Athens is rightfully considered to be the cradle of western civilization. It is the birthplace of democracy and home of the world’s greatest philosophers and artists, many of whom set the foundations of modern Western society.
The Greek capital is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, first settled during the Neolithic period more than 5,000 years ago. Archaeological finds prove that a Bronze Age fortification and a palace were built on the Acropolis Hill as early as 1400 BC.
Athens took its name from the goddess Athena. According to Greek mythology, there was a contest between Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, over who would become the guardian of the city. Each deity granted the citizens a gift: Poseidon opened a well on the Acropolis, while Athena made an olive tree grow on the rocky soil of the hill. The citizens considered the gift of Athena more precious and dedicated their city to her, thus gaining wealth and wisdom.
The foundations of the city’s explosive economic and cultural growth were laid in the 6th century BC, when the world’s first democratic rules were introduced. The new laws relieved the poor of their debts, established the equality of all free men regardless of their wealth and gave all citizens the right to vote. A popular assembly of free citizens began to meet on Pnyx Hill to put the city’s affairs to vote.
However, the world’s first democracy was threatened with destruction following the Persian invasion in 490 BC. The Athenians and their allies defended their homes with an army of 11,000 against the 100,000 Persian soldiers. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the Athenian army defeated the Persians at Marathon thanks to the innovative strategy employed by General Miltiades. A messenger was sent to Athens to inform the citizens of the victory, thereby performing the world’s first marathon run. This event is commemorated worldwide with hundreds of marathons held each year. One of these is the Athens Marathon, which follows the original route.
A second Persian invasion with an even larger army led to the evacuation of Athens in 480 BC. The Persian king Xerxes burned down the abandoned city but witnessed the total destruction of his fleet by the Athenians at the naval battle of Salamis.
The two victorious battles at Marathon and Salamis established the city’s position as a naval superpower and marked the beginning of a phase of unprecedented prosperity. Athens flourished and became the commercial hub and cultural center of the Mediterranean during the 5th century BC. The wealth was used by the Athenian leader Pericles to rebuild the city on a grand scale. Pericles also introduced new political reforms which led to the maturity of the world’s first democracy. The city’s population reached 140,000, with 40,000 male citizens enjoying full political rights. It was the beginning of the Golden Age of Athens.
The destroyed temples of the Acropolis were replaced by some of the greatest architectural masterpieces of all time, such as the splendid Parthenon (dedicated to Athena), which still inspires architects all over the world. The public buildings were decorated with works by outstanding sculptors such as Phidias and Praxiteles, some of which can be seen at the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum.
A new art form, theatre, was born here: plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed at the Dionysus Theatre (the oldest in the world). Athens was also the place where the world’s greatest philosophers – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – changed the way we think and perceive the world today. Visitors can stroll through the Agora (the ancient marketplace), retracing the footsteps of Socrates, who used to walk around the once-crowded square engaging people in long discussions.
The Golden Age lasted until 404 BC, when Athens was defeated by Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars. The city lost its independence once again in 338 BC when it came under the rule of the Macedonian kings, and was finally annexed by the Roman Empire in 146 BC. Foreign rule reduced the city’s political role, but it remained a major cultural centre for many centuries. The Romans, who greatly admired the city’s cultural heritage, built many monuments such as the Odeon of Herod Atticus, the Roman Agora, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. Many Romans came to Athens to study at its renowned schools of philosophy.
The decline of Athens was caused by the first Christian emperors. Initially, in 394, Theodosius prohibited the worship of the ancient gods, to be followed by the closure of the philosophical schools in 529 – ordered by Justinian.
Athens turned into a small town during the Byzantine era. Monuments from that time include the Church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Kessariani Monastery. A large number of works of art from this period can be seen at the Byzantine Museum.
The Crusaders who conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1204, controlled the city until 1458 – the year the Turks occupied Athens and annexed it to the Ottoman Empire. Turkish rule lasted for almost four centuries, bequeathing city monuments such as the Tzidarakis Mosque on Monastiraki Square and the Fethiye Mosque at the site of the Roman Agora.
A fierce war of independence broke out in 1821, leading to the proclamation of the infant Greek state in 1829. Athens awakened to a new life in 1834 – the year the capital was moved to the city. Prince Otto of Bavaria, who was appointed King of Greece, brought his architects to plan the new royal city. A number of splendid buildings were constructed during this time, such as the Parliament building (the former royal palace), the university, and the Academy.
Athens hosted the first modern Olympic Games, which were held at the imposing Panathenaic Stadium in 1896. The city hosted the Olympics again in 2004.
The 20th century witnessed the city’s explosive growth. Its population grew from a mere 200,000 to four million, making it one of the largest and most fascinating cities in Europe – despite its infrastructural and environmental problems. The population was boosted in the 1920s with the arrival of thousands of ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey, but the city’s growth was really accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s with millions of immigrants arriving from the Greek provinces, impoverished after years of war.
In 1941, German Nazi troops occupied the country, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people. The liberation of Greece in 1944 didn’t bring peace but civil war, which ended in 1949. A period of political unrest led to a coup d’etat in 1967, and the severe oppression of the Greek people. Democracy was finally restored in 1974. Greece became a full member of the European Community in 1981.
The fate of the city is best illustrated by the changes that have occurred to the Acropolis throughout the centuries: the Parthenon was built as the temple of Athena, but was subsequently transformed into an Orthodox church by the Byzantine emperors, a Catholic church by the Crusaders and a Muslim mosque by the Turks. This unique monument was severely damaged in 1687 during the Venetian bombardment of Athens, when the gunpowder stored by the Turks in the Parthenon exploded. Further damage was inflicted during the 1801 plundering by Lord Elgin, who removed its splendid sculptural decoration and sold it to the British Museum in London. A major preservation and restoration project was initiated several years ago, when the polluted air of modern Athens caused additional destruction to the marble buildings of the Acropolis.