About the city of Athens
Athens is an historic city and capital of Greece. Many of Classical civilization’s intellectual and artistic ideas originated there, and the city is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western civilization. Athens lies 5 miles (8 km) from the Bay of Phaleron, an inlet of the Aegean Sea where Piraeus, the port of Athens, is situated. Greater Athens has an area of 165 square miles (427 square km) sourrounded by mountains of Párnis, 4,636 feet; Pentelicus, 3,631 feet; Hymettos, 3,365 feet; and Aigáleon, 1,535 feetadd to the impression of barrenness. Yet such considerations are superficial when compared with the fecundity of Athens’s bequests to the world, such as its philosophy, its architecture, its literature, and its political ideals.
Character of the city
Athens, with its tall buildings and contemporary shops, is the first European city when approached from the Middle East. When approached from the west, from elsewhere in Europe, what strikes the visitor is the influence of the East—in the food, music, and clamorous street life—perhaps vestiges of a time when Athens was divorced from European society under the yoke of Ottoman rule. Nevertheless, it is wrong to say that Athens is a mixture of East and West: it is Greek and, more particularly, Athenian. The city, after all, nurtured Western civilization thousands of years ago. Athens remains on the world stage to this day.
Notably, in 2004 the world came to the city for the Olympic Games, which spurred a dramatic makeover for Athens. In addition to building a raft of new sports venues and facilities (including a stadium designed by Santiago Calatrava), Athens undertook massive transportation infrastructure improvements that included dramatic expansion of public transportation and the construction of a new international airport.
Some 3 centuries after the death of Pericles (429 bce), Athenians entered upon a period of bondage that lasted almost 2,000 years. The city was freed in 1833, and in the following 170 years it was the scene of more than a dozen revolutions, another brutal foreign occupation, and a civil war of especial savagery. This long history of passion and suffering has had considerable effect on the Athenian character. The core of that character is an implacable will to survive, buttressed by a profound sense of loyalty (especially to the family) and patriotism. The Greek Orthodox Church, which is directed by a synod sitting in Athens, was a main force in keeping alive the Greek language, tradition, and literature when such things were forbidden, and most people still support it.
The climate of Athens is benign: frost is rare (the minimum temperature is 32 °F, or 0 °C) and snow seldom lies, while the summers, though hot (maximum temperature is 99 °F, or 37 °C), are dry, and a fresh northeasterly wind often blows by day. The nights are cool. The climate of the city permits outdoor activity the year round and has had an important effect on both the style of architecture and the life and political institutions of the city.
Modern Athens across time
In 1833 there was almost no Athens at all. During the fight for independence, it had been entirely evacuated in 1827, and 6 years later it held perhaps 4,000 people in the straggle of little houses on the north slope below the Acropolis. The newly imported king of the Hellenes, Otto, the 18-year-old son of Louis I of Bavaria, was installed in the only two-story stone house, while his German architects hurried ahead with plans for a palace and a new Athens far out in the fields.
Below the well-sited but very plain palace, a large garden square, Síntagma (Constitution) Square, was laid out. Today it is garnished in the tourist season with some of Europe’s most luxurious cafe chairs, and at all seasons it is hemmed in by tall new buildings and elderly luxury hotels. Broad avenues were created and are still the city centre’s principal thoroughfares (Stadíou and Panepistimíou), between which an orderly grid of narrow side streets was laid out. The housing that developed was generally the sort of architecture familiar in Victorian London: solid, porched, rather imposing, the later imitations graceless and monotonous. In Athens it is called the Ottonian style, but there is little of it left as the center encroaches on old residential areas.
Once the new capital was established, the city grew at a regular rate of about 7% a year, soon reaching 50,000 inhabitants, a figure not much exceeded in the days of Athens’s greatest power and glory. By 1907 the municipality had a population of 167,479. Omónia Square had been built at the western end of the two main streets, with other broad avenues radiating from it, but it did not develop as the hoped-for balance to Síntagma.
By then the railway to Piraeus had been built, its station near the antique Agora. Indeed, the city plan projected a logical growth southward along this axis, but a real estate developer beckoned northward—the National Archaeological Museum is out this way—and the newly rich followed. The palace garden almost touched the Arch of Hadrian and the 15 mammoth columns (some of them 7 feet 10 inches in diameter) of the temple of Olympian Zeus, last of the Classical buildings built in Athens, and beyond lay empty fields. The slopes of Mount Likavittós, outside the town limits, were still pine-clad. Since then the garden has become one of the public parks in Athens. Likavittós now rears up in the middle of the city, its lower slopes built upon and many of the trees felled for a road leading to a cog railway and restaurant.
Along Panepistimíou Street rose the Academy of Athens and the University of Athens. A new Royal Palace (now the Presidential Residence) was built during 1891–97 on Herodes Atticus Street which leads to the 70,000-seat Panathenaic (Athens) Stadium, reconstructed by an expatriate Greek millionaire in time for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896.
In 1921 the orderly progress of Athens was overturned and haphazard development began, for ethnic minorities were exchanged between Greece and Turkey, and approximately 1,500,000 Greeks, most of them penniless, came home from Asia Minor. Many swarmed into shantytowns around the fringes of Athens and Piraeus, and the area’s population soared from 473,000 to 718,000.
In the 1940s during the German occupation many people died from starvation, and the city began to fall apart from lack of maintenance. When Germans left, part of the Allied-equipped resistance refused to lay down its arms, and the civil war began. For a while the government held only the Parliament building, neighboring embassies, and a part of Síntagma Square, while the palace garden was used as a common grave.
A construction boom began in the 1950s. New apartment houses pushing up everywhere erased old social boundaries and villages that had been attached to the city in the previous expansion lost their physical identity. A network of major highways was thrown up. The west side of the historic olive grove by the Kifisós River was shorn, and hillside greenery began to disappear under housing, either unauthorized or made legal through political skullduggery. Open space vanished, without provision for parks, playgrounds, or even schools, and Athens spread down to the sea, joining up with Piraeus. Piraeus itself was transformed from one of the world’s celebrated honky-tonk ports into a clean, newly built, flower-decorated city.
The Athens master plan was enlarged several times to keep pace with spread, which by 1964 had already attained 75 square miles, with a built-up area of 17 square miles outside the plan altogether. Land values in the center quadrupled, then octuplet, and rose proportionately elsewhere. Traffic increased almost to the saturation point at rush hours, and the city continued to sprawl beyond its planned limits. As international tourism increased, Ellinikón Airport, south of the city, was expanded and modernized.
The city water supply from an artificial lake at Marathon was insufficient to supply the new building construction, and the Mórnos River 110 miles to the northwest was dammed and tapped. Installation of a modern sewer system was undertaken, together with controls to check the floods that roar into Athens when heavy rains pour off the denuded mountains.
The older Athens has not entirely disappeared. By the excavated Agora lies the lively quarter Pláka, on the north slope of the Acropolis. Small, one-story houses, dating from about the time of independence, are clustered together up the hillside in peasant simplicity. There are appropriately tiny squares with tavernas, once celebrated for their folk music, dancing, and simple fare. The baths built by the Turks still function morning and afternoon and the taverna signs are multilingual.
Acropolis (designated a World Heritage site in 1987) rises some 500 being an obvious choice of citadel and sanctuary from earliest times. That it could be something more is evidenced in the Parthenon, one of the brightest jewels in humankind’s, let alone Athens’s, treasury. As deceptively simple as Socrates’ conversation, this columned, oblong temple is the expression—without a trace of strain or conflict—of a human ideal of clarity and unity. The architectural genius is concentrated in the exterior, for within was a shelter for the goddess Athena—the patroness who lent her name to the city—not a place for mass worship.
In 1801 the British ambassador, Lord Elgin, arrived with an imperial decree permitting him to pull down Turkish houses on the Acropolis to seek fragments of sculpture. Among the 50 pieces he took home was most of the remaining Parthenon sculpture, which he later sold to the British Museum for £35,000. The Greeks have forgiven the clumsiness of the Venetian engineers, the accuracy of Venetian cannoneers, and the vandalism of the Turks, but they still nurture rancor against Elgin.
When Turks, who had occupied Athens since 1456, departed, they left the monuments in a state of ruin, the ground covered with garden plots and several hundred small huts. After Greece won its independence, Otto, the first king of the Hellenes, had everything that postdated the Classical period swept away, set scholars to work identifying the remains, and encouraged some reconstruction.
Less than 1,000 feet (300 metres) southeast of the Parthenon is the New Acropolis Museum, which was designed by Bernard Tschumi and opened in 2009. A dramatic glass and concrete structure, it has some 10 times the exhibition space of the old Acropolis Museum.
Other notable buildings close to Acropolis is Herodes Atticus 5,000-seats theater, built by a rich Roman as a memorial to his wife in 161 ce which is now used for Athens summer festivals of music and drama. On the Hill of the Nymphs, an Austro-Greek, Baron Sina, built an observatory in 1842.
The Agora, started restored in 1931 by the American School of Classical Studies that paid $2.5 million compensation to several hundred families living there. Financed by, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Marshall Plan, and the Greek government, the work went on until 1960. It includes what has been called “the pitiless replica of a 180-columned portico of the 2nd century bc,” which serves as a museum.
The population of Greater Athens increased considerably after the war of independence in the early 1830s. The rapid growth was largely attributable to the great influx of refugees from Asia Minor in the early 1920s and the migration of rural inhabitants from the provinces during World War II and the communist rebellion (1946–49). By the 1960s Athens had become a bustling cosmopolitan city. Almost all Greeks adhere to the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox faith.
Industry and trade: Since World War I Athens has become the hub of all mercantile business, export and import. With Piraeus it is the most important manufacturing city in Greece. Athens accounts for half of the jobs in industry and handicrafts, and earnings are much higher than the national average. There are cloth and cotton mills, distilleries, breweries, potteries, flour mills, soap factories, tanneries, chemical works, and carpet factories. Exports include olive oil, tomato products, wine, cement, bauxite, and textile manufactures. Publishing enterprises are important.
Athens accounts for more than half of the cars, trucks, and buses in use in the country. Furthermore, the number of merchant ships registered in Greece increased since the late 1960s as Greek ship-owners answered the government’s call to bring their foreign-registered ships home (though many Greek ships remain under other flags). Scores of shipping offices have opened in refurbished Piraeus, while on weekends shipping magnates sail to the nearby islands of Hydra and Spetses in chrome-fitted luxury yachts.
Snarled traffic and air pollution, long endemic problems for Athens, were both significantly reduced by the extensive transportation infrastructure improvements that were undertaken to prepare Athens to host the 2004 Olympic Games. A new airport, Athens International Airport—located east of the city- was completed in 2001. Before the Games’ opening ceremony, some 17 miles (27 km) of track and 28 stations were added to the metropolitan transit system, which includes an electrified rail line, buses, and trolleys. By the 2010s the Athens Metro network was being used by about 650,000 passengers per day. Larissa, the main railway station, links the city with the rest of the country and the continent