National Geographic : 1963 Jul
It simply stood there in a kind of brooding loneliness. Its huge blocks of coarse, rough stone measured at least four feet long and two feet on a side. "You wanted to see old Athens," said my companion, John Poutos. "Well, that's part of the ancient city wall. Bulldozers digging the foundation for the building uncovered it. "Almost every week workmen uncover relics, some big, some small. A few days ago street repairmen found vases and gravestones on the other side of the square. Telephone linemen unearthed a mosaic pavement near your hotel a few months ago." Flutes Wail as Walls Tumble I ran my hand over the harsh, cold surface of the wall. I paced its massive blocks, laid 15 feet thick and twice as high as my head. A tre mendous fortification! Invaders would have had a tough time breaching it, I observed. But John recalled for me a forgotten page from the history of the Peloponnesian War. Athens' bitter enemy, Sparta, did not have to force the wall. In 404 B.C. she simply starved Athens into submission. Then, to the trium phant music of flutes, Sparta's soldiers tore down the guarding walls that stretched from Athens to its port of Piraeus. On the city's enclosing fortification, time laid a crumbling hand. "The remarkable thing is that so large a part remains at all," John said. Slowly we climbed the stairs again. I mused on this remnant of one of the most glorious cities of all time, and on the tragedy of Athens' defeat. I fancied I could hear the clash of arms, the keening of women in mourning, the sharp melody of the flutes. And then, sud denly, 24 centuries melted away and we were back in the pulsing modern city. But from that moment I could never di vorce Athens present and Athens past, and I became increasingly aware of the deep roots the entire Western World traces to this city on the Aegean.* We are all Athenians, it has been said, so *See "Athens to istanbul," by Jean and Franc Shor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, January, 1956. 104 great is our cultural debt to Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ. In that golden age flowered one of history's most spectacular civilizations, whose indelible mark still lies on Western art and thought, government and politics, science and religion. Architecture? The Parthenon, though now a ruin, remains the most marvelously con ceived and beautifully executed structure in the Western World. A thousand buildings have copied its columns and pediment. Philosophy? What liberal-arts student does not learn of the Republic of Plato, the logic of Aristotle, the teachings of Socrates? And what democratic citizen can deny that our ideas of human freedom and popular govern ment were born in classical Athens? Art and drama? Man's most shining tri umphs in sculpture were fashioned by the Athenians. The Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote with such in sight that their plays are performed to this day. Science? Virtually every major branch had its beginnings in Greece. We owe to the Greeks the very words geography and geometry, bi ology, astronomy, and physics. The British scholar H. D. F. Kitto, in his book The Greeks, sums it up aptly: "... unless our standards of civilization are comfort and contraptions, Athens from (say) 480 to 380 was clearly the most civilized society that has yet existed." Changes Sadden an Old-timer I discovered that Athens, for all her ancient monuments and relics, is a new city (pages 106-7). When the Greeks revolted against their Turkish masters in the 1820's, Athens had declined to a miserable provincial town of 300 houses clustered around the Acropolis. But today's city is growing at an enormous pace. Her spreading bulk covers 155 square miles. The metropolis shelters nearly two mil lion persons, almost a fourth of the popula tion of Greece. Not everybody approves of this change. William Papageorge, for one. I met him one morning when I was having difficulty com- Parthenon's battered columns glow in the sun like honey in a jar. Sculptor Phidias supervised construction of Athena's temple, which began in 447 B.C. A millennium later the shrine became a church, later a mosque. Gunpowder stored by Turks and exploded by Venetian cannon shattered the building in 1687. Columns show the Parthenon's wounds. Plumed Athena, her eyes of semiprecious stones still agleam, came to light during a sewer excavation in 1959. The seven-foot statue was buried in debris when a warehouse in Piraeus burned, apparently in 86 B.C. Goddess of battle and wisdom, Athena thus escaped the fate of most large bronzes: melting down for weapons. KODACHROMES BY PHILLIP HARRINGTON AND NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICPHOTOGRAPHERJAMES P. BLAIR (OPPOSITE) © N.G.S .