The Acropolis of Athens is easily one of, if not the most, recognisable and famous archaeological sites on the planet and has an importance to western civilization like no other site or monument in the world. Acropolis means in Greek "edge of city" and there are many ancient Acropolis' throughout the Mediterranean and Greece such as Rhodes and Sicily but most people automatically think of the Athens Acropolis when they hear the word Acropolis and so it is basically now know as simply the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is a flat rock 150 metres (490ft) high and like all Acropolis, it was built on for defence, usually the highest land around and not too close to the sea and Pirates. The Acropolis rock has been inhabited for roughly 9,000 years with all kinds of different buildings and uses, from the grand palaces of Mycenaean Athens in 1500 BC right through to being used as a harem and armoury by the Turks in the 17th century.
The buildings that you now see on the Acropolis are all mainly from the Periclean building plan during the golden age of Athens between 460 and 430 BC. All buildings from the time after this were dismantled and destroyed during the 19th century by archaeologists who peeled back the layers of time to show this particular era and this has been an argument among archaeologists since as many other equally important archaeological buildings from different periods are now all gone, such as a Frankish Tower and a Byzantine church.
The buildings that still stand on the Acropolis are nearly 2500 years old and have survived earthquakes, lightning, sieges, war, explosions and more recently smog and pollution. These amazing monuments such as the Parthenon, Erechtheum, Propylaea and Temple of Nike have influenced architects and designers throughout the ages from the temples of ancient Rome to the civic and public buildings of the United States and Europe. The Parthenon is so famous and recognisable that many people believe that the Parthenon is actually the Acropolis.
As well as the famous buildings on the top of the Acropolis there are also famous and very impressive sites and monument around the Acropolis on her slopes like the Odeon of Herrodes Atticus, theatre of Dionysus and the Areopagus rock famous for St Pauls speech on this rocky hill.
According to myth the first King of Athens was Cecrops who was half man and half serpent, not only was he kind but he brought civilization to Greece teaching people every kind of craft to burial rituals. Legend has it that Cecerops organised a competition on the Acropolis between Posiedon God of the sea and Athena Goddess of wisdom, to see who would become the patron God of the city. The competition was to see which God gave the best present to the city, Posiedon struck his trident into the ground and out sprung a well, unfortunately it was salt water. Athena then touched the ground and an olive tree sprouted up out of the ground. The people of Athens decided that the olive tree was much more useful to them than a salt water spring and so chose Athena as the patron God, and that is why the city is still called Athena (Athens).
The temples of the Erechtheum are on the spot of this battle between Athena and Posiedon, and inside is even a hole in the floor where the olive tree sprouted, also there are three marks on the ground where it is said to be where Posiedon's trident struck the earth.
Although there were people living on what is now the Acropolis well back into the Neolithic times (6,000 BC), it isn't until the Mycenaean period (Bronze age) that you find proof of actual buildings, no Megaron (Mycenaean palace) has been discovered but this has most likely to have been built over by one of the many newer buildings from antiquity. There is proof of a 760 metre long Cyclopean wall and bastions around the Acropolis, very similar to other Mycenaean settlements throughout Greece. Very little of this wall remains today but the wall was believed to be about 10 metres high and in some places 6 metres thick.
The Acropolis of Athens was also mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as "the strong built house of Erechtheus" , Erechtheus was a legendry King of Athens and like most places named by Homer were actual bronze age places.
During the dark ages when most of Mycenaean Greece was destroyed and taken over during the so called Dorian invasion, Athens and its defences on the Acropolis seemed to hold out against the invaders and continually inhabited the area, even being the centre of mass migration to the coast and islands off modern day Turkey.
The period from the dark ages until the Persian wars there were probably many temples and buildings built on the Acropolis some were wooden built others were most likely built over by the temples that still stand such as the Parthenon. Three temples are known of through relics and other historical finds, but where they stood is still unclear.
The two oldest are the bluebeard temple and the Archaios temple, the bluebeard temple was named after the sculpture found of half bodied man-serpent with a blue beard, the Archaios temple was from the 6th century BC and dedicated to Athena Polias. The third temple known as Ur-Parthenon (older Parthenon) was built after the battle of Marathon in 490 BC but was never completed and was completely destroyed when the Persians sacked Athens and the Acropolis in 480 BC. Every building on the Acropolis was destroyed by the Persians, what was left was dismantled and used as the foundations for the Periclean building project later that century (which is why the Acropolis is a flat plateau today.
After the Persian wars most of the buildings and monuments on the Acropolis were re-built by Pericles during the Golden age of Athens, basically the buildings we see today are from this period (460 – 430 BC) – Parthenon, Temple of Nike, Erechtheum and the Propylaia, there were many more but unfortutately they no longer stand.
Pericles gave the task of building these Temples to three people; Phidias, a famous and brilliant sculptor, and Ictinus and Callicrates whom were the two most famous architects of the day. Although the building project was halted by the Peloponnesian war it was finally completed and held some of the finest architecture in the ancient world, no more so than the Parthenon which held a huge statue of Athena.
Although Athens had lost much of its power and occupied by foreign states and kingdoms, Macedonia and later the Romans, it still had much prestige and fame, with many foreign kings and politicians wanting their name to be associated with the city and so adding their own monuments and stoa's to the cities most famous place , the Acropolis.
By now the monuments on the Acropolis like the Parthenon, Erechtheum, Temple of Nike, Propylaia and the theatre of Dionysus were all hundreds of years old and major repairs and improvements were carried out on the ancient buildings, especially by the Romans. The theatre of Dionysus was repaired and even increased the seating capacity, Herodes Atticus built the now famous theatre of Herodes Atticus (still in use today) on the south slope of the Acropolis.
During the Hellenistic period many buildings were built on and around the Acropolis especially by the Attalid kings of Pergamon, monuments were built on the Acropolis by these kings (but no longer exist) The most famous monument from this period, and still stands is the Stoa of Eumenes on the South slope of the Acropolis next to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
During the Byzantine period Athens lost its importance and just became a minor town of mainland Greece, but the famous monuments on the Acropolis still survived even though the temples were built for long forgotten gods and converted to Christian churches. The Parthenon was actually converted into a church dedicated to the virgin Mary. During the Frankish occupation of the Acropolis and Athens the Acropolis site was used as a fortress and the cities administrative centre, they even built a large tower for defence, Frankoprygos (tower of the Franks) which was knocked down in the 19th century. The Parthenon was used as the Cathedral of Athens and the Propylaia as a Palace.
Unfortunately it was during this period that most of the destruction and looting of the Acropolis happened through both war and a new interest in ancient Greece by western Europeans. Like other occupying forces the Turks used the Acropolis as its headquarters, the Parthenon as a gun powder magazine, the Erectheum as a Harem and the Propylaia as an armoury. During the Venetian siege of the Acropolis in 1687 the Parthenon (being used as gun powder magazine) was hit by cannon fire and exploded destroying the roof and much of the south facing columns.
The propylaia also had a similar fate as it was being used as an armoury it was struck by lightning and exploded destroying much of it. Much of the famous temples and monuments were stripped of their sculptures and art work by such people as Lord Elgin and taken back to Western Europe where many still sit in museums, which is still an ongoing political problem with the Greek authorities still trying to retrieve them.
The Ottomans also, much like the Franks and Byzantine, built a huge Mosque with a minaret inside the Parthenon which was pulled down after the Greek independence.
During modern times much restoration has and is still continuing on the monuments and temples of the Acropolis. The new Acropolis museum opened in 2007 and has done an amazing job of showing the Artefacts of the Acropolis giving even more weight to the argument of reuniting artefacts and sculptures still in foreign museums with their true home the Acropolis and Athens.