12 Facts About the Acropolis of Athens

iStock
iStock

Situated on a rocky outcrop above Athens, Greece, the Acropolis is a citadel featuring some of the greatest architecture of the classical world. The most famous structure there is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena; it’s joined by sites devoted to pagan ritual as well as some monumental gates. Despite centuries of war, earthquakes, looting, and weathering in the open air, much of it still survives. Here are 12 facts about the Acropolis of Athens.

1. IT’S THE MOST FAMOUS OF MANY ACROPOLEIS.

While the Athenian Acropolis is often what comes to mind when people hear the word acropolis, it is one of many acropoleis built across Greece. Based on the ancient Greek words ákros for high point and pólis for city, acropolis means roughly “high city,” and can refer to any similarly situated citadel. High fortresses and temples known as acropoleis can also be found in the Greek cities of Argos, Thebes, Corinth, and others, each constructed as a center for local life, culture, and protection.

2. ITS HUMAN HISTORY IS NEOLITHIC.

Humans have inhabited the limestone slopes of what became the Acropolis for centuries; they were likely drawn to the water from its natural springs. There's evidence of habitation in the area dating back to the Neolithic period between 4000-3200 BCE, with both a house and a grave identified from around this era. A series of shafts have also been discovered, with several vessels found in their deep chasms. One theory is that the shafts were once wells, while another is that they were a site of ritual burial, since human bones were found among the objects buried within.

3. ITS FIRST STRUCTURES WERE BUILT FOR DEFENSIVE PURPOSES.

From its central position above Athens, the Acropolis is perfectly positioned for strategic military defense—and its major initial structures were in fact focused on preparing for war. The ancient Mycenaeans built its first defensive wall in the 13th century BCE (a structure so strong that fragments still survive today), which was the primary defense of the Acropolis for around eight centuries. Eventually the site would gain religious significance, with temples being added to the area.

4. ITS MOST ICONIC BUILDINGS WERE CONSTRUCTED IN JUST A FEW DECADES.

The Parthenon Temple at the Acropolis in Greece
iStock

The most famed structures at the Acropolis—the Parthenon, the Erechtheion temple, the Propylaea gate, the Temple of Athena Nike—were all constructed over a few decades in the 5th century BCE. Fueled by the Athenians’ recent victory over the Persians, an ambitious building campaign was launched under the direction of the statesman Pericles. The project was led by architects Ictinus and Callicrates with the sculptor Phidias (artist of the now-destroyed 43-foot-tall Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).

Thousands of laborers, artisans, and artists gathered on the hilltop, and completed the incredible project in just 50 years. The collection of buildings towering 500 feet over the city announced that Athens was a center for Greek art, faith, and thought.

The golden age of Athenian power was brief, however. Only a year after the Parthenon was finished, Athens went up against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, with the Spartan army ultimately seizing the city in 404 BCE. As for Pericles, he died in a plague that devastated the city’s population. But the Acropolis would long outlive him.

5. A COLOSSAL ATHENA ONCE PRESIDED OVER THE ACROPOLIS.

The Acropolis is the most complete surviving ancient Greek monumental complex, which is remarkable considering the centuries of natural disasters, war, and reconstruction. Still, much of its ornamentation and art is now gone. One of these losses is a colossal statue of Athena once located inside the Parthenon. Known as Athena Parthenos, it stood almost 40 feet tall and was made from gold and ivory by the sculptor Phidias. Dressed in armor and covered in jewelry, it was an awe-inspiring spectacle that reaffirmed Athens's spiritual and economic power.

The statue disappeared in late antiquity, and was likely destroyed—but thanks to Roman replicas, we can still get an idea of what the Athena Parthenos looked like. To experience a facsimile of its full scale, however, you must travel to Nashville, Tennessee. There, in the 1980s, artist Alan LeQuire created a full-sized reconstruction of Athena Parthenos, now housed within the city's Parthenon replica.

6. BRINGING MARBLE TO THE ACROPOLIS WAS A MONUMENTAL TASK.

Marble at Mount Pentelicon
iStock

The marble that composes the Acropolis’s classical structures, including the Parthenon, is not local. It was quarried at Mount Pentelicus, located 10 miles to the northeast of Athens and famed for the uniformity of its white marble. It was hard labor to quarry the marble, with stonemasons using iron wedges and mallets to pound apart blocks along their fissures. From Mount Pentelicus, workers used a downhill road to move the marble on its long journey to Athens, where they still had to get the rocks up the steep slopes of the Acropolis.

7. IT WAS ORIGINALLY PAINTED.

Although our vision of ancient Greece is often of gleaming white marble, the Parthenon, and other buildings at the Acropolis, were once colorful. Recent tests during laser cleaning of the Parthenon revealed shades of blue, red, and green. The pediment statues on the Parthenon, showing the birth of Athena and her battle with Poseidon to rule Athens, were accented with paint and even bronze accessories. Over time the stones were bleached in the sunlight, and the neoclassical movements of art in the 18th and 19th centuries embraced a romanticized perceptive of a pristine white past. Yet traces of pigment on Greek marble sculpture show that these sites were kaleidoscopic in their colors.

8. THE WORLD’S OLDEST WEATHER STATION IS AT ITS BASE.

The Tower of Winds in Athens
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Located on the slopes of the Acropolis is what's considered the oldest weather station in the world. Known as the Tower of the Winds, the octagonal marble structure dates back 2000 years, and is likely to have once held a bronze wind vane above its sundial. Many historians also believe that it contained a water clock that was hydraulically powered with water flowing down the steep Acropolis hill, so that Athenians could tell the time even after dark. Lord Elgin, who brought many of the Parthenon's sculptures to London, wanted to bring this structure as well, but was denied. After a recent restoration, it opened to the public for the first time in nearly two centuries in 2016.

9. ITS RELIGIOUS HISTORY INCLUDES A CHURCH AND MOSQUE.

Pagan temples at the Acropolis date back to the 6th century BCE. Over the following centuries, the Acropolis’s religious identity was regularly altered by empires and conquerors. At some point before 693 CE the Parthenon was converted into a Byzantine cathedral. The occupying Franks transformed the Parthenon once again in 1204, this time into a Catholic cathedral. Under the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, it was reborn again as a Muslim mosque, with a minaret added on its southwest corner.

10. IT'S EXPERIENCED BOTH CONSTRUCTION AND DESTRUCTION.

The Acropolis of today is the result of centuries of construction and destruction. Although the main group of structures date to the 5th century BCE, others followed later, such as a Roman era temple erected by Augustus, and a large staircase built under Claudius. Small houses were also built around the Acropolis during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

A 1687 siege by Venetian forces—an army assembled in reaction to the Turks’ failed conquest of Vienna in 1683—brought heavy mortar shell attacks to the Parthenon, which the Ottoman Empire was using to store gunpowder. The Parthenon was damaged, but its sculptures were still in situ, at least until 1801. That year Lord Elgin, ambassador from the United Kingdom, negotiated a deal with the Ottomans. What exactly that deal entailed is still debated, but it led to Elgin removing the marbles. Now the majority of the sculptures from the Parthenon frieze are in the British Museum in London. Only in 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, did the Greeks again resume control of the Acropolis.

11. IT WAS AN INFLUENTIAL SITE OF RESISTANCE AGAINST FASCISM.

After an April 1941 invasion by Nazi Germany to support Fascist Italy, the entirety of Greece was occupied by the Axis Powers. A German War Flag emblazoned with a swastika was raised over the Acropolis that month, replacing the Greek flag.

Then, on the night of May 30, 1941, two young Athenians—Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, carrying a knife and a lantern between them—climbed to the top of the limestone hill. They pulled down the German flag, and slashed it to pieces. The defiant act was a visible statement of Greek pride against fascism, and inspired the country's resistance during occupation.

12. RESTORATION STARTED 40 YEARS AGO—AND IT'S STILL GOING.

Restoration work on the Parthenon in Athens
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

A major restoration of the Acropolis started in 1975, under the new Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments on the Acropolis, which meticulously examined the state of the hilltop and began work to return it to its ancient condition. Marble from the exact mountain where the original stone was quarried is used for structural interventions, and conservators employ similar tools to those employed by ancient artisans. But since just one block can take over three months to repair, the project is still ongoing—and will hopefully stabilize the site for centuries to come.

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

Can You Match the U.S. Presidents to Each Category?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER