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June 28, 2010

Athens {text by Andrew}

We spent yesterday at sea, and arrived early this morning for our first ever visit to Athens. 

The city is located some 7 miles inland, so we landed at the port city of Piraeus, and then drove in and around the city on our way to the Acropolis.  There's a small downtown section that's really fancy, full of expensive boutiques.  The remainder of the city houses some five million inhabitants, and appears like a modern city, perhaps a little less thriving than most.  Athens is a young capital, as Greece itself only became a nation in the 1830s.

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Per legend, the region of Athens has been inhabited since 7000BC, but the city was formed officially under Theseus, and was the hub of the golden age of Greek culture from around 800 BC to 500 BC.  At its inception, the city (as was traditional) sent out an RFDS (request for divine sponsorship), which was answered by Athena and Poseidon.  The agency responsible for selecting a sponsor asked each to demonstrate the nature of their bid.  Poseidon smote the ground with his trident, and a spring of fresh clear water burst forth.  Athena then struck the ground with her spear, and an olive tree arose.  After some discussion, the judges decided that water was cheap, while olives represented an industry with staying power.  Athena was awarded the job, and the city was henceforth called Athens.

It had a few good years fighting other Greek city-states, and finally went through a series of exciting battles with the Persians.  In the first such battle, the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon, and some poor Joe was tasked with running 26.2 miles back to Athens to let people know, hence inventing the marathon.  The Persians ran away, but came back ten years later to try again.  This time, Athens was completely destroyed, but the Athenians managed to escape to the water, and subsequently routed the Persians, who never returned to Greece (except on the occasional cruise ship). 

For a brief period, the Athenians decided to leave the destruction as a monument to the folly of trusting strangers, but living in ruins turned out to be sufficiently inconvenient to change the mindset over time.  Pericles, who was general at the time, decided instead to rebuild better than ever to showcase the benefits of freedom vis a vis those of slavery and life among ruins.
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Each town is said to have a highest hill, or "acropolis," so they identified one for Athens and decided that this is where they would build their monument to freedom.  The top of the hill boasts the Parthenon, the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike (an aspect of Athena representing victory), and one or two more.  This place is ancient, fascinating, and beautiful.

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To get to the temple, we had to traverse a series of steep switchbacks while earlier birds than us were on their way down.  Traffic stalled completely for about 15 minutes in the sun.  Being Americans, many of the tourists tried to shortcut the holdup by scrambling up the ancient marble stones between the switchbacks, into oncoming traffic.  Our tour guide recruited a few other tour guides from other companies and did a quick demo of Olympian Fury, haranguing the masses, and bodily accosting a poor teenage scapegoat, stopping just shy of hurling him down the mountain.  Good behavior prevailed from that point on.
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When we made it to the top, we walked through the temple of Athena Nike, and out onto the main plain atop the Acropolis, facing the Parthenon.  The Parthenon is built to appear flat, level and straight from afar.  2500 years ago, the Greeks understood that to do this correctly would require every line to be slightly curved in subtle ways, and they were able to determine and then build the temple to within a tenth of a inch tolerance to this plan.  Almost all the carving was done before the temple was assembled, and the resulting 32,000 pieces of marble were then assembled together.  The entire construction took only ten years.
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Athens spent the next few years infighting with its neighbors, until being taken over and spending most of the next 2000 years under the thumb of Rome, Constantinople, or Turkey.  Finally, encouraged by the proselytization of Byron, Shelly and others, European powers forced a treaty freeing the country from Turkey. 

In 1834, Athens was proclaimed the capital of the new, independent Greece, and a young Austrian royal was installed as the first King.


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