City in south-eastern mainland Greece and the country's capital. Population ca. 4.5 million in a metropolitan area of approximately 480 km² (180-ish sq. mi.). The population of the city proper is officially 770.000. Officially, again, the metro area has 3.5 million inhabitants but the undercount, the large number of people cheating the census by being counted as residents of their native towns and villages, and the huge number of illegal immigrants make 4.5 million a more realistic estimate.
Athens is many things. Birthplace of democracy to many, cradle of western culture to others. A smelly, smoggy metropolis to its residents and a point of reference for millions of expatriate Greeks. The city around which a nation and a civilisation revolves. Delphi may have been the hub of the ancient Hellenic world but the heart of modern Greece beats in Athens.
Let me first tell you of my own relationship with Athens. I lived in Athens, in the north end of the city proper, for a number of years, some of them formative. Like pretty much everyone who's grown up living in many different places or countries, I hate the "where are you from" question but, if I were absolutely forced to answer it, I'm "from" Athens. Not from any country but from the city. It's the kind of city that becomes part of you, with all the magic and ugliness that are part of life in a metropolis--a "mother city."
The founding of Athens
It's really impossible to pin down a date on which Athens was founded. Southern and eastern Attica have been inhabited for thousands of years and
Athens itself has been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE. The advantages of the Acropolis hill as a natural fortress were obvious even to neolithic settlers and it's a reasonable guess that an organised community around the Ilisos river has existed for at least 5000 years, and it probably became a city, with the trappings and edifices that define a place as such, in the Mycenean era, between 1400 and 1200 BCE. The mythical human (well, sort of) founder was the snake-man Cecrops, who was also its first king. For all we know, since its beginnings are shrouded in myth, Athens may have been a city and kingdom as early as 1500 BCE.
The myth has it that Athens was named after the goddess Athena (that much, I think, is obvious), who became its patron after winning a contest with Poseidon. Poseidon, it is said, tried to impress the god-seeking people with a fountain of water, which, unfortunately for him, was salt water worthy of a sea god but of little use to people in this fairly arid part of the world. Athena offered the olive tree for food, shelter and firewood.
There are two versions of how the decision was made by the Athenians: in one Athena won by consensus, seeing that her gift was a lot more useful than salt water; in the other, a vote was taken and split pretty much along gender lines, Athena winning due to a female majority. There is, of course, a real or symbolic story behind this gender conflict, and the existence of a patriachal society was justified as a deal with the angry Poseidon, who flooded the city until the men agreed to cut women out of the decision-making process. Still, Athena got to keep the city's patronage and her sacred bird, the owl, has been Athens' symbol ever since.
Athens in the Ancient World
Not much is known about the Dark Ages following the decline of Mycenae and the Dorian invasions but Athens was the first of the ancient Mycenean-era cities to emerge and thus had a head start on the rest, its only rival at the time being Corinth. In the 9th century BCE, Athens was a kingdom. It shared an Ionian culture with and developed close ties to the cities on the coast of Asia Minor, particularly Miletus.
The city grew more powerful and the quirks of history turned it, as well as Miletus, into a guinea-pig for several innovative political systems and legislative philosopies, such as those of Solon and Draco, eventually ending up with various systems of executive, legislative and judicial bodies that introduced some of the checks and balances we consider part of a modern republic. Let's not give them credit for everything though--Miletus pioneered some concepts of representative government and civil rights that the Athenians made famous. Athens was not just the city but also the surrounding parts of Attica, its citizens organised into ten tribes (phylai) with a complex system of representation.
Political instability did not majorly check the city's rise to prominence. During the 5th century BCE, after two Persian invasions were repelled (during one of which the city was temporarily abandoned to the invaders), Athens was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean and in charge of the wealthy Delian League.
The middle of the fifth century is the original Golden Age or classical period and, primarily under the leadership of Pericles, the city prospered like never before. This was also the time during which the Parthenon was built and during which many of the famous artists, whose names we identify with ancient Greek art, were active. Philosophy was also big business and its heyday, with the likes of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, lasted for another century and never quite went away.
Athens, in the fifth century, was primarily a naval power and in an uneasy truce, the Thirty Years Peace, with its arch-rival Sparta, which boasted the best army of its time. Peace did not last and the Second Peloponnesian War would mark the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire. It was a confrontation of superpowers with strong cultural, military, and political differences. Most of the Hellenic world was embroiled in it and its end, in 404 BCE, saw a generation of warfare result in the comprehensive defeat of Athens but a somewhat Pyrrhic victory of Sparta, which had expended massive resources and manpower to achieve victory and become the undisputed leader among Greek states. Neither really recovered and this left southern and central Greece vulnerable to the designs of Macedonian king Philip II.
Initially Thebes came out on top, slowly taking over from the Spartans, but Athens recovered sufficiently to form the Second Athenian League in 370. Philip, king from 360 onwards, was ambitious and determined to create an empire. He was also the best equipped and richest in resoures, and Athens became part of the pan-hellenic League of Corinth after Philip vanquished the resistance against him, led by Athens and Thebes.
After the unification of Greece under the Macedonians it would be over 2000 years before Athens regained its leading position in the Hellenic world but it nonetheless remained an important centre of culture, learning, and trade. Its attempt to rid itself of the Macedonian hegemony in 322 BCE, following Alexander's death, ended in failure, and a more successful insurrection from 307 to 295 ended in a blockade, siege and submission. For the next 150 years various Hellenistic-era kings fought over it, as they did over everything else. In 146 BCE, with the defeat of the Achaean Confederacy, Athens became part of the Roman Empire.
In ca 53 CE, St. Paul visited Athens and brought Christianity with him. The "unknown god" whom Athenians prudently worshipped, lest they offend some god they'd forgotten to name, was proclaimed to be the god of Jesus of Nazareth by his followers. St. Dionysius the Areopagite was the city's first bishop and martyr, and has been its patron saint since. Athens was well positioned to be a hotspot for scholarly confrontation between the ancient and the new religion, and more than a few philosophical blows were traded between their adherents, though they also mingled and apparently attended each others lectures.
Of course the pagan Romans and Greeks were not letting go that easily. Emperor Hadrian decided he liked Athens and took to rebuilding it on a grand scale. Not much of his handiwork is left but Hadrian's Arch is still a sight-seeing spot and many other Roman ruins, including the agora and a theatre or two, are still around.
After Hadrian, the city, like the rest of the Roman Empire, didn't improve and ended up being pillaged by the Goths in 267 CE and again in 395 CE. In the same year, the Byzantine Empire was founded and Athens became part of it for the next 800 years. Christianity established itself as the dominant religion and the last schools of the ancient pagan philosophical tradition closed in 529.
From the middle ages to the 21st century
The city remained fairly prominent as a centre of Byzantine learning, especially in the realm of theology, and even the Parthenon was confiscated for ecclesiastical purposes, becoming a church at least by 630 but possibly as early as the reign of Justinian, and a cathedral in the middle of the 9th century. While no longer important on a global scale, Athens was still on the map. In 1205, after the Latin Empire was established, the city was taken over by various westerners. It was a Frankish and Catalan duchy for a while, and then had some ups and downs before the Florentines and Venetians took possession from 1388 onwards, finally losing it to the Ottoman Turks in 1458.
Athens was little heard of as either a city or a force for the next 400 years. Perhaps the most notable event of that period was the 1687 battle between the Turks and the Venetians that resulted in the Parthenon being blown up. It was there but basically an unimpressive and provincial minor mercantile centre. During the Greek War of Independence it did contribute to the cause but on a scale far below that of more powerful cities and islands. The era of obscurity ended in 1834, when the capital of the newly created modern Greek state was moved to Athens and King Otto had the royal palace (now the parliament building) erected to the east of the Acropolis. The total population of Athens at the time was around 12000 souls.
For the next 90 years the city was rebuilt and expanded to fit its role as a modern European capital. A large number of buildings dating to the late 19th century, and built by French and German architects, remain in use and have recently been restored. Being not only accessible but also modernised, Athens began to attract European romantics who were enamoured of its glorious past, including a certain Mr de Coubertin, who used the city as the venue for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The early 1920s and the Treaty of Lausanne brought vast numbers of refugees from Asia Minor, greatly adding to the metropolitan area's population. During World War II and the German occupation the population suffered and declined, mainly due to starvation, but the city itself was spared from destruction.
After the city's liberation on 1944-10-14 and the 1946-9 civil war, and for the next two decades, there was a population explosion caused by massive domestic migration. Most of its current infrastructural problems arise from the 1950s and 1960s, when its expansion was unchecked and corrupt government departments would let anyone build anything, anywhere, for the right bribe, allowing the city to become an urban (lack of) planning disaster that continues to degrade quality of life in the city. Since the mid-1980s, which saw alarming levels of smog enveloping the city, eroding its monuments and making people sick, a serious effort has been underway to improve the city's visuals and its environment, modernise the overloaded traffic system, enhance public transport, and restrict new building. After being awarded the 2004 Olympics, a massive public works project was set in motion that included a new international airport, a ring road connecting the main highways to the west and north, and the new airport to the east, and large-scale mass-transit. All in all, and given that its population growth has slowed down, things are looking a bit better now.
Geography and landmarks
Surprisingly enough, Athens has few landmarks and they're practically all natural features. Apart from the city's symbol, the Parthenon. and other ancient sites, there's really not much in term of man-made navigational aids or places worth seeing. Your points of reference on the ground, as long as you're in the centre, are the traffic hubs of Omonia Sq., the northern corner of the central triangle, and Syntagma Sq., at the eastern corner. Often the easiest way to find out where you are is to estimate your position according to the visibility and distance of the hills and mountains.
Athens is surrounded by mountains to the north (Penteli), west (Parnes) and east (Hymettus), and has several hills within the metro area. To the south lie the Saronic Gulf and the port of Piraeus. Given these geographical constraints, space is of course at a premium and, with only 3% of space devoted to greenery and recreational areas, it's not only one of the most crowded but also the least green of European cities. The entire western part and the south-west coastal stretch on the road to Eleusis and Corinth is totally unremarkable, the latter being an industrial wasteland. The eastern part, creeping up Hymettus, is equally unremarkable and consists of University installations and poor residential areas. The north, north-east and south-east are mostly upscale and middle-class residential areas.
So much for the suburbs, most of which are practially melded into one. The city itself has its own divisions. The commercial centre is a well-defined triangle between Syntagma Square, Omonia Square and Monastiraki Square. North-east of it is the very upscale area of Kolonaki, home to the rich who refuse to leave the centre for the fancy suburbs, diplomatic missions, artists who like to be in the thick of things and snobbish old people who remember Athens "back when." To the east and south-east, crawling up the flank of Mt. Lycabettus is the area called Exarchia where it's really happening. Though a lot of it is dedicated to non-luxury office space it also has a dense student population and is the part of town where you'll find the starving artists, intellectuals and wannabe versions thereof. To the north and north-west is an endless stretch of cheap office space and lower-income residential areas, also home to most of the legal and illegal immigrants, particularly Kurds, Poles, Africans and the omnipresent Albanians. West and south-west of the centre are more low-income and rock-bottom residential areas. Just south and south-east of the centre is a business district and most of the city's green space is located in that area.
An old joke compares different nationalities and ends with the punchline "hell is where everything is organised by the Greeks." And hell in Athens is the traffic system. With about five times as many vehicles crammed into it as the road system was designed to support (or rather, it was never "designed" to do anything and that's the problem), daytime traffic at most times is infernal and on par with other infamous traffic hell-holes like Los Angeles, Cairo and Mexico City. It tends to be a bit lighter in summer and, if you ask me, the middle of August, when half the population escapes to the countryside, is the most pleasant time of year to be in the city.
Within the centre getting around on foot is a good choice. If most of your movement is planned for daylight hours on weekdays, this is probably your best choice. Over longer distances you can rely on public transport which, while it's generally crowded and suffers from the side effects of having to fight its way through the rest of the traffic, covers the city and its suburbs thoroughly and regularly. Public transport, as is the case with most European cities, is the way to get around.
Your choices are as follows. Rely on the colour scheme to guide you.
- Blue and white buses: They carry the bulk of passengers and go absolutely everywhere. Most routes radiate from the centre outward. Double-deckers and singles with an "E" designation and additional yellow markings are used on express lines and serve the airport or other key destinations. They run from 05:00 to midnight, though some trunk and express lines may run 24/7.
- Yellow buses: These are slow, electric trolley buses that mostly serve the city proper. They tend to be a better choice for getting
through the centre since most routes have termini at opposite ends of the city. I don't think a single one of them is less than 20 years old. They run a bit later than the blue buses, sometimes until 01:00 and on Saturdays all night. Riding these buses involves a lot of "clunk" and "click" sounds, the odd derailing of their guide/current antennae and reading the plaque proclaiming that the Uritsky trolley bus factory, Engels, Soviet Union, was awarded the Red Flag of Labour.
- Taxis: You can't miss 'em. They're yellow with a blue stripe (in Athens only, they're usually grey or burgundy elsewhere). Most drivers are grizzled survival experts skilled in the martial art of driving in Athens and drive like demons. Drivers may turn down rides, take multiple rides at a time if going the same way, and choose to allow or not allow smoking in their vehicle. You can hail them anywhere that's not a bus stop and make sure they put down the "flag" on their meter when you get in. If you're desperate and can't find an empty one, hail one which has space and yell your destination if it slows down. Radio taxis offering immediate or scheduled pick-up are common and generally reputable, punctual and worth the extra money. Unoccupied taxis with their "flag" down are off-duty or on their way to an appointment. They *might* stop to see whether you're heading their way.
- The Metro (subway), to be noded separately in due time.
- Note about tickets: Blue buses and trolley (yellow) buses share the same tickets. The metro uses its own set of tickets. They are not interchangeable.
Do not, I repeat, do not rent a car. Did I say you should not rent a car? In case I didn't, here it is: do NOT rent a car unless you have a death wish.
The not so famous Athenian spirit
Most major world cities have many anecdotes and stereotypes about their residents but this is not the case here. One really doesn't know what to expect in terms of attitude and style. The city is a melting pot now more than ever and you can't count on many common traits. The deal is pretty much that this is your average metropolis, and everyone's in a hurry and minding their own business. The one city Athens is most often compared to is New York City. I suppose that says something.
Should I go?
Actually, sort of. As a long-time resident, my advice for the tourist is to fly in, see the old stones, visit the Plaka and Monastiraki (conveniently located in proximity of a lot of old stones) and get the hell out to a more pleasant part of the country. Don't stick around unless you have a local guide to show you the real Athens or are feeling adventurous, in which case sticking around and hanging out can be quite rewarding. For further reading useful to the prospective visitor there exists, at http://www.athensguide.com/, an excellent and well-maintained guide to many things Athenian and Greek, which I cannot but recommend.