With our time abroad ending in about 6 weeks, it seems important to write about some of our favorite Athens spots (see Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Benaki, and the National Historical Museum). The Ancient Agora ranks high on our list, not just because it’s a great outdoor museum where kids can run around and be loud or because of the many turtles roaming the grounds, but because the Greek government has preserved this space so well, you really get a feel for life in ancient Athens. It also has one of the best preserved temples in all the city.
“Agora” is market. The verb “αγοραζω” means to buy. There’s a whole group of nouns in Greek that are based on verbs — it makes things very tidy. Now, the most common ‘agora’ in Greece is the laiki, but there are other ones (gold for example) advertised here and there.
The Agora has been occupied without interruption since around 3000 BC; first as a residential and burial area and by 600 it became a public area. Its current shape is rectangular, and it’s been this way since the 2nd century BC. It’s been rebuilt many times after damage by the Persians and then the Romans. It was gradually abandoned after 580 AD until the 1800s when it again became a residential area.
The Agora was the center of ancient Athens: political, cultural, religious, commercial and social. It even had a mint. The most important buildings and temples were built between the 6th and 2nd centuries BC. The entire area is basically a flat space that sits in front of the Acropolis between the Theiseion and Monasteraki areas (and subway stations). The Panathenaic Way crossed the Agora on its way to the Acropolis from the main gate of the city and the Altar of the Twelve Gods sanctuary marked the heart of Athens: distances to outside places were measured from here.
Representative government was alive and well: there was a circular building that served as the senate headquarters, where bills were drafted for discussion by a larger general Assembly. If you look up the hill to the northwest, you can see the jail where Socrates was imprisoned and executed.
The Temple of Hephaestus stands on the west side and is one of the best preserved monuments in the entire city. Hephaestus was the god of fire, but also the god and patron of metalworking, stone masonry and sculpture. He was the son of Zeus and Hera and was married to Aphrodite, though Aphrodite cheated on him with Ares. Hephaestus was the official blacksmith for the gods and made all the weapons for Olympus. Inside the temple were two bronze statues of Hephaestus and Athina. In the 7th century AD, the temple was converted to a church and in the 18th century, many prominent Athenians and statesmen were interred here.
The east side houses the official Agora museum in the Stoa of Attalos, originally built around 150 BC. It was fully restored thanks to funds from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s. It’s a perfect building that shows what the stoas looked like and it’s adorned with statues and other artifacts found in the Agora. The museum is small but quite interesting. Stoic philosophers were named as such as they held their discussions under the stoa; as opposed to Aristotle’s walking school.
We love this monument so much that we pretty much insist that all of our visitors see it. It’s right in the heart of the oldest Athens neighborhoods … but it’s also the best example of the ancient Agora in all of Greece and we think just standing there helps you visualize life in those classical times.