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The Akropolis of Athens
Parthenon Marbles

An acropolis in ancient Greece was a fortified hill or cliff (the word means "high town"); many Greek towns had (and have) an acropolis. The famous Acropolis in Athens is the steep limestone hill whereupon stand the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, the modern Acropolis Museum, and the ruins of many other monuments.

The Acropolis provided strong defensive walls and a vantage point for the fortress and royal palace that stood here until the 6th century BC, when it became a sanctuary for various deities. The monuments seen today are the result of a campaign by Pericles to beautify Athens, in order to assure its place as a center of culture.

The top of the Acropolis requires a strenuous, uphill hike of ten minutes, and there are no facilities for wheelchair users. Visitors enter via the Beule Gate, built by the Romans in the 3rd century. Climbing the stairway, they come to the Propylaea, the original Greek entrance. Its once monumental doorways, gold-encrusted marble ceilings, and painting gallery are now in ruins.

Just outside the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike features some original, although substantially damaged, friezes. It has been restored twice, once in the 19th century and later in the 1940s. The interior is closed to the public.

The most prominent and famous structure is the Parthenon, a temple originally dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena. Begun in 447 BC and finished some nine years later, the Parthenon is the largest Doric temple in Greece. It once housed a splendid ivory and gold statue of Athena, carved by Phidias (490?430 BC), who also sculpted the magnificent 160-meter (525-feet) frieze of the Panathenaia, which decorated the pediments with hundreds of human and animal figures. Various conquerors over the centuries have used the temple as a church, a cathedral, and even a Turkish mosque.

The Parthenon was even used as a gunpowder magazine; during a battle between the Turks and the Venetians in the 17th century, a stray shell ignited the powder, blowing 14 columns to pieces. In the early 19th century, the British Ambassador Lord Elgin obtained permission from the Ottoman authorities to remove a large portion of the frieze of the Panathenaia, and take it to England, where it is now displayed in the British Museum as the Elgin Marbles. (Other pieces are on display in the Acropolis Museum.) Today, the Parthenon suffers greatly from the city's smog, which is gradually eating away its Pentelic marble structure.

The Erechtheion, an Ionic temple built in 407 BC, housed some of the holiest shrines of ancient Athens. The pediment of the southern portico is supported by the six Caryatids, statues of young women. The present statues are copies; one of the originals is in the British Museum, while the remaining five are now in the Acropolis Museum, at the southeast corner of the Acropolis.

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