I have been fortunate to visit Athens twice, and though the second time was just a day trip, I was still excited to spend time there. I first went to Athens in 2004, the year in which the modern Olympics returned to Greece in over a hundred years. There was so much going on and travelling from the airport on the bus into the city, there was rubble, construction and mayhem everywhere. I did wonder whether the Greeks would be ready for the onslaught of athletes and spectators that were soon to arrive on their shores. Speaking with the locals, there was no doubt they’d be ready and on time for the big opening; and they were! It was a spectacular. I wasn’t there for the Olympics, and in fact it was better, as I didn’t need to wait in line to go to venues or places to eat.
Athens was and still is famous for many historical events and people. There is the Akropolis where the Temple of Athene is situated, the Erechtheum or Erechtheion—a multipurpose temple housing older and newer cults dedicated to Athene, local hero Boutes, the god of fire Hephaistos, other gods and heroes. As you climb the winding staircase to the Akropolis, you come to the propylaeum, a covered entry, and to the right is the Temple of Nike, the winged goddess. As you walk through, the vista of the Pantheon takes your breath away. Well, it did mine. It must have been a spectacular vision when it was first built, and colourful. The ancient Greeks used a range of colours to adorn the sculpted reliefs, metope, tympanum, pretty much most of it. The original temples on the Akropolis were made from wood with clay tiles. They were burnt down during the second Persian war, when Xerxes invaded.
The Agora was another important locale in Athens. It was the main hub of the city and where male Athenian citizens would spend a significant time shopping, exchanging information and attending to political meetings. In its early settlement, the Agora was smaller and many citizens had their homes there. It was the tyrant Peisistratos who spearheaded a building program on Agora and in turn forced many of the citizens to move to make way for civic buildings, temples and shrines. Cutting diagonally through the Agora and towards the Akropolis was a road called the ‘Panathaenaic Way’. This was used for the annual dressing of the statue of Athene, a peplos, woven by Athenian women and carried by priestesses of Athene to the temple on the Akropolis. It was also used for the Panathaenaia games, similar to the Olympics held in ancient Olympia.
The Pynx was the official meeting place for the Athenian assembly, which arose out of the reforms made by Kleisthenes in the 6th century BCE. Initially, they met in the council hall called the bouleuterion, a building in the Agora. It was later moved to the foothill of Mouseion to better accommodate for its 13,000 citizens and seats for 500 elected members of the council. 6,000 citizens had to attend in order for changes to be made, hence the earliest recorded mention of a quorum. The speaker stood a ‘bema’ a stone platform, and addressed the citizens on various policies they needed to vote on, or to elect members to positions of power.
Although democracy was born in Athens, it did not work in the same way Western democratic countries have applied it in their governments. For one, only male Athenian citizens voted and participated, and where officials and jurymen were selected by lot. Women, including Athenian females, slaves, foreigners—even if they were living and contributing members of society, were not allowed to vote. The ‘democratic’ city-state tended to favour the wealthy, famous and powerful citizens. It seems somethings never change. In spite of these differences, we do have to thank the ancient Greeks for the concept democracy, for I am grateful to be able to live a country where a citizen’s voice counts and is heard… mostly.
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