Almost every Greek city has an acropolis, the easily fortified top of a hill where temples, treasuries and tyrants were set. Athens has The Acropolis, the one every other place aspired to emulate. Visiting the Acropolis is like love at first sight for most, a special feeling of being in a place both foreign and yet so familiar.
The Acropolis is old, much older than the temples you see. It really was a city (well, a village) on a hill, until, in the time after Homer but before Herodotus, its use changed to house power symbols of religion and riches. What you see is what was built and added to after the destruction of Athens by the Persians, in what is called the Golden Age of Pericles, when ancient Athens reached its zenith of power and glory.
Not only the Parthenon, but other important temples and monuments were built: the Erechtheion, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Brauronion, the Temple of Rome and Augustus, the Pedestal of Agrippa, the Chalkotheke – and the ancient temple of Athena, which stood before the Parthenon existed.
Macedonians and Romans did not damage Athens, they admired her and its Acropolis. Athens was raided once in the Imperial Age, which seriously wounded the city. That, and the growing power of the new capital in Constantinople, finally took her splendour away completely. Many pieces began to disappear as the old gods faded away or were hacked to pieces, with works of art carted off to adorn other places in different ages.
Earthquakes, abandonment and the ransacking of its stones for other purposes did the rest. In Ottoman times the Acropolis reverted to being the residence of power: home to the Governor, his gold, his harem and his army.
In the Modern Age, interest has grown again, with people of more peaceful times constant visitors. Fragile pieces of buildings and their contents that still remain in Athens are on display in the New Acropolis Museum (more on this later). You can’t see the Acropolis without visiting its New Museum, for it is within its halls you will see Athens as she once was.
The Parthenon, the archetypal symbol of Western civilization, dominates the Acropolis. From its very beginning, the Parthenon was lauded as the most perfect Doric temple ever built, before or after. Its design and proportions are considered to be the supreme expression of ancient Greek architectural genius. Right now it is being partially restored. The Parthenon has been the subject of countless artists, poets and copyists the world over. There is even a (very good) full-size replica in Nashville, Tennessee.
Again, what you see today is not as it once was, as the model in the New Museum will show you. The Parthenon, temple to the Maiden Athena, goddess and protectress of her chosen city, was gaudily painted in a rainbow of colours, as were most buildings and statues of the time. When we look in the ancient world today, we think of cool marble and warm alabaster in a soft monochrome, a black and white image. Not so – the world was glorious technicolour then, as much as we are now. Think of a Hindu temple and you are close.
Also, the core of the building was closed in just as all other temples of the times were; that great statue of Athena stood in the sacred, smoky twilight of candlelight and incense. The walls of her ‘cella’ still stood until recently. In fact, the Parthenon was the arms depot for the Ottoman Governor until the Venetians lobbed a cannonball through the roof (yes, that stood the test of time as well) which then exploded the gunpowder and blasted the heart out of the old place. The litter of that destruction was picked up later by treasure hunters high and low. And that’s why you see what you see today.