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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora…

“Ag-o-ra” [ag-er-uh]: (ancient Greece) the chief marketplace of Ancient Athens, center of the city’s civic life.

Today it is the center of a smattering of ruins, some with labels, best toured with a knowledgeable guide in tow to explain it all to you. John Camp, the director of the ongoing excavations at the Agora, would be the best guide to have, and I had the pleasure of this experience two years ago when I was here as a student in the Summer Session at the ASCSA. However, he is not available all the time. In the meantime, read a guidebook, hire somewhere, or explore on your own and just… guess. Ahhh guessing. Guessing is fun, isn’t it? Guessing takes up a lot of my time here in Athens when I explore the city. See, I’m in search for hero shrines. Often I have archaeological records that document the locations of shrines, and I find these extremely helpful. However, other times the only record is from Pausanias, an ancient travel writer of sorts, who might say things such as “there were a few altars dedicated to heroes in Phaleron, near the bay” or “so-and-so had a shrine south of the Olympeion by the Kalliroe Spring”. So specific, right?

Hero shrines are finicky in and of themselves. They come in many shapes and sizes, and we, modern scholars, have no clue as to the “why”. We just hope they come with an inscription that identifies the structure and, if we are truly lucky, the recipient of the offerings. Sometimes hero shrines share a structure with a god, sometimes they are worshiped in an open area with no physical structure other than an abnormal rock formation. Some were worshiped in houses, some were given dedications, some were worshiped at tombs, some were worshiped at the sea. … and so on.

Heroes were worshiped in caves

Heroes were worshiped just NE of the Areopagos

Near the Kalliroe Spring, south of the Olympeion

Base for "Eponymous Heroes" statues in the Agora

possibly the Strategeion (near a Geometric gravesite) in the Agora

Triangular hero shrine in the Agora (also in in Eretria, and 2 in Delos)!

graced with an inscription: "O HIERO"

possibly the temenos of the daughters of Leos

So, my “operation hero-shrine scavenger hunt” has been fun! Lots of “this looks like it could have been important!”. I’ve certainly seen a lot of ancient Athens hidden among the modern buildings. Which brings me to another point — modern Athens has been built up over the majority of the evidence. This makes things… more difficult. A challenge to really exercise my imagination.

Karaiskaki Stadium in Faliro, near the area where hero shrines were (according to Pausanias)

Luckily, I have quite the vivid imagination! And archaeological excavation records. And museums with many, many, many late Archaic Athenian vases for me to study. 😀

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Modern Athens is not Ancient Athens

Ancient Athenian site of worship:

Hephaisteion (5th century BC)

Modern Athenian site of worship:

Greek Orthodox church in Moschato, Athens

Last leg of my European adventure: Athens, Greece. My home for the next few months.A city full of ancient, Byzantine, and modern history, full of smoking Greek-speaking spanakopita-eating ouzo-drinking people. The city is an aesthetic slap in the face of culture shock galore. It’s my third time visiting (once briefly in 2002, then with the 6-week ASCSA Summer Session in 2009, and now for 3 months). The monuments are lovely, the graffiti aplenty, the museums brimming, the food overflowing … but it’s feeling like home. Because I’ve made it my home, at least until December.

I have a lovely apartment in the very residential neighborhood of Pagrati, just a couple blocks away from the Panathenaic Stadium. The Agora, AKropolis, Plaka, and American School of Classical Studies are all within walking distance. And walk I have done. I also have ridden the wonderful and extensive metro system here (some of the metro stations are like private museums where they display finds from the the metro excavations), the bus, and even dared to ride on the back of a speeding motorcycle (actually I’ve done this more than once and dare I say I’m getting used to it?).

Like every good European city, farmer’s markets are aplenty. Ripe seasonal fruit, freshly caught fish, recently killed meat, and delicious cheeses are all just at your fingertips. You only have to dare to venture to try a little Greek. Athens’ mongers are a bit more aggressive than I’m used to, however. They were literally throwing plastic bags at me so I could fill them with their produce!

Friday morning market in the Pagrati neighborhood of Athens

Anyway, I have a fridge full of fresh goodies and have renewed my love of παστέλι, the sesame-honey sticks that I normally only eat on Passover. I make χωριάτικη (Greek salad) pretty much every day, and I often pair salmon with τζατζίκι (I’m calling it my Greek tartar sauce — but it’s way better than tartar sauce). Figs are still in season, so I get to nibble on those every day and it’s absolute heaven. And don’t even get me started on the wonderfulness that is Greek yogurt from a clay jar or fresh feta!!!

But I said I’m living here. This isn’t just vacation. This is 3 months full of serious study and research for my dissertation. Annnnd CrossFit (duh).

My days look a little something like this…

Every morning I eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and then walk from my apartment up the hill to the ASCSA. I get a nice view of the Lykabettos Hill on the way.

Lykabettos Hill as seen from Rizari St.

Then I greet the guard at the ASCSA library, get my laptop out of my locker, put my bag in the locker, remember to bring my pen, water bottle, USB flash-drives and any notes upstairs with me to my book-filled carrel. Most of my day has the following view:

Blegen Library new wing

Eventually I go outside to take my lunch break, then come back in to pursue more work. Not EVERY day is spent indoors, since some of my research requires going to museums and their storerooms (Agora storeroom is on Thursday! I believe I’ll spend all day there.. and then return again to spend another day. May have to return yet again). National Archaeology Museum of Athens and the Kerameikos Museum are also on my “to-do” list for research. And let’s not forget about my main playground, the Athenian Agora, which was full of shrines and altars and monuments dedicated to many various heroes!

view of Athenian Agora and part of the Akropolis from the Hephaisteion

Late in the afternoon I pack up all my things, switch out my laptop for my bag in my locker and head to Evangelismos Metro stop to begin my journey to Moschato where Primal CrossFit Athens is located! Depending on connection time, it’s only about a 20-25 minute journey, but can sometimes get pretty crowded. Then my nights are spent with some fabulous people in a very large room full of pull-up bars, rings, barbells, bumper plates, kettlebells, and, of course, Greeks.

Primal CrossFit Athens

In fact, this is where I have the best chance of learning modern Greek. Knowing Ancient Greek gives me a head start on the alphabet and many of the words, and a few months of private tutoring that I had last semester helped significantly with my modern pronunciation of said words. But I find Greek very difficult to hear and whenever I want to say anything my first instinct is to speak in Italian. Well that won’t get me far, now will it? No. It won’t. So I’ve made many friends at this box already, and they’ve all agreed to help me with my Greek (and in return I’ll help some of them with their English, others with their Olympic lifts). This is quite necessary, because in less than a week’s time I’ve already been approached often by Greek strangers on the street or in the subway or in the grocery store asking me questions like I should 1) know the answer and 2) know what they’re saying and be able to respond. Needless to say, I’ve become very proficient at saying  “Δεν καταλαβαίνω” (“I don’t understand”) and “δεν μιλω ελληνικα” (“I don’t speak Greek”).

Hopefully those phrases will be spoken less often by me in the near future.

Meanwhile, I’ll be putting on sunscreen and admiring the north side of the Akropolis.

North slope of the Athenian Akropolis