| Athens (Athina)
named after Athena-the goddess of wisdom, who, according to legend,
won the city after defeating Poseidon in a duel. The goddess’
triumph was celebrated by the construction of a temple on the Acropolis,
the site of the city’s earliest settlement in Attica.
As a city state, the coastal capital of Athens reached
its glory days in the fifth century BC. The office of
the statesman, Pericles, between 461BC and his death in 429BC,
saw an extraordinary spate of construction resulting in many of
the great classical buildings (the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Hephaisteion
and the temple at Sounion) now regarded as icons of ancient Greece.
Physical evidence of the city’s success was matched by
accomplishments in the intellectual arts. Democracy was
born, drama prospered and Socrates conceived the foundations of
Western philosophy. Amazingly, although the cultural
legacy of this period has influenced Western civilisation ever
since, the classical age in Athens only lasted for five decades.
Under the Macedonians and Romans, the city retained a
privileged political and cultural position but became
a prestigious backwater of the Empire rather than a major player.
The birth of Christianity heralded a long period of occupation
and decline, concluding in 1456 and four centuries of Turkish
domination, which has left a permanent cultural mark on the city.
By the end of the 18th century, Athens was suffering the indignity
of having the artistic achievements of its classical past removed
by prowling collectors.
Modern Athens was born in 1834, when the city
was reinstated as the capital of a newly independent Greece. Greek
refugees flooded the city at the end of the Greek–Turkish
war, increasing the population. After World War II, American
capital funded a massive expansion and industrialisation programme.
The speedy growth of the post-war years and the high temperatures
of its Mediterranean climate have created a city that can often
be polluted and could be described as an urban sprawl. Too
much traffic creates a gridlock on the streets and noxious fumes
(néfos) in the air, although great efforts are
being made to reduce this. Visitors with visions of shiny marble
and philosophers in white robes are understandably troubled that
the architectural achievements of Athens’ classical past
are surrounded by the unforgiving concrete of indiscriminate 20th-century
urbanisation. Over 3 million visitors come to the city each year
but the majority sees the sights as quickly as possible (as if
fulfilling some cultural duty) before heading off for the easy
hedonism of the Greek islands.
However, Athens repays a closer acquaintance. In addition to
the celebrated classical sites, the city boasts Byzantine,
medieval and 19th-century monuments, as well as one of the finest
museums in the world and areas of surprising natural beauty.
In spite of the traffic, an appealing village-like quality becomes
evident in the cafés, taverns, markets and the maze of
streets around the Pláka. Furthermore, Athens has
the most excellent restaurants and the most varied nightlife in
the country and remains a major European centre of culture,
celebrated each year at the Athens Festival. The metropolitan
area, including the port at Piraeus, is beyond
doubt the industrial and economic powerhouse of the country,
while the return of the Olympic Games in 2004 is prompting a flurry
of new development. Major projects include the new Eleftherios
Venizelos International Airport, the building of new sports venues,
the extension of the Athens metro system, the upgrading of hotel
accommodation and the revitalisation of the Piraeus port area.
The world-famous National Archaeological Museum,
which was closed for renovation through 2003, is due to reopen
for the Olympics, although the long-awaited New Acropolis
Museum has fallen way behind schedule. In addition, ancient
sites within the city centre are being linked by a traffic-free
‘archaeological promenade’ intended to improve the
urban environment for locals and visitors alike.