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A guided tour of Plaka

Plaka is the name of the historic district, in the centre of Athens. Inhabited continuously since prehistoric times it contains countless monuments, spanning more than three millenia of history. Every time I have a guided tour in Plaka, I face the same problem: how can one possibly fit the history and sights of this area in just two hours? I confess that I’ve never managed to censor myself enough and that is why my last tour of the area was, once again, more than two hours long.

When I was asked to write a brief description of the tour, for those who couldn’t make it, it took me ages. I soon realized I was writing a book, and decided to post a very brief (for Plaka) description of the most characteristic sites along our route, leaving the details for other posts, one for each sight.

The tour started from the Ancient Agora, a site whose excavation and restoration are book-perfect. The two most impressive monuments here are the Portico of Attalus and “Thisseion”.

Framed between them, is the most important part of the Agora, the heart of the ancient city, the area where the famous democratic system of Athens was born and functioned. This is where philosophers debated and here Socrates was tried and convicted. Today, little remains of those civic buildings – the area seems like a lush garden, with a few broken stones scattered here and there, remnants of public buildings which once housed, among others, the city’s archives and its “governor”.

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To the east, there is a small hill, crowned by the Theseion, the best preserved ancient temple in Greece. Formerly thought to be the Temple of Theseus, an ancient hero and king of Athens, it is now believed to have been a joint temple of gods Hephestus and Athena Ergane, both protectors of artisans and craftsmen – a fitting cult, since artisans and craftsmen would have plied their trade and sold their wares just a few hundred feet away.

To the west, the site is framed by the portico of Attalus, a restored two-storey portico, the nearest thing to a shopping mall ancient Greece had (if you pardon the comparison). The portico was divided in stores, and in its ample space it is not hard to imagine shopkeepers hawking their wares and shoppers bargaining for a better price. Today it is a museum, whose most important exhibits are the artifacts pertaining to the way the city’s political system worked.

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A mere two minutes’ walk from the Agora brings us to an entirely different sight, the Library of Hadrian. It was build in the 2nd century CE, by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had been a student in Athens. Only the exterior walls with their decoration of slender columns still stand, but on the interior of the eastern wall one can still see the marks left by bookshelves that once held thousands of scrolls. The building was more than a library; it functioned as a place of teaching and learning, where philosophers and orators studied and debated. It also housed some administrative and religious functions.

The site -as the city- had a turbulent history. Signs of it are the remains of a church of the Virgin Mary built within its walls and a fresco of a smaller one, still visible on the western wall.

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Walking southwards, one finds the the Roman Agora, or Forum, parts of which have not been excavated, being under the area’s 19th century houses. Already by the 1st century BCE, Athenians were starting to feel the need to better organize the city’s commercial activities. They had already begun to clear an area to that end, a work which was completed around the year 9 CE, with the help of the Roman Emperor Octavian. The latter wanted to remove from the Agora the noise and clamor of commerce in order to turn the area into a kind of religious and cultural park, through which to project his relation to Athens, one of the most prestigious cultural centers of the time. Despite successive destructions which left little of  the forum standing, the area functioned as the city’s market for the next 19 centuries. Its gate, the “Gate of Athena”, was known as “market gate” until quite recently.

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The most striking sight of the Roman Agora, the “Tower of the Winds”, lies to the east of the site. Officially called Horologion (clock), it contained a water clock to measure time with the necessary accuracy for the city’s various functions. Equipped with a sundial on each of its eight sides, and high enough to be seen above the roofs of most houses, it probably functioned as an early clock-tower. Striking figures of winged men decorate its sides. They are representations of the winds, which in turn represent the seasons of the year when they are most prevalent. Youthful or mature, they all carry symbols of their properties, like Zephyr here, the wind of spring, with a shirt full of flowers.

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Across the Tower lies a more recent (by 16 centuries) and entirely different monument, the gate of the Madrasah (or Medrese), the Islamic school of Athens during its occupation by the Ottoman Turks. When the school was moved elsewhere, the building was turned into an Ottoman prison and continued to function as one even after Greece had gained its independence. Its notoriety earned it the name “New Bastille”. It was disused in the late 1800s and later partly torn down in the expectation of finding ancient monuments below – an expectation which proved false.

East of the Roman Agora was a stadium, which was abandoned during the early Christian times. Houses were built along both its sides, which explains why Kyrrestou St. is one of the few straight streets in labyrinthine Plaka.

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Further to the east is a recently restored 17th century house, the Benizelos estate. Noticeably different from the 19th century houses that surround it, it lacks the neoclassical decorations of the latter. Instead, it has several similarities to byzantine churches and other houses of the same era, still to be seen in Northern Greece. It features arched windows, arches that hold up a long balcony running along the entire length of its front side and a smaller, closed balcony at the back.

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The last stop of our tour was at the Lysicrates monument. Despite being in public space and meant to be seen by the public, this was a purely private monument. It was erected by Lysicrates, an obviously rich citizen of ancient Athens, and is essentially a pedestal on top of which he displayed a tripod won at the city’s prestigious drama contest. Essentially, this is a base for a 25-century-old Oscar Award, which of course has long since disappeared. It is interesting to note that Lysicrates sponsored the winning play not by choice but because he had to. The city required its wealthiest citizens to sponsor such events as a form of taxation, but human nature led to fierce competition among the sponsors for the production of the best play, with the most expensive sets and celebrated actors. Then winners would compete for who would build the tallest or more showy pedestal to exhibit their award, leading to a more extravagant one each year.

I have only described a handful of monuments of Plaka, leaving countless others unmentioned. One would need several tours instead of one to cover them all. My brief descriptions have barely scratched the surface of the history of these monuments. For this reason I will follow up with a more detailed post on each sight I examined and more, about the ones that were not mentioned at all.

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