12 Facts About the Acropolis of Athens

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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
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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
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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.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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