Ancient Agora in Athens

Right next to the bustling tourist area of Monastiraki is the Agora, heart of the ancient city of Athens. It’s cut off from the modern city by the electric train line with its graffitied walls that separates it from Monastiraki. Rather incongruously, just over the other side of the track is the side of a partially re-built 2nd century AD Roman basilica. Once on site it’s hard to believe that you are in the middle of a modern city, it’s so quiet and peaceful, with wonderful views of the Acropolis.

This huge site, which originally contained temples, theatres, shops and government buildings, looks as though it has an unbroken link with the past, has actually been subject to enormous changes over the years. It was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, the Romans in 86 AD, the Herulians in 267 AD, the Slavs in 580 AD, Frankish invaders in 1204 and then finally in 1826-7 during the War of Independence. The final insult occurred in the late 19th century when it was buried under the Vryssaki quarter. It’s amazing that after all this destruction there is anything left to see at all. 

The entrance is part of the Sacred Way, the road that leads to the Acropolis, and which was used in ancient Greece for the procession of the Panathenaia festival in honour of Athena.

One of the first buildings you come across is the Odeion with some impressive Tritons at the entrance, a theatre for music performances built in 15 BC by the Roman General Agrippa.

However my favourite building is the Temple of Ifaistos, built in the 5th century BC and one of the most complete ancient buildings in existence. All of its columns are still in place and some of the metopes (featuring the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths), together with a roof. The roof however is not original and dates back to the time when the barrel-vaulted Byzantine church of St George was built inside it.

It reminds me of the equally wonderful Concordia Temple in Agrigento, another very well-preserved ancient Greek building. From its elevated position you have a good view over the whole site and of the Acropolis itself. I remember seeing it from the top of the Acropolis on our first visit to Athens, not quite believing that such a complete ancient building could still exist.

Nearby are some significant ancient government buildings: the Tholos, a circular building dating from 460 BC where the city council met: the Metroon (2nd century BC) where they kept city records, documents, official weights, etc:
and the 5th century BC Vouleuterion where the Assembly met:

There an enormously long Stoa (the Middle Stoa) that cross the site that dates from 2nd century BC.

I particularly like the site of an ancient water-clock that was used to mark the passing hours:

A further stoa called the Poikili Stoa lies outside the current site and was famous as the Painted Stoa which housed painted panel masterpieces. What a shame that those paintings didn’t survive! In fact there are no paintings that survive from ancient Greece, except in the form of mosaics.

Some of the building are hard to work out from what remains, for example the Strategeion, the Library of Pantainos and the Temple of Ares.

Between the site of the Agora and the Acropolis is the Areopagos, the place where St Paul preached when he came to Athens. In classical Athens it was the place where the Council of the Nobles and the Judicial Court met. At the edge of the Agora sits the hugely restored 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles.

Dominating the eastern side of the site is the two storey Stoa of Attalos, originally built in 159-139 BC, but completely re-built by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the 1950s.

The portico has a wooden beam roof and is a wonderful space for the display of selected statuary:

including a sculpted head of what is thought to be Herodotos:

The small museum is arranged in chronological order from the Mycenean through to the Byzantine era.

Here’s a lovely head of Apollo:
and what looks like a mask from a satyr play:

There are a lot of ostraka on display: these are sherds of pottery on which citizens scratched the names of politicians they wanted to send into exile (shame we lost that tradition). The examples below show Themistocles who was ostracised in 472 or 471 BC and ended up at the Persian court (the subject of Cavafy’s poem Satrapy). It feels strange to be so close to the evidence of such an ancient event..

A trainer potty is one of the odder and most endearing objects on display:

However, I think one of the saddest display cabinets is the one showing pottery from the Byzantine era. There seems to be so little of it left and what has survived is fragmentary and  disappointing in comparison to the fabulous religious artefacts we are familiar with:

Not far from the museum are the remains of a 5th century water-mill. Closer examination of the wall beneath the sign shows the grooves cut into it by the water wheel.

Finally on the site is a rather dilapidated spot where the Altar to the 12 Gods used to stand. There isn’t much to see now as most of it is covered by the perimeter wall and the electric railway line built in 1891. The altar was surrounded by a temenos, an enclosed sanctuary with stone columns that was famous in Athens as a place of refuge. It was also the point from which all distances were measured. However it fell into disrepair in the 4th century BC and was finally destroyed in 3rd century AD.