Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, continuously inhabited since the 4th and 5th Millennium BC (before common era, aka, Before Christ). It is an old city, one that at some levels seems to be trapped in the shadows of its glorious past – as the centre of Western Civilization.
It centrality to a whole civilization role that the modern mind finds hard to grasp – since this role has since been taken over in turn by London and now New York. Western culture, also known as Occidental culture is centred upon the countries in Europe and there was a time that Athens was at the heart of it all.
It may probably never happen again.
But the history of its glorious past continues to be chronicled in the city, new findings exposed both literally and metaphorically.
Classical Greece was an peninsula of great cities, with each city having its own special character and dynamic. The greatest of them all was Classical Athens. The greatest cities of the world tend to always be located near major transportation ways, and this timeless principle went as far back as Classical Athens. Located on the Aegean Coast with the water bringing it into contact with many other cities, Athens rose to became a major port city back in the 4th millennium BC. This strategic position (compared to inland rivals such as Thebes and Sparta) combined with a secure stronghold on the Acropolis meant that Athens remained the leading Greek city for centuries.
Athens is named after the Greek goddess Athena, goddess of wisdom and olive trees (more on this story in the next post).
It was a well chosen name, since it was here that one of the most important ideas in human political history was seeded – democracy. In 508 BC, Cleisthenes led a major constiutional reformation of Athens and introduced Athenian democracy.
While Athens was a leading Greek city it was however not the dominant power in 500 BC, that title lay with the Persian Empire. Competition between the Greek cities however eventually resulted in the development of strong naval fleets and the threat of extermination by the Persians focused minds resulting in the final victory of the Greeks against the Persians, forcing the Persian forces back and eventually forcing a peace.
A certain battle of Thermopylae took place during this time.
The peace of the 5th Millennium BC brought the Golden Age of Athens. Athens shed the impression of an equal power with its erstwhile Greek allies to become the leading Greek city. Greek greats whose effects on Western civilization continue till this day were alive during this time – playwright Aeschylus (the creator of tragic plays), historians Herodotus (the father of the subject of History) and Thucydides (whose work and theories form the basis of international relations theory), physician Hippocratus (from whom the Hippocratic Oath is taken) and Socrates (one of the founders of Western Philosophy). The descendents of this intellectual tradition include Plato and Aristotle.
Athens and the Greek states gave the world the idea of the Olympics.
This golden age has been met with millennia of decline. Athens was soon overtaken by the martial prowess of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. More than 2000 years (no typo) of occupation later, Athens and Greece obtained its independence once again in 1834. Athens, the ancient city was chosen as the capital for sentimental reasons. Athens was then a city of 4000, it has grown once again into a significant city of 3 million people.
The city has never recovered its former glory and in recent years has been the byword for economic collapse.
All that is changing.
The shifting sands of the global geopolitical economy have reestablished Athens and its Piraeus Port as one of the most important in all of Europe.
Talk of a new economic boom in Greece, through Athens have restarted (here and here). While Athens may not be the centre of the world, the city has undergone a new and recent refounded confidence in itself.
So what is the Athens of today, the city that lives in the shadow of a massive past.
Come join me as we scratch the surface of this historical, paradoxical and grungy city!
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