Visiting history

January 12, 2020

The ancient monuments of Greece leave one with a strong sense of awe and a deep desire to interact more effectively with ancient civilisations

Greece is known as the cradle of civilisation, but a visit to Greece makes one feel that the people there are very much like us Pakistanis. But then we, as heirs to the Mehrgarh and Indus Valley civilisations, can also claim the same genealogy, and so perhaps the similarity is very apt.

For a Pakistani visiting Greece from within Europe, one thing becomes patently clear early on. As I was visiting Greece from within the European Union I did not think about identity checks, as it is largely done at the external borders. But in Greece, there is still heightened security due to the refugee crisis and also because the country is on the main route for people smuggling into Europe. So while going in and out, and once within the country, my Pakistani passport was closely scrutinised and I was asked many questions. Thankfully, the questioning was all standard and not intrusive, and they let me go in a few minutes.

Once firmly in the country, the adventure begins! After the credit crisis, Greece has become cheap as compared to other Euro countries. No meal I had cost more than fifteen euros, even for three courses, and no matter where I went, taxis were hardly more than seven to eight euros. Similarly the hotels, even in the city centre, were cheap.

My first stop in Greece was obviously the capital, Athens. The airport is connected to the city centre via a metro line which costs ten euros one way and runs every half an hour. So I reached the city centre quite conveniently. I was staying at a hotel in the Monastiraki area which is just downhill from the famous Acropolis, the ancient hill whereupon the Greek worshipped their various gods. Since hotels are relatively cheap, it is advisable that one stay near the city centre and especially near a metro stop.

I was in luck in terms of sightseeing as I was visiting in ‘low season.’ Come in the summer, and there are hoards of tourists, prices are higher, and one has to jostle to get that perfect picture in front of the Temple of Athena. Visit in December, as I did, and one gets a sprinkling of tourists, low prices, and half-price discounts on entry! In fact, if one decides to go to the Acropolis or some other sites during the low season, they are free on the first Sunday of the month.

Ancient archaeological sites in Athens.

When in Athens it is best to buy the combination ticket for thirty euros which is valid for five days. For the summer travellers, it is a huge discount, but even in low season, you save a few euros. With the combination ticket, you can visit all of the seven main archaeological sites in Athens.

The ancient ruins of Athens simply leave one in awe and wondering what kind of a society they lived in over two millennia ago. I started my tour, not with the main attraction of the Acropolis on the top of the hill, but at the bottom. My first stop, the remains of Hadrian’s Library, built under the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 132, made my jaw drop at the mere dimensions of how huge this ancient library must have been and how great it is holding. Damaged by the Herulan invasion in 267 AD, it was repaired in the early fifth century. Three successive churches have also stood in the area. Still, in use in the nineteenth century as the seat of the Turkish governor, the structure was badly damaged in a fire in 1885, and since the middle of the twentieth century has been mainly an archaeological site. However, one can still marvel at its soaring columns and great expanses to get a sense of how the building must have been in its heyday.

Next, I went to the remains of the Ancient and Roman Agoras. Situated on separate sites, both places show how the ancient Athenians conducted their business. The Agoras were also used for assembly, government functions, and some residential purposes, and so the ruins show a variety of structures. The Agoras also exhibit the working of the Athenians democracy, with a structure still showing where the main assembly used to take place to make decisions, and how jurors were chosen by a slot machine of sorts outside the courthouse. The organisation of the structures, their way of governance and business, and the intricate artwork on earthenware and other textures excavated from the area, certainly makes one marvel at the level of development, technology and creativity extant in ancient Greece.

Visit Greece in December, and one gets a sprinkling of tourists, low prices, and half-price discounts on entry! In fact, if one decides to go to the Acropolis or some other sites during the low season, they are free on the first Sunday of the month.

The Acropolis is indeed the crowning glory of Greece, quite literally as it hangs above most of Athens. Seen from almost everywhere in central Athens, and by law the highest point of the city, the Acropolis is a conglomeration of several buildings. The southern and northern slopes leading to the holy mountain (it seems almost every religion has a holy mountain!), are in fact as important as what ones sees at the top. Leading up to the sacred hilltop are several altars, carved into the niches of the big rock, dedicated to different deities and commemorating different events in their life and the history of the city. These altars served as stations for the various processions which went up the hill during festivals.

The Acropolis has been the fortified centre of Athens for over 3,300 years. In the 13th century BC the local Mycenaean ruler made it his residence, and then starting in the 8th century BC it began to take a religious character with the rise of the cult of Athena, the patron of the city. In the 5th century after the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, a great building programme was initiated under the direction of the best architects of the time. The result was the majestic Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, which was started in 447 BC and completed in 438 BC. One enters the complex through the imposing gateway called the Propylaia, which still stands guard to the holy place. Immediately then one gazes upon the Temple of Athena, the great structure which exhibited the height of Greek architecture, art, and power. Standing at 228 feet by 101 feet with 34 feet height, the Parthenon had 46 outer columns and 23 inner columns, making it one of the most imposing structures in the ancient world. This Temple was in use for centuries, till under the Byzantines it became a church and then a mosque under the Ottomans. The structure was still in relatively good shape till 1687, when the former temple, which was being used as an ammunition dump, was hit by a Venetian cannonball during the war and blew up, severely damaging the building. Today, after extensive restoration, it still stands as a testament to its glorious past.

Standing near it is yet another Temple dedicated to Athena, though this time with the god Poseidon, called the Erechtheion, which was built between 421 and 406 BC. One of its porches called the Porch of Caryatids (maidens), still shows six exquisitely carved Ionic figures, giving visitors a glimpse of the artistic expertise in ancient Greece. Also on the hill, and in relatively better shape, is the smaller temple of Athena Nike which was built around 420 BC as hope for victory (Nike) during the long Peloponnesian War.

UNESCO, which has this site among several others in Athens listed as one of its world heritage sites, rightly notes about the Acropolis: “On this hill were born democracy, philosophy, theatre, freedom of expression and speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values.” Spending an afternoon on top of the hill does make it feel real for the visitor and leaves a lasting impression.

Just when one thinks that one cannot be again held in awe after a visit to the Acropolis, one must visit the Olympieio, or the Temple of Olympus Zeus, about a 20-minute stroll from the Acropolis. While only about a dozen or so of its 104 colossal columns remain, even the remains make you fall back a little just to take in the scale of the building. The largest temple in Greece, it was the centre for cult worship of the king of the Greek gods, Zeus. Started in the sixth century BC it took about 638 years for this structure to be completed under the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. However, its glory was short-lived. It was pillaged during the barbarian invasion of 267 AD, and then probably left in disrepair, with its materials serving the building needs to the surrounding area for centuries to come.

Completing the group of main archaeological sites in Athens is a visit to the Lykeion, the Lyceum, situated slightly away from the city centre of Athens, near the parliament building. Set in a park, this is now purely an archaeological site, with very little left of its original buildings. The Lyceum was the place where the Greek trained in wrestling, boxing and pankration, a type of combination of wrestling and boxing and far more dangerous. However, the significance of this place is not due to its wrestling fame, but that it was here that in 335 BC Aristotle established his philosophical school and taught for twelve of the most significant years of his life.

The ancient monuments of Athens, of which there are many, leave one with a strong sense of awe and wonder. In me, they instilled a passion to read more about ancient history, and also to try and engage with it further. Often in modern-day, we forget that what we think today is a result of a long tradition of thought, questioning, and analysis and that today is the cumulative result of our history. However, we seldom engage with it, let alone learn about it deeply. As a Pakistani it made me wonder even more about our great Indus Valley, Vedic and Buddhist heritage, which remains on the periphery in our country but which, like the Greek civilisation, was an important and integral part of the history of our planet.

The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European   University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK   and his email is: [email protected]

A Pakistani in Greece: Visiting history