Edinburgh – The Athens of the North

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Europe may be the second smallest continent in the world, but it is possibly one of the most diverse regions on earth.

The sheer variation in language, culture, architecture and even weather, makes Europe one of the most visited regions in the world, and it’s easy to see why. For modern metropolises there is London, Paris and Barcelona. For warm weather and beaches there is thousands of miles of Mediterranean coastline spanning Spain, France, Italy, Greece and numerous other countries; all with quite distinct historical, cultural and linguistic differences.

But as great as it is to have such massive diversity squeezed into such a relatively small space, it could be argued that there are probably bigger metropolises and better beaches located elsewhere in the world. Indeed, what makes Europe truly special are those ‘one-of-a-kind’ places, and Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, is such a place.

Located in the south-east of Scotland close to the River Forth, Edinburgh is often considered to be one of the most picturesque cities in Europe and is certainly regarded as a major tourist destination, attracting around 13 million visitors each year.

But what makes Edinburgh a truly mesmerising city is its landscape and architecture. To realise how stunning a city the Scottish capital is, it only takes a short hike up one of the several hills that the city is built around. Arthur’s Seat, for example, offers perhaps the most panoramic view of the city and is only a mile from the city centre. As an extinct volcano, it consists of rocky crags and basalt cliffs, rising to about 250 metres high and affords magnificent views across the city, with the world famous Edinburgh Castle taking centre stage.

The one striking feature of the Edinburgh skyline is the lack of skyscrapers or any other particularly tall building. This has been a deliberate attempt not to spoil the famous cityscape that has seen both the old and new town districts of Edinburgh listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

And it’s these two districts that make Edinburgh what it is. The medieval, windy streets and alleys of the Old Town sandwiched in between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, contrasts splendidly with the beautiful Georgian architecture and Greek-inspired neo-classical designs that are spread throughout the New Town.

Indeed, the New Town is generally considered to be a masterpiece of  city  planning and is partly responsible for Edinburgh’s reputation as the ‘ Athens  of the North’, which is quite a compliment considering the esteem in which Greek architecture is held throughout the world.

Of course, like any other city in the world there are all the usual activities to keep visitors happy throughout their stay such as restaurants, cinemas, clubs and pubs; ensuring that hotels in Edinburgh are always in great demand.

But in a city of Edinburgh’s breathtaking beauty, these could be considered merely as distractions from the main attractions. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world that can compare to Scotland’s capital city, which is why it truly is, one-of-a-kind.

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The Acropolis – Athens, Goddess Athena

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Archaeologists tell us that the original city of Athens was situated on the Acropolis. Even in classical times, the Athenians still referred to this area as “the City.” The city of Athens and its patron goddess emerge into the light of history as inseparably coupled. In Mycenaean times each city was built around a central palace, and each palace was under the protection of its patron goddess. Athena was the goddess of the palace on the Acropolis. The names of the city and its goddess are essentially the same: Athena was Athens, and Athens was Athena. She was “The Athenian.” The ancient Athenians seem to have exhibited, during much of their history, precisely those virtues which they traditionally attributed to her. This may be because, when the Athenians imagined their goddess, they did so in their own image.

According to the myth, Zeus fell in love with a beautiful titaness, Metis (“Cunning Intelligence”). Although she repeatedly changed her shape to avoid his unwelcome attentions, as was his way, he persisted. In the end he caught up with her and raped her.

An oracle then announced that Metis would bear Zeus two children: first a daughter then, a son, and the son would be mightier than his father. Just as Zeus had once overthrown and dispossessed his own father, Chronos, so he was destined in his turn, to be overthrown by his own son. In a desperate attempt to avoid sharing his father’s fate, Zeus gave Metis a potion of drugged ambrosia, and then swallowed her whole.

Some time afterwards a terrible headache came upon him. In great pain, he sought the advice of Hermes, whose only suggestion was that Hephaestos, the smith of the gods, should open his head in order to allow the cause of his pain to escape. Zeus was so desperate that even this drastic remedy was preferable to doing nothing, and Hephaestos was duly summoned to cleave open Zeus’ head with his mighty axe. When he did so, to the astonishment of all the immortals, Athena sprang out with a great war-cry, fully-formed, wearing armour and bearing arms.

Zeus’ daughter not only became the patron of many arts at that time normally considered masculine preserves, such as ceramics, she was also credited with a distinctly unfeminine warlike nature. When the Olympian gods were faced with a titanic struggle against the giants, Athena played a major role in the war, defeating the giant Enkelados in single combat. She came to be depicted not merely as a virgin goddess, but, as an ancient Roman writer put it, as a virago: as a female capable of playing a leading role in a world dominated by men.

It came to be said that the reason for the birth of this goddess lay in a wager between Zeus and his consort, Hera, as to which of them could generate the better progeny entirely alone and unaided. By herself, Hera managed to produce only the crippled god, Hephaestos and a monster; while Zeus was able to bring forth, in Athena, one of the greatest of the Immortals.

This seems to have been a picturesque reference to a widespread belief, which was to appear later in the works of the philosopher Aristotle: that the father alone is responsible for generating his children, and for providing them with their inherited characteristics, and that their mother affords them nothing more than a temporary shelter and sustenance in her womb during her pregnancy.

This is a striking example of the strong climate of male chauvinism which dominated the early classical period in ancient Greece, which is very evident in myth and legend.

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Ancient History – Athens

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Archaeologists have found evidence that Athens has been inhabited from at least the fifth millennium BC. The site would have been attractive to early settlers for a number of reasons: its location in the midst of productive agricultural terrain; its closeness to the coast and the natural safe harbour of Piraeus; the existence of defensible high ground, the Acropolis (from akron and polis, or ‘city on the high ground’); and the proximity of a natural source of water on the north-west side of the Acropolis.

Traces of Mycenaean fortifications from the thirteenth century AC can still be seen on the Acropolis, including some foundations belonging to what must have been a palatial structure. The fortifications, known as the ‘Pelasgian’ walls (after the indigenous people believed to have built them before the arrival of the Greeks around 2000 BC), remained in use until the Persian Wars of 490-480 BC. One stretch behind the temple of Athena Nike appears to have been deliberately preserved in the Classical period.

There was a decline of Mycenaean society across the Greek world around the end of the twelfth century BC. Whether this was directly connected with the Trojan War (around 1184 BC), or the so-called Dorian Invasion thought to have taken place soon after this conflict, Athens does not appear to have succumbed to an attack. The Mycenaean royal family of Pylos is said to have taken refuge in Athens after their city’s fall to the Dorians. One of its members, Codros, became king of his adoptive city.

The collapse of Mycenaean civilization left Greece in political, economic and social decline, accompanied by loss of artistic skills, literacy and trade networks. The Mycenaean form of writing, known as Linear B, was completely forgotten, and the Greek alphabet did not emerge until the late eighth century BC as the new form of writing. At this time city states began to emerge throughout the Greek world, governed by oligarchies, or aristocratic councils. Thirteen kings ruled in Athens after Codros, until in 753 BC they were replaced by officials with a ten-year term, known as decennial archons, and in 683 BC by annually appointed eponymous archons.

Conflict between the oligarchs and the lower classes, many of whom had been reduced to slavery, led to a series of reforms that paved the way for the emergence of the world’s first true democracy. Around 620 BC the lawmaker Dracon set up wooden tablets on the Acropolis known as axones. These were inscribed with civil laws and punishments so harsh that the death penalty was prescribed even for minor crimes, giving rise to the term `draconian’ which is still used today. Dracon’s intervention did little to ensure order, prompting representatives of the nobles and lower classes in 594 BC to appoint the statesman and poet Solon as archon.

Solon terminated aristocratic rule, setting up a representational government where participation was determined not by lineage or bloodline, but wealth. He eliminated slavery based on debt, and restituted freedom and land to those who had been enslaved. Solon created a `Council of Four Hundred’ from equal numbers of representatives of the Ionian tribes to which the Athenians claimed to belong, and instituted four classes of citizenry.

Peisistratos, Solon’s younger cousin, became tyrant (tyrannos) of Athens in 545 BC. He ensured the Solonian constitution was respected and governed benevolently. After Peisistratos’ death, however, things took a negative turn and anti-Peisistratid sentiment grew. By 510 BC King Cleomenes of Sparta was asked to assist in deposing Peisistratos’ son Hippias. Hippias sought refuge in Persia at the court of King Darius.

Soon after, the aristocrat Cleisthenes promised to institute further reforms giving a more direct role to citizens in government. His reforms were passed in 508 BC, and democracy was established in Athens. A new `Council of Five Hundred’ (the Boule) replaced the ‘Council of Four Hundred’, with equal representation from the various tribes. Cleisthenes is also credited with instituting the system of ostracism, which ‘voted’ an individual considered dangerous to democracy into exile for ten years.

It is uncertain when the former Mycenaean citadel was transformed into a sacred precinct but by the late eighth century BC a modest temple (or perhaps more than one) stood on the plateau. The oldest and holiest cult image on the Acropolis was the statue of Athena Polias (Protectress of the City), a crude olive-wood figure, so old that Athenians of the Classical period believed it had either fallen from heaven or been made by Cecrops or Erichthonios. This sacred image of Athena was ritually ‘dressed’ every year in a peplos, a sacred robe, as part of the Panathenaic festival.

A temple is thought to have been built around 700 BC to the south of the later, Classical Erechtheion, to house the statue of Athena Polias. The first major building of which there are significant remains on the Acropolis was the so-called ‘Bluebeard Temple’, built in the Archaic period around 560 BC. The ‘Bluebeard Temple’ is thought by some to have stood to the south of the later Erechtheion. Ancient texts mention a mysterious building or precinct contemporary to the ‘Bluebeard Temple’, called the Hecatompedon, or ‘Hundred-footer’. Whatever this structure or place was, it gave its name to the principal room of the Classical Parthenon, perhaps because the later building occupies the same site.

With the expulsion of Hippias a new temple was built on the Acropolis, its foundations still visible to the south of the later Erechtheion. This building, the Archaios Naos, or ‘ancient temple’, is likely to have been deliberately commissioned around 506 BC as a replacement for the ‘Bluebeard Temple’.

The first Persian invasion of 490 BC saw the victory of the Athenians at the battle of Marathon against the forces of King Darius of Persia. The following year the elated Athenians leveled an area on the south side of the Acropolis and began construction of the Old Parthenon. A new gateway to the Acropolis was also commenced, known as the Old Propylaia.

This post-Marathonian building program on the Acropolis came to a violent end in 480 BC when Xerxes, son of King Darius, led a second Persian invasion of Greece. Athens had to be evacuated and Xerxes razed the city and buildings on the Acropolis. Under the command of Themistocles, the Athenians destroyed the Persian fleet in the battle of Salamis. Victory over the Persians was ensured after the battle of Plataea (479 BC), to the northwest of Athens, when a combined Greek army annihilated the Persians.

In the aftermath of the battle of Plataea, a vow was made by the victors never to rebuild the shrines that were destroyed in the war, preserving them instead as memorials for later generations.

Pericles, who was a general and statesman, came to power in Athens around 461 BC. He considered the oath of Plataea to have been fulfilled, as thirty years had elapsed from the Persian invasion, and proceeded to reconstruct the temples on the Acropolis. He gathered together the best architects and artists in the city and plans were drawn up to erect new buildings that would outshine those torn down by the Persians. The Periclean building programme enhanced the lower city with new monuments, such as the Temple of Hephaestus, also known as the Theseion, and the Painted Stoa or Poikile situated near the Agora (marketplace).

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