Things You Didn't Know About the Acropolis of Athens

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One of the most important sites of Ancient Greece, the Acropolis of Athens consists of a cluster of temples and other structures on a flat-topped hill overlooking the Greek capital. Though the first fortification walls built on this rocky outcrop date from the 13th century BCE, much of it took shape in the fifth century BCE, when temples such as the Parthenon were constructed. Over the years, it has been a steadfast city landmark, enduring wars, fires, earthquakes, and explosions. Despite this, the Acropolis of Athens is still one of the most complete monumental complexes of its time and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. Find out more about this fascinating place with 10 facts you probably never knew about the Acropolis of Athens.


"Acropolis" Means "High City"

The Acropolis landscape and the blue cloudy sky.
Credit: Lefteris_/ iStock

In Greek, akron means “high point” and polis means “city.” When you combine the two words and take into account the site’s hilltop location, it’s not hard to see why the Acropolis of Athens was so named. However, in ancient times, this part of Athens was more commonly known as Cecropia. The name honors the first Athenian king, Cecrops, a mythical figure who was part man, part serpent. It was Cecrops who declared Athena to be patron saint of the city of Athens. Controversially, Cecrops also defied Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods, by forbidding the sacrifice of living creatures.


The Acropolis of Athens Isn’t the Only One in Greece

The Greek waving flag on the castle of Acrocorinth, above the archaeological site of ancient Corinth.
Credit: Aerial-motion/ Shutterstock

The Acropolis of Athens isn’t the country’s only “high city.” These defensive sites, which were often citadels, are littered across Greece in places such as Argos, Thebes, and Corinth. At Larissa, the Acropolis of Argos, you can find the ruins of a Byzantine-Venetian castle and a monastery beneath it. In Thebes, you can visit the ruins of Cadmea; the site was razed to the ground in 335 BCE by Alexander the Great, who wanted to make it clear what would happen to communities that resisted his rule. Perhaps most impressive of all is Acrocorinth, the oldest and largest fort in the Peloponnese. It overlooks the city of Corinth from a rocky pedestal nearly 2,000 feet high, offering an extraordinary view over the Corinthian Gulf.


The Term "Acropolis" Refers to the Entire Citadel

Athens Acropolis around sunset time in Greece.
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It’s common to confuse the Acropolis of Athens with the Parthenon, but they’re not the same. The Acropolis is the collection of buildings that rises from a rocky outcrop, while the Parthenon is its most famous building, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. The rocky hill itself is a geological feature known as a klippe — another example is Chief Mountain in Montana. The klippe of Athens was formed of schist rock overlaid with a nappe, a layer of rock that was thrust on top by tectonic processes. Over time, the limestone nappe was eroded by the elements to reveal the hill you see today.


The Acropolis Was the Focal Point for Athens’ Version of the Olympic Games

Ruins of ancient theater under Acropolis of Athens in Greece.
Credit: Vladimir1984/ Shutterstock

The ancient Olympic Games were never held in Athens; they took place in Olympia beginning in 776 BCE. But every four years, Athens held its own games, which were called the Great Panathenaea. In the same way that modern-day Olympians parade at the opening ceremony, athletes processed through the city to reach the Acropolis. Walking alongside them were Athenians representing other professions, such as magistrates, priests, soldiers, and farmers. When the parade reached the Acropolis, cows and sheep were sacrificed to Athena in a religious ceremony, followed by various competitions including singing, poetry, athletics, and a chariot race.


Some of Its Most Impressive Buildings Took Only a Few Decades to Build

The Porch of the Caryatids at the Erechtheion (Erechtheum) on the Acropolis of Athens.
Credit: Daniel Tomlinson/ iStock

Considering the logistics of transporting materials to the top of a rocky hill, some of the most famous buildings of the Acropolis of Athens were built in an impressively short period of time. Structures such as the Parthenon, the Erechtheion temple, and the Temple of Athena Nike sprang up over just a few decades in the fifth century BCE. The Parthenon was built in nine years and decorated in just six more. Not everything went smoothly, however. Work on the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis, had been underway for five years before it was abandoned for unknown reasons and left in an unfinished state.


The Stone Used to Build the Parthenon Was Quarried From Mount Pentelicus

Drawing of Mount Pentelicus in Greece.
Credit: DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/ De Agostini via Getty Images

The stone used in the construction of the Parthenon came from Mount Pentelicus, about 13 miles northeast of the Acropolis. Numerous quarries on the south flank of the mountain produced blocks of white Pentelic marble, which you’ll see in various other buildings across the city. Getting the stone to the site was no easy task: Teams of mules and a system of ramps and pulleys were needed to transport the blocks and haul them into place. Though the quarries are now closed, there’s a piece of the same stone embedded in the facade of the Tribune Tower in Chicago.


A Gold Statue of Athena Once Stood Inside the Parthenon

The Parthenon Athena statue in Nashville, Tennessee.
Credit: f11photo/ Shutterstock

In ancient times, a statue of Athena graced the inside of the Parthenon in a specially designed chamber. Historians have dated it to about the middle of the fifth century BCE and estimate it may have stood 36 to 39 feet tall. Almost 2,000 years ago, it disappeared, though no one knows what precisely happened to it. It’s possible it was damaged in a fire and moved elsewhere. However, today you can see a replica in Nashville, Tennessee. A replica Parthenon was erected to coincide with the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, and sculptor Alan LeQuire’s gilded copy of Athena was added in 1990.


The Parthenon Was a Target of War in the 17th Century

A view of the Parthenon Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
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In modern times, the Parthenon has been both a place of Christian pilgrimage and a mosque. It had sustained some damage over the centuries but was considered to be fairly intact. However, that changed when the Venetians and the Ottomans fought the Morean War. In 1687, Venetian forces laid siege to the Acropolis. The defending Turks capitalized on the hill’s strategic advantages, storing considerable quantities of ammunition in the Parthenon. For eight days, the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis. Eventually, one of their cannonballs landed on a powder magazine. The result was a catastrophic explosion that blew out the walls of the Parthenon and started a devastating fire that claimed many lives.


During World War II, the Acropolis Became a Symbol of Greek Resistance

Z bombers flying over the Acropolis during a military parade.
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It was a sad moment for Greece when, in April 1941, the Nazis took down the Greek flag at the Acropolis and replaced it with their swastika. However, the occupation was met with resistance. Little more than a month later, two young Athenians named Manolis Glezos and Apostolos (Lakis) Santas snuck up the hill under cover of darkness. They tore down the flag in defiance and destroyed it. In response, the Germans handed down the death sentence to the unnamed perpetrators, but they were never identified and lived to tell the tale.


Each Sunday, There’s a Flag Ceremony at the Acropolis

Women in traditional attire hold a Greek flag atop the Acropolis hill during a ceremony.
Credit: AFP Contributor via Getty Images

If you visit Athens, it won’t take long to get acquainted with the city’s ceremonial guards, known as Evzones, who are easily recognized by their unusual uniforms featuring pleated skirts and pom-pom shoes. They stand outside the Greek parliament and watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Each Sunday, the Evzones perform another task: They march in single file along an ancient track to the Acropolis. As the city’s clocks strike 8 a.m., the national anthem plays and they raise the flag. They return the same day, an hour before sunset, to lower it again.


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