After our most memorable lunch in the village, we followed the coastal rode back north to Athens, to a special place at the heart of the city. Passing through the crowded streets and tight-packed buildings, we emerged at an opening in the middle of the city, where all else gave way and the dazzling blue skies opened up. The sun’s light gleamed down to reveal the raised, subliminal edifice of the Acropolis! It’s strange to think of the Acropolis, and the Parthenon it contains, as a physical place on earth, and yet here it was. Perched high on a rocky outcrop in the thick of the city, we had to ascend in order to reach its heavenly plane. The trek up had us follow a paved pathway alongside some light vegetation, passing by patches of crowds and the occasional magpie rummaging through the foliage on our way. It felt weirdly casual, like walking through any hilly park, and yet the excitement boiled within me as I knew the significance of this expedition would slowly reveal itself. We seemed at the edge of the world. The trees and the outthrusting of rocks and boulders around us shrouded the views from above, seemingly taunting us. It felt like we were still in the world of the mortals trying to climb to heaven, where pain and toil and death simply did not exist. Any moment now, we would cross over to this fountain of youth, this holy grail. We would break the threshold to that other place, the place of our dreams and imaginations, where all is still and eternal and good.
About halfway up and to our right, we noticed something extraordinary. It was the first hint of ancient stone and structure that we experienced on our upward journey. It was the spectacle of an ancient theater. By the time it entered our visual field, we were above it looking down onto it. The theatrical edifice was cradled by rising stone walls, aged and crumbled. The weight of time had created enchanting imperfections of decay, allowing space for the views of the city and the distant mountains. The descending seats of bright stone narrowed towards the bottom, funneling our gaze towards the stage, to that sacred place of drama and tragedy. It was a place where all the world collapsed into a singular space of play, of love, of betrayal, of vengeance, of redemption, of glory, and of worship.
For the ancient Greeks, theater was transcendent. It was inseparable from religion, from the gods, from prayer, from ritual, and from reverence. As I peered down at the stage, I couldn’t help but imagine all of the passion, emotion, and worship that emanated from that space over its history. I thought about the conquests, political turmoil, and destruction that Athens had faced by countless adversaries and the civil unrest throughout the centuries. And yet this theater was mostly intact and recognizable, here in plain sight for me to look upon 2,000 years later. It made me ponder that above all, above conquest and war, above power and ego and might and sword, above the cries for justice and the pangs of injustice, above the waves of political and social upheavals and the churnings of violence that bleed throughout time, above all of the strife of humanity over millennia, there still sits a stage, as it was. There still lies a simple space, a beating heart pouring out to us all, reminding us of what binds us.
This gave me a temporary serene feeling, but then I had another thought which broadened my perspective. Even the resiliency of the stage is not forever. It too will crumble in time, as Athens will. As humankind will, as the earth and the stars will. As time itself will. But for this time, as I stood looking out over this theater, I felt indescribably grateful for being there, for being anywhere at all, getting to experience anything at all, while I can. What a privilege it is to be a character in this grand drama. What a privilege it is to bear witness to this ancient stage, this metaphorical summation of the entirety of human experience. What a privilege to do our little dance for the cosmos, for a time. As I took a deep breath and proceeded upwards, I realized that the threshold I had been anticipating had been crossed. I was now in the realm of the immortals.
As we neared the apex of this grand rock, sprouting out from the tops of the last trees like some celestial growth was a brilliant stone wall. Housed atop the wall was what seemed a small temple, its Doric columns facing outward towards the city. The stone temple seemed anything but cold and stagnant like one would expect. It seemed alive, steadfast, and ever vigilant, commanding the presence of a holy watcher of the site, of a guardian, a keeper of secrets, and a protector over this land from all who would seek to desecrate it.
We passed this risen temple and ascended the last of the stone steps, crossing the actual threshold to the top of the mound. A colossal series of columns encapsulated us on both sides as we walked forward. We were in the skeletal remains of another temple. Some columns were very well preserved and in nice sturdy rows, attached by roof panels at different stages of wear. Other columns were freestanding and headless, having no capital tops or roofs above them, like displaced puzzle pieces in this labyrinth of stone. Some columns and roof pieces were still ripe with texture and intricate patterns. Others were worn down and weathered, having their luster and character dulled and rounded, almost seeming to return to simple stone once again. It made me think about the nature of art and human creation, how we turn simple stone into artifices that delight and allure and entrance us. We chisel away at stone, breaking it down to form patterns and designs that enrapture us, creating spaces that transcend the very earth we walk upon. It’s creation from destruction. We are Yahweh. We are Shiva. We harbor this unfathomable, unspeakable power. We are the mystics and sorcerers, transforming matter into something hallowed, something beyond our realm of understanding.
It strangely reminded me of wandering through an endless desert and stopping to create a sand sculpture. The sweat from your brow helps give the sand cohesion and form and you begin to craft. You sit and you boast at your figure of sand and the joy and inspiration it brings you, only to have the wind blow it into the nothingness void, merging it with the rolling waves of sand dunes again. It was only made of sand, and yet there was something else there beyond the sand it contained, something that charmed and captivated you in its short life. Something that you created. That is our divine spark. That is the power we contain. And that was the feeling I felt in this place.
But there was also an uncanny feeling that came over me as I walked through these remains. It was like experiencing a temple in different stages of decay, but all at once. It was like I was in the middle of some temporal anomaly and different areas of the temple were being imported in from different time periods, all collecting in one space. It was like a life flashing before my eyes, seeing each phase of life come and go from infancy to old age. This effect further grounded me in the immediacy of the present. Poised and vibrant and feeling fully enchanted in the moment, we walked on past the walls of the temple and onto the actual grounds of the Acropolis. We had arrived!
The open air and warm sunlight at the top embraced us with open arms, like finally sinking into a warm bed after a long pilgrimage. The majesty of the soaring blue skies created a perfect ceiling mural for our imaginations to set sail in this place. The grounds of the Acropolis were laden with patches of grass, in between which were a mixture of natural, craggy stone from the rock outcrop itself and chiseled, shaped stone pieces making up the remnants of the ancient architecture that once stood. This amalgamed composition of rugged, natural stone and edged, crafted stone carpeted the space with an otherworldly surrealism, like a cubist painting, blurring the lines between our world and the ineffable. Emerging from this surreal bedrock were the ancient remnants of a series of temples, the most obvious and striking of which being the Parthenon.
Built 2,500 years ago after the Greek victory over the Persians, this structure had served as a temple honoring the goddess Athena. It was also a treasury, a church in the 6th century after the Christians took over the region, a mosque when the Ottoman’s conquered the land several centuries later, and now a historical site of refuge that inspires the masses who wander to its sacred site. A Venetian bomb in the 1600s destroyed a large portion of the temple, the effects of which we can still see today. While lacking a roof and a good portion of the structure’s friezes, this temple still towers over and dominates the space with the command, strategy, and wisdom of Athena herself.
How does one even contain themselves next to this majesty, next to this symbolic epicenter of wonder, mythology, belief, inspiration, and empowerment? It lives in our imaginations for so long, and within our minds, unfurls and blossoms into that which cannot be understood nor contained, but which has an unspeakable magic to it nonetheless. Then to see it in front of you, and to give it tangible form and bring it into our world of three dimensions and linear time seems like trying to put the universe itself in a glass bottle for study and deliberation. It is trying to make sense and give form to that which is formless. The Parthenon is both a bemusing and baffling site to behold. You don’t just look at it, you breathe it in. You are filled with its essence, melding with its weathered columns and fragmented stone. It lives inside of you, just like the stories of your childhood. It is fantasy manifest, gleaming and dancing to a timeless rhythm. The story of the Parthenon is the story of us. It shows how we build and create, how we play and imagine, how we believe and pass on story and lineage to unify a people, how we strive upwards to the sky and the stars, how we grasp for immortality in vain, and how despite the knowledge of our mortality, we choose to breathe beauty and song into this world anyway.
There is no way to truly encapsulate the experience of this space through words. It is unutterable and words only serve to shackle it to our limited realm of understanding, binding it to a linguistic cage. But writing for me is a more accessible form of expression than most, so I will try to shackle and capture this experience in my own way, and hopefully what will leak from in between these words into something pure and true. In that light, I will add one more thing. The panoramic view of Athens from atop the Acropolis is itself a whole other experience I could delve into at length but will make it brief. Imagine an ocean of endless, densely-packed white buildings with terracotta roofs expanding out as far as you can see, only being halted by the distant mountains. And piercing up from this white ocean were similar rocky outcrops to the one you are standing atop, each painted with the magnificent layered greenery of grasses, trees, and shrubs. And sitting high atop these rocky behemoths were white buildings, perhaps temples or churches. You can barely make out their columns and steeples, but the white glow of them in the midday sun give off the essence of a holy guiding light, forever shining and guiding the people below. This spectacle of holiness and separation serves to mirror the holy ground you are currently standing on, and it fills you with a joy and a magic that will never be forgotten.
Leave a Reply