I’m in ur background, bombing ur photoz.
There’s a trope in film and television of using familiar landmarks to create a sense of place. If a scene is meant to be in Paris, the odds are that the Eiffel Tower will be lurking in the background. If it’s London, Big Ben and Tower Bridge serve the same purpose. If it’s Dublin, well, a pub will probably do fine.
For Athens, the Acropolis and the Parthenon are the more than obvious choices as identifying landmarks. The difference being that when you’re in Athens, the Parthenon and Acropolis actually are in the background most of the time. It’d be a surprise if they weren’t, give that they’re built on a whacking great mountain in the middle of the city.
For all that modern Athens now sprawls all across the Attic plain, its ancient past remains evident at its heart. The Acropolis stands out of course: there are Mycenean stones at its base, as in so many other places that I’ve visited, but habitation here goes back at least to the Neolithic. But it’s hard to go anywhere in the centre of the city and not come across reminders of the past. Plenty of the museum pieces that I’ve seen over the past two days have had notes attached saying that they were found in some construction project or other.
It must make urban planning a nightmare here, perhaps more so than anywhere else on Earth. All around the city you can see building sites that have turned into archaeological digs, though how much of that is due to the economic downturn I couldn’t say. Even the Acropolis Museum has a glass ground floor, the better to show the craftsmen’s district uncovered during its construction.
Tear your eyes away from the Pantheon and take a walk around Athens though and you’ll be well rewarded. In the shadow of the Acropolis alone, you have the Areopagus hill, where high crimes were judged. You have the Pnyx, where Athens’ ruling body of the people met. There’s the largely intact temple to Hephaestus and the mostly ruined but massive Temple of Olympian Zeus. In the ancient agora, you can see the prison where Socrates took his fatal draught of hemlock, and down the hill you can see the uncovered Kerameikos district, where he strove to open minds among Athens’ ordinary citizens, questioning their every assumption.
Once again, it’s all about being close to history. Not just the history of a place like the Acropolis, a sacred precinct for the gods, but the history of the Kerameikos, where the common folk of Athens went about their daily business. Where they lived and died and were buried, for the Kerameikos was a cemetery too. Where you can see the roads that led out through Athens’ walls and the homes where meals were prepared and eaten. In a place like that, where centuries of dirt have been scoured away, you can walk in their footsteps. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to walking beside them.