We'd seen temples on hills, temples on islands, temples in the middle of town and now soldiered on to the ultimate temple to top them all, that of the Parthenon dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of the capital city.
Who breathed this very air as we made our way like so many millennia of pilgrims would have done to the center of Athens, both to marvel at the majestic architecture or make our devotions to the resident spirits? How many great names ending in "-es," "-as" or "-us" walked before us on identical or similar roads and trails to this magnetic place in history and society? Honking horns and traffic lights prevented each step from seeming a step back in time but the pull of the ruins I felt could be no less irresistible today than they would have been 2500 years ago.
As if programmed, we continued up the hill past the dilapidated shell of the Theater of Dionysus at the northeast base of the Acropolis.
Beyond the crumbled seating that once held nearly 17,000 only the proscenium stage remains largely intact where once the plays of Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus had been performed. The unique features of the theater today are largely to contrast the building style with that of the Herod Atticus Theater just to the south of it and near the main entryway to the Acropolis itself. Where the older theater to Dionysus was built in to the very hill itself as was the custom of early Greek design, the much smaller Herod Atticus is a complete construction of its own by the side of the hill. It is still used today, most famously as the venue for Yanni's "Live at the Acropolis" performances.
The climb up the ceremonial steps through the "Propylaea" or main gate to the top of the Acropolis ranks as one of the most exhilarating climbs in the world. Even in ruins it is impossible to not be intimidated by the combination of climb and towering architecture before gaining admittance to the hilltop fortress and sanctuary. The fact that we were surrounded by hordes of other tourists actually helped pace the climb so we wouldn't be out of breath when we finally paid our entry fee and got to the plateau above. White marble architecture combined with gorgeous blue skies above and lifted our hearts and excitement to a near fever pitch.
There it was. Across a flat expanse strewn with ruins of stone and marble and a slight annoyance of scaffolding stood the Parthenon itself. The temple of dreams and goal of a lifetime. The "Spielberg Affect" was in full force as we "ahhhh'd" one and all, slack jawed with amazement, the corners of our mouths curled in smiles born of success, wonderment and out-of-body disbelief. We were finally here.
We stopped long enough to convince ourselves that other important structures lay all around us, such as the Erechtheum, world famous for the Porch of the Caryatids, that collection of six columns carved in the shape of tunic draped maidens, or the sanctuaries of Zeus and Pandion at the north end of the compound. Beautiful they were, bedazzling in their own way, beguiling, even in contemplating their age and purpose yet like most of the people around us we simply weren't convincing in genuinely exploring these other wonders as we bee-lined to the Parthenon. Nothing else mattered.
Few could tell the style of columns (Doric) and fewer still cared. The Parthenon simply is. It is cliched and pointless to describe its impact or beauty. It just is. Replacing an older temple to Athena in the 5th century BC we learned of the stylistic tricks that create the balanced style of the building, including an extra, odd-numbered column down the length for additional aesthetics and columns that seem to lean inwards as they taper for grace. Cap all of that off with the marble carvings along the different facings of the building depicting epic battles between Athenians and gods, Athenians and Amazons and Athenians and other empires and this slab of marble is simply the wedding cake to end them all.
Like the Olympian Gods whose cult slowly faded we did not want to leave either. It was a church for a while, then a mosque after that during the occupation by the Ottoman Turks. It then became an ammunition depot that was targeted during an attack by Venetians in the 17th century that blew a hole in the center of it which can be seen today where a section of outer columns is missing.
As at Delphi only two days before, we stared at the partially restored ruins and wondered what the finished building must have been like back in the day. It is enough to wish in some ways that it is never restored less the imagination suffer in the loss of wonder.