The very word Acropolis literally refers to ‘upper city’ in Greek, and thus can be associated with citadels or group of buildings constructed atop an elevated site (often hills with precipitous sides). To that end, the famed Acropolis (or Ἀκρόπολις in Ancient Greek) of Athens is one of the still extant ancient citadels that has survived from the ‘archaic’ times. Symbolizing the power of Athens with its literal height, the history of this tall rocky outcrop (of 490 ft) incredibly goes back to around 3500 BC, thus making it older than even the Great Pyramid. And while it started out as a strategic fortification of the surrounding settlement, the site of Athens’ Acropolis was given both a political and religious makeover by the classical period (circa 5th century BC), with its impressive array of temples and monuments – including structures like the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion; all exemplifying features of ancient Greek architecture.
As for the ancient city of Akragas (or Ἀκράγας) in Sicily, it was one of the major Greek-populated settlements of Magna Graecia, during what is termed as the golden age of Greek city-states (circa 5th century BC). The city was originally founded in early 6th century by Greek colonists from Gela (in Sicily), and by the turn of the century it possibly had a population of more than 100,000 people. In fact, after numerous political and military upheavals during the Punic Wars, the city managed to regain its prosperity, so much so that its inhabitants (the city being renamed Agrigentum) were granted Roman citizenship after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Even the Greek lyric poet Pindar, who hailed from ‘mainland’ Thebes, described Akragas as “the most beautiful city in the world inhabited by mortals”. Suffice it to say, the major city had its own Acropolis, comprising the famed Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples).
Altair4 Multimedia has concocted an incredible animation that presents both of the imposing Acropolises from these two primarily ancient Greek cities – thus providing us with a glimpse into the Greek architectural fabric that extended throughout the Mediterranean.
The Acropolis of Athens –
The first massive structure atop the Acropolis possibly pertained to a Mycenaean megaron (palace complex) built in the Bronze Age, circa 1200 BC. Soon this massive complex was guarded by an imposing wall structure that was around 760 m (or 2,500 ft) long, 10 m (33 ft) high and had an average thickness of 4-6 m (about 16 ft). From the structural perspective, this gargantuan defensive work boasted two parapets constructed from large stone blocks that were merged and bonded together by an earth mortar known as emplekton.
By 6th century BC, the eminence of Acropolis was quite evident – with desperate actions of numerous despots and rebels tending to target this elevated site (for military and political control). One of the prime examples would relate to Kylon (a former Olympic champion) and his failed Kylonian revolt. Recent discoveries have shed some light into the brutal aftermath of this rebellion, with extant specimens of shackled skeletons who were meted out death sentences.
In any case, by 560 BC, the first temple dedicated to Athena Polias (protector of the city) was constructed atop the Acropolis. Also known as the Hekatompedon, the Doric limestone building flaunted some pretty intriguing features, including sculpture of a three-bodied man-serpent with a blue beard. And by 520 BC, the Hekatompedon was accompanied by another temple, known as the Arkhaios Neōs – usually (and oddly) referred to as the Old Temple of Athena, in spite of its ‘newer’ status.
The 5th century BC brought around enormous changes for the Acropolis – fueled by the Persian invasion (and burning of Athens) along with the (later) ambitious Periclean building program. Many of these events are covered by the second animation and our related write-up about it. However it should be noted that the later Romans also played their part in renovating and building many sections of the Acropolis – given their self-attributed identification as the ‘inheritors’ of Greek cultural heritage. One of such buildings pertains to the Temple of Rome and Augustus – a relatively small Roman construction with a round edifice, built circa 26 AD. Later on, in 161 AD, the ‘Greek’ aristocrat and Roman senator – Atticus Herodes, commissioned the construction of a grand amphitheater (Odeon). And lastly, by 363 AD, it was Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (or Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus) who supported the complete renovation of the Parthenon.
The Mystery of Akragas –
A study conducted in 2015, by a team of Kiwi and Italian researchers, revealed the orientation of the ancient Greek monuments at the city’s renowned Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). Interestingly enough, the research invalidated the popular belief that these temples were originally built to face the sun and shows that, while some of them are indeed aligned with astronomical events like the full moon, there are others whose construction was influenced by an altogether different set of factors, such as urban planning. In the research, the team thoroughly surveyed the Valley of the Temples, in order to determine the orientation of the ancient structures. Located in Akragas (or Agrigento) in the southern part of Italy, the site houses the remains of as many as 10 Doric shrines, each dedicated to a Greek god, goddess or hero, such as Juno, Heracles, Demeter and Persephone, Olympic Zeus, Vulcan, Concordia, Aesculapius and so on.
Built nearly 2,500 years ago, the temples were included in the list of World Heritage sites in 1997. While a lot has been speculated about their orientation over the years, the research is one of the first to attempt a thorough, constructive examination of these ancient monuments. According to the team, four among them are aligned in accordance with Akragas’ layout, with no connection whatsoever with the sun’s position. Speaking about the find, Giulio Magli, a professor of archaeoastronomy at the Polytechnic University in Milan, said:
Alignment was widely determined by urban layout and morphological aspects of the terrain as well as religious connections… For such temples, only a general rule imposing the facade towards the eastern horizon was applied. However, they were not orientated toward the rising sun on specific days of the year.
The Temple of Juno Lacinia, for instance, was built such that it faced the stars in the Delphinus constellation, while the Temple of Demeter and Persephone was found to be aligned with the setting full moon during winter solstice. The unfinished Temple of Zeus, believed to the largest Doric temple ever erected, was likely oriented in keeping with the town’s grid. And finally as for the now-dilapidated Temple of Demeter and Persephone, its architecture, according to the researchers, clearly points to a moon-based alignment. Situated inside a corridor, running along the side of the temple, are two uniquely-shaped circular altars, one of which contains a central well or bothros. During their survey, the researchers retrieved several broken pieces of kernoi, basically a type of ritual vessel used in the worship of Demeter, from the well. The temple also has a large artificially-constructed open area at the back. The team explained:
We can imagine a nocturnal procession coming up from the fountain sanctuary and reaching the temple, in front of which, however, there is not enough space to house worshipers. Then they gathered in the vast esplanade on the back of the temple. From there, they would have witnessed the spectacle of the full moon high over the hill of the acropolis.
Video Source: Altair4 Multimedia Archeo3D Production (YouTube)