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Athens 1989

Map of Sikyon to Athens

5/16/89 - After a long lazy morning in my Plaka room, I ate a huge breakfast, checked on the security of my bicycle, and then set off to find the Sacred Gate so that I could begin this exploration of Athens in the reverse order of the path of the mystai as they left Athens for the annual procession to Eleusis. On my visit to Athens in 1985 I had visited the Acropolis, the National Archaeology Museum, and rode the funicular to the top of Lycabettus Hill. This time I hoped to visit all of the lesser known places in the city to help me better understand what a day in the life of an Athenian would have been like.

The Dipylon (two towers) Gate was the largest of the three main gates of Athens. It was the departure point of two roads, one leading to Eleusis (the Sacred Way), the other to Plato's Academy. Built in 479 B.C.E., the gate was of the courtyard type. A recess gave access to the city doors. Two strong towers protected the entry into this recess which was also flanked by two walls with sentry walks. At the extremity of this narrow courtyard, the gate proper consisted of two doors protected by two additional towers. Each year the Panathenaic procession entered into Athens through the Dipylon Gate.

Inside the gates were the ruins of the Kerameikos. The area took its name from the city quarter or dēmos of Kerameis, which in turn derived its name from the word keramos, "pottery clay" from which the English word "ceramic" is derived. The "Inner Kerameikos" was the former "potter's quarter" of the city and "Outer Kerameikos" covers the cemetery and also the public burial monument where Pericles delivered his funeral oration in 431 B.C.E..The area has undergone a number of archaeological excavations in recent years, though the excavated area covers only a small portion of the ancient dēmos. It was originally an area of marshland along the banks of the Eridanos river which was used as a cemetery as long ago as the third millennium B.C.E.. It became the site of an organised cemetery from about 1200 BC; numerous cist graves and burial offerings from the period have been discovered by archaeologists. Houses were constructed on the higher drier ground to the south. During the Archaic period increasingly large and complex grave mounds and monuments were built along the south bank of the Eridanos, lining the Sacred Way.

The building of the new city wall in 478 B.C.E., following the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C.E., fundamentally changed the appearance of the area. At the suggestion of Themistocles, all of the funerary sculptures were built into the city wall and two large city gates facing north-west were erected in the Kerameikos. The Sacred Way ran through the Sacred Gate, on the southern side, to Eleusis. On the northern side a wide road, the Dromos, ran through the double-arched Dipylon Gate and on to Plato's Academy a few miles away. State graves were built on either side of the Dipylon Gate, interring heroes of Athens such as notable warriors and statesmen, including Pericles and Cleisthenes.After the construction of the city wall, the Sacred Way and a forking street known as the Street of the Tombs again became lined with imposing sepulchral monuments belonging to the families of rich Athenians, dating to before the late fourth century B.C.E. The construction of such mausolea was banned by a decree in 317 BC, following which only small columns or inscribed square marble blocks were permitted as grave stones. The Roman occupation of Athens led to a resurgence of monument-building, although little is left of them today.

During the Classical period an important public building, the Pompeion, stood inside the walls in the area between the two gates. This served a key function in the procession (pompē) in honour of Athena during the Panathenaic Festival. It consisted of a large courtyard surrounded by columns and banquet rooms, where the nobility of Athens would eat the sacrificial meat for the festival. According to ancient Greek sources, a hecatomb (a sacrifice of 100 cows) was carried out for the festival and the people received the meat in the Kerameikos, possibly in the Dipylon courtyard; excavators have found heaps of bones in front of the city wall. The Pompeion and many other buildings in the vicinity of the Sacred Gate were razed to the ground by Sulla's forces during his sacking of Athens in 86 B.C.E., in an episode that Plutarch described as a bloodbath. During the second century AD, a storehouse was constructed on the site of the Pompeion but was destroyed during the invasion of the Heruli in 267 AD. The ruins became the site of potters' workshops until about 500 AD, when two parallel colonnades were built behind the city gates, overrunning the old city walls. A new Festival Gate was constructed to the east with three entrances leading into the city. This was in turn destroyed in raids by the invading Avars and Slavs at the end of the sixth century, and the Kerameikos fell into obscurity. It was not rediscovered until a Greek worker dug up a stele in April 1863.

Dipylon Gate Wall of Kerameikos Tomb of Dexileos Detail of Dexileos
Pamphile and Demetria Tombs of Koriolos and Hegeso Monument to the Lacedaemonians Statue in Kerameikos Museum

I walked along the ancient Panathenaic Way to where it diagonally crosses the site of the ancient Agora beginning in the northwest corner and contnuing through the southeast corner on its way to the Acropolis. The agora in Athens had been private housing, until it was reorganized by Peisistratus in the 6th century B.C.E. Although Peisistratus may have lived on the agora himself, he removed the other houses, closed wells, and made it the center of Athenian government. He also built a drainage system, fountains and a temple to the Olympian gods. Cimon later improved the agora by constructing new buildings and planting trees. In the 5th century B.C.E. temples were constructed to Hephaestus, Zeus and Apollo.

My initial objective was to find the ruins of the Eleusinion in the upper southeast corner and the temple dedicated to Triptolemos and his nefarious responsibility for founding cultivation. None of us who seek the great truths of existence can help but be moved to stand at the ruins of the State Prison just outside of the agora where Socrates spent his last moments with his friends. In the words of Plato's Phaedo:

"Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could not longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all.

Socrates alone retained his calmness: "What is this strange outcry?" he said. "...I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience."

When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, "No;" and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: "When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end."

He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said--they were his last words--he said: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?

"The debt shall be paid," said Crito; "is there anything else?"

There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end . . . of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best".

Next I walked along the street of the marble workers thinking that as a stone cutter, perhaps Socrates had worked or lived here. Finally I climbed up the hill to the Temple of Hyphaestus for a closer look and a view of the entire Agora.

Eleusinion Temple of Triptolemos State Prison Street of the Marble Cutters
Temple of Hephaestus from Agora Temple of Hyphaestus Temple of Hypaestus Frieze Agora from Hyphaestus Temple

5/17/89 - After another lazy morning I rode my last Greek kilometers back to the airport where I retrieved my bike box and suitcase to prepare for the flight back home. My bike odometer read 867 kilometers (538.728 miles) as my total riding distance for trip and I was very proud of my accomplishment. During the time I had decided to resign my position as Director of Systems Development at InfoMed in order to return to the gentle folds of Prudential/AARP in the hope that surrounding myself with the friends of yesteryear would help me continue to recover from the pain of my somewhat broken life. At Eleusis I had decided that in losing my wits and falling under the spell of my overwhelming desire for my ex-wife, I had followed Kore's path and eaten a seed from the pomegranate taken from Hades' orchards. I therefore now had within me a blemish that must be transformed in some way from unhealthy, destructive repression into healthy, life enhancing sublimation. Repression means to cover, to separate, to deny, and to hide. It means to internalize to the point of spiritual stagnation. It is the route of cynicism, the path of darkness, and it produces destructive guilt. Sublimation, on the other hand, means to transform, to uncover, to affirm, to open. It involves trust and conviction, and it is the path of light. To know the difference when faced with earthly desire is to know the proper path to enlightenment. To be able to exercise the will to follow that path is to know enlightenment. To accept help from spiritual guides and gods is to understand the nature of human limitation and is the key to successful sublimation.

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