The Acropolis is a living testimony to a precious part of the cultural heritage of humanity. Its monuments are the direct heirs of the achievements of Classical Greek politicians (Perikles, Themistokles) who created Democracy; of the thought of Athenian philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes); and the work of architects and artists.
The Acropolis’ most famous landmark is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena that was built between 427 and 424 BC from a design by the architect Kallikrates. It’s most noted for its sculptural facade that includes six Caryatids, statues of women, instead of columns.
It was intended as both a shrine to Athena and the treasury of the Delian League, a consortium of Greek states. The building’s sculptures, including a frieze that depicted a procession of animals and maidens carrying drinking vessels (called rhytons) and musicians as well as a victory celebration, were meant to showcase the superiority of Greek culture against “barbarian” foreign invaders.
During the Ottoman siege of Athens in 1687, the Parthenon was damaged by an explosion that blew off part of its roof and many of its sculptures. In the 19th century, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, paid the indifferent Turkish authorities to take away a large collection of plaster casts and carvings from the temple’s pediments and metopes, now known as the Elgin Marbles, which are currently housed at the British Museum.
Temple of Athena Nike
The temple on the southwest corner of the Acropolis was dedicated to Athena. It was built between 427 and 424 BCE under the supervision of Kallikrates. Its name is derived from the statue of Athena Nike, Victory, that was found inside its cella. According to the myth, this statue was stripped of wings so that she would never leave the city.
On the temple’s continuous Ionic frieze, a gathering of gods was showcased on the eastern side while the southern side referred to battles between Greek and Persian horsemen. The remaining sides referred to battles between the Greeks and other warriors.
The temple had pediments featuring sculptures of Gigantomachy (a battle between the gods on Mount Olympus) and Amazonomachy (a battle between the Amazons). The iconic image that was left of Nike adjusting her sandal may not have been intended as an actual depiction of her adjusting the shoe but rather it is thought to symbolize a visitor removing their footwear at a sacred temple, a common act of worship in ancient Greece.
The Propylaea is the Acropolis’ most famous landmark. It was built during Pericles’ ambitious construction scheme following the destruction of buildings on the Acropolis by Xerxes’ army. It was designed by the architect Mnesikles (Pheidias was responsible for the sculpting of the Parthenon).
The unique innovation here is that the gateway consisted of two wings, one on each side of the central passage. The wing on the left was called the Pinakothek, probably because it contained paintings of mythological content, Pausanias tells us.
The visitor approached the central section via a wide inclining ramp that continued along the natural slope of the rock. Once he passed through the massive doors, he was welcomed by a porch sustained by six Caryatids, or columns in the form of female figures, a unique feature of this period.
The Erechtheion is perhaps the Acropolis’ most famous landmark. Its most striking feature is its small porch that is carried by six larger-than-life maiden figures – the famous Caryatids. The originals are now in the Acropolis Museum.
The statues were sculpted by the artist Phidias, who supervised Pericles’ ambitious scheme for the Acropolis. The complex design arose from a need to accommodate various shrines on the hill, including the olive tree given by Athena, traces of Poseidon’s trident, and the tomb of the early Athenian king Kekrops.
The design is a remarkable feat of engineering. The large marble blocks were quarried from Mount Pentelicus northeast of Athens, and the Caryatids themselves are incredibly skillfully carved, with their clinging draperies and intricate plaiting. The figure’s stance is very firm, giving the impression that they are effortlessly bearing the weight of the entablature and roof. This was achieved thanks to the fact that the standing legs are slightly curved, rather than straight as in Doric columns.