Our International Classics Ambassador, Jonah Crouch, shares with us his recent visits to some of the ancient world’s most famous sites, beginning in Athens and ending at Knossos.
“One holiday, two classical empires – infused with a whole bunch of ancient, spiritual and archaeological sites. This was my summer in Greece. I have wanted to visit Greece ever since my obsession with the Greek gods began when I first opened the pages of the Percy Jackson book series. This obsession led to me entering the world of the classics – a world where I discovered how civilisations of people lived, loved and died thousands of years ago.
We arrived in Athens in the afternoon that day – too late to explore the city but we did eagerly sample the restaurants and feasted on gyros platters and Greek salads! Day two went like this: cram as many archaeological sites in as possible so that we could spend as much time as we liked at the Acropolis the following day. So that’s what we did!
After a quick stroll up to the tourist information, we made our way up to Areopagus Hill (a huge rock by the Acropolis where you can look down at the vast city of Athens). Athens lay before us expanding in a sea of white and terracotta buildings. Several photos and selfies later, we headed towards the Roman Forum and the Tower of the Four Winds. Unlike the other sites, this one was made by the Romans (hence the name Roman Forum) who later turned it into the official marketplace of Athens when they conquered and took over Greece. The site was barren and did not seem as well looked after as the other sites. I wonder if this is due to the Ancient Greeks not deeming this site as important because the Romans were responsible for the construction of it – and the removal of the official market place from the Ancient Agora of Athens.
Next up was Hadrian´s Library, named after the famous Roman emperor. Similar to the Roman Forum in size, it was spacious and empty. Doric pillars stood their ground showcasing what was once a place of study and religion.
The ancient Agora of Athens (which was the official marketplace of Athens before the Romans took charge) was our next stop. The Agora is home to the most well-kept temple in Athens (namely, the temple of Hephaestus); I loved it there. It was so peaceful and easy to picture the people of the ancient world bustling around the market, meeting up with friends, and walking up to the Acropolis to pray. Since it was not too busy (like the Acropolis) we weren’t cramped and getting loads of people photo bombing in our numerous pictures. There was some scaffolding on the temple of Hephaestus but you couldn’t really see it. It was remarkable to realise that this was where St. Paul addressed the Athenians about Christianity. A small museum informed us all about the different ages of civilizations who had settled in the area (from the Bronze Age to the Romans). There was so much to see and explore. The grounds, the views, the atmosphere. Overall the Agora would have been my favourite place – if it wasn’t for the sheer size and magnificence of the Acropolis – but we’ll get to that…
Fuelling up on food, we hiked on over to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. To be honest, this site was a bit empty: all we could see were a few lone pillars. But what pillars they were! The height of the pillars is jaw dropping and to think that those were just the ruins and not the full temple is mind blowing! They looked majestic in its simplicity. Fun fact: the temple was started in 510BC but wasn’t actually finished until 600 years later! This was because of all the deaths which occurred whilst the temple was being built. So when Hadrian came along, he helped the Greeks finish their temple, and in honour of him they built a huge arch called Hadrian’s Arch – wasn’t that nice of them? The arch stood as the gateway to the Temple of Zeus and looked beautiful against the backdrop of the sunset hues. It was a shame there was a road on the other side of the arch but it was still impressive. After this we walked up to where we were staying and prepared for the adventure ahead…
Very bright and early, Dad ambled into our room waking everyone up, shouting “Acropolis, baby!” We all groaned but eventually rolled out of bed, excited to see this symbol which epitomises Athens and Greek ancient civilisation. The sun was already shining and the streets were beginning to fill up with people. The Acropolis was only a 5- minute walk away from our apartment so we had arrived there when the lines were still short. Filled with anticipation, Zoe (my sister) and I raced ahead wanting to beat everyone else to the top.
The views from the top of the hill were astonishing – you could see the rest of the Acropolis at your feet with the city of Athens reaching out on either side. And don’t get me started on the Parthenon! The height, the size, the beauty – it was amazing! I took time to wander around on my own to experience it all. I have been wanting to see this site for such a long time, I was so pleased that it surpassed all my expectations. The amount of photos we took there were enough to make an entire photo album with! Luckily for us, we had arrived there before all the other tourists came so I would definitely recommend getting up early to avoid the crowds. I just can’t stress how amazing the experience in the Acropolis was. I could see the amount of respect and pride the Greeks had put into their gods, especially Athena. But we hadn’t seen everything yet.
At the Theatre of Dionysus, we sat and relaxed on the ancient stone seats, chatting and reflecting on what we had seen. It would have been really cool if we could have seen a play there but I don’t think they do them there anymore. It did make me wonder what an ancient Greek play would have been like, and to watch one from the Dionysus Theatre would’ve been a treat for anyone in any time period. We did look at seeing one at the Odeon but there weren’t any good plays for us children. From the view we could see, if you do visit I think it is totally worth going to see a play at the Odeon.
The next day we caught the Metro to the National Archeological Museum. A short walk later our eyes were greeted by the museum. Climbing up the steps, the ground underneath us shook! We decided against going into the museum – a wise decision as we later discovered that it was indeed an earthquake, 5.4 on the Richter Scale! The gods had spoken! So instead of going to the museum that day we went the next day. The museum was packed with ancient artefacts from the Minoans all the way to the Romans. A few highlights: the colossal vases in the collection upstairs were absolutely overwhelming, in their height and volume! Think about all the wine and grains that must have been stored in them. All the busts of different emperors in a row and the huge statue of either Zeus or Poseidon – I think the statue is of Zeus as it looks like he’s throwing a lightning bolt but it could be Poseidon throwing his trident – we still don’t know for sure. I think it makes more sense being Zeus throwing his lightning bolt though. We spent all morning in there and still didn’t see everything. I am sure dad will make us go again someday!
Yet another early wake up approached us as we prepared for our flight to Crete. We didn’t do a whole lot in Crete because most of the time we were relaxing on exquisite beaches and swimming in the turquoise and tranquil waters, but we did visit Knossos and a few other historical sites. Knossos was huge and beautiful, but busy. You had to picture quite a bit of the site in your head but other parts remained standing strong. My favourite part from Knossos had to have been the dolphin fresco that was a replica located in the East Wing of the Palace. It was cool to see something that had been seen by many from the classical world before us. I found out how Arthur Evans, a British archaelogist who discovered Knossos in 1878, had continued excavating it for 35 years. He used the artefacts he discovered and placed them where he thought they would have belonged, naming parts of the palace in the same way. Some people (including my mum) think he did this without thought or regard for historical accuracy of the Minoan culture. What was truly interesting was finding out the connection between Knossos and the Theseus and minotaur myth – where the labyrinth where the minotaur is trapped is actually based on the physical layout of the Knossos Palace itself. It was truly an Á-ha´ lightbulb moment when we made that connection.
Heading to a Roman town called Goyta, we saw a public Roman baths and a temple to Apollo where some modern day archaeologists were excavating. Both sites were in disarray and had fencing around each of them. It was the Roman capital of Crete so we got a taste of two different empires in one day! It was a sensible place to stop off and finish our day exploring the classical side of Crete.
To be honest, I was hoping Knossos would be a bit grander – similar to the Parthenon – but it was still impressive. For some reason, I did not feel the same sense of connection at Knossos as I did at the Acropolis. Perhaps I was expecting more, or I had been spoilt by having been exposed to so many other ancient sites.
The entire holiday was amazing and I would highly recommend visiting Greece (and some of the islands too because the beaches are incredible!). My long awaited visit to Greece has been realised. Next stop … Rome and Sicily!