitors now enter that site, stands prominently, serving as ceremony hall and rectory.
Nearby, the National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1889, preserves relics from the regions’ colorful past. Vivid statues, expertly sculpted reliefs, gleaming jewelry, and a stunning Egyptian collection greet visitors. The museum incorporates an open-air café in the center of the property. Situated a level below the first floor, it peers into the afternoon sky. Throughout the enclosed square, displays from the museum mingle with lush vegetation. For those seeking coffee and a reprieve from the masses above, an ever-welcoming environment awaits.
Athens, like many modern metropoli, ballooned in the 20th Century. In 1921, a war with Turkey uprooted more than a million Christian Greeks living in Turkey, many who settled in Athens. Immigrants helped expand the city’s population and boundaries. More than a third of Greek nationals, 4 million, now reside in the metro region. Walking Athens and its neighborhoods today provides an indispensable glimpse into the life of Greece’s most heralded municipality. Modernity dominates, and urban sprawl swells, but the remnants of a previous era, a golden era, live on.
My final night, wandering to and fro, I chanced upon the Exarcheia Neighborhood, an enclave with anarchic traditions, quaint café’s, dingy bars, and crowded comic book shops. Intuition guided me down a few steps to a used bookstore in a decrepit, yet well-kept basement. Here, I studied the sometimes archaic, often eccentric material. After an hour of browsing, and a few intriguing discussions with the shopkeeper, I selected an esoteric text, A Walk With the Gods. Not until a mountainous Peloponnesian train-ride from Diakopto to Kalavyrta, and a hike to Mega Spilaio, a cliff-hanging monastery, could I properly reflect upon the book, and this, my first taste of Athens.