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Ancient Athens

The site of Athens has been inhabited since before 3000 BC. The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1200 BC, when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. During this period a wall was built along the edge of the rock. The 6th century BC was a period of great growth. The old, primitive shrines began to be replaced with large stone temples, thus changing the Acropolis from a citadel to a sanctuary.

In 480 BC the city was captured and destroyed by the Persians. The Acropolis buildings were burned and the houses in the lower town mostly destroyed. When the Athenians returned the next year they immediately began to rebuild. Over the next 30 years they built only fortifications and some secular buildings. The Acropolis and its destroyed temples were left as a reminder of Persian atrocities until a peace with Persia was reached in 449 BC.

Over the next 40 years the city developed its classical form. The Agora, the center of civic life, was located near the Areopagus, where the high court sat, and the Pnyx, where the Athenian assembly met. The Agora was both marketplace and public meeting place. It contained two stoas, or long colonnaded halls. The Agora also contained the Theseum, one of the best preserved temples in Athens. This building is older than the similar but larger Parthenon, which dominates the Acropolis.

The Acropolis was rebuilt in gleaming white marble beginning in 449 BC. Construction on the Parthenon began in 447 BC and was completed nine years later. The large, richly decorated temple was dedicated to Athena and contained a huge statue of the goddess. The Erechtheum, with its caryatids--or marble female figures--supporting the roof, and the Temple of Athena Nike were also built on the Acropolis during the same period. This collection of temples was approached through the Propylaea, a large entrance building. The Theater of Dionysus, built in the 5th century BC at the southern base of the Acropolis, was the city's drama center. The city was connected with the port of Piraeus by the parallel Long Walls, which formed a corridor 550 feet (170 meters) wide.

After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC its place as the premier city-state in Greece was also lost, and the city went into a decline that lasted until the period of Roman control three centuries later. Although the Romans sacked Athens and pulled down the Long Walls in 88 BC, they later built many magnificent buildings. The emperor Hadrian, in particular, completed a huge Temple of Olympian Zeus, built a library and a gymnasium, erected a large arch, and constructed an aqueduct that still serves the city. Herodes Atticus built the Odeum, a theater that has been restored and is still in use. The Romans had their own Agora, which contained the Tower of the Winds, one of the earliest weather observatories.

At the end of the Roman period, the city began to decay. Several temples were turned into Christian churches during the Byzantine period and after the city fell to the Crusaders in 1204. When the Turks occupied Athens in 1456 and began an almost 400-year rule they turned the Parthenon into a mosque and occupied other classical buildings.

In the 17th century the Propylaea and the Parthenon were severely damaged when explosive powder stored in them exploded. Further damage was done during fighting between the Turks and the Venetians. The latter tried to remove some of the Parthenon sculptures and broke them, while the Turks destroyed several ancient monuments to build defensive walls. In 1801 the British ambassador to Turkey, Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, was given permission by the Turks to remove many remaining sculptures. Known as the Elgin Marbles, they are now in the British Museum in London. Fighting during an uprising in 1821 did further damage.


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