When you think of Athens, an image of the Parthenon perched high above the city on the Acropolis is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But I’m here to tell you about another ancient site that you need to visit when you go to Athens (not if), the Ancient Athenian Agora. From the outside it might seem like a lot of ruins, but there’s more than meets the eye to this ancient marketplace.
Walk down the street Adrianou away from Hadrian’s library. Pass Hard Rock cafe and several traditional Greek restaurants, turn left across a small bridge spanning the train tracks below, and enter the Agora.
As you enter here, try to imagine the ancient marketplace as it was nearly 5000 year ago, a bustling city center where politics, religion and daily life came together to run the city, and the empire. Much of the original agora was built over, updated, destroyed and changed over the five millennia it was used. But lucky for us, in 1931 archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies, funded by John D. Rockefeller removed over 400 modern buildings and stripped back the agora to the ruins of the original marketplace. Twenty-five years later, in 1956, The American School of Classical Studies completed phenomenal restoration on the stoa of Attalos which was originally destroyed in 267 CE.
The Stoa of Attalos now houses a museum including several statues and scale miniatures of the agora through the centuries. Climb to the second floor for a beautiful, shaded view of the agora and the rest of Athens. It also has a small museum gift shop and most importantly, bathrooms. I saved this gorgeous building for the end of my tour around the agora so I could cool down in the shade of the beautifully restored marble.
If you decide to do as I did and save the stoa for the end, head right as you enter the agora from Adrianou. The paths are dusty and dry, and really, there isn’t much to see. But take the time to pause and try to imagine what it was like back then. This was the center of the city, politics and religion mixed with daily life. Much of what is left is in ruins, but you can still see the outlines of several things including civic offices and several small shrines for worship. There are also remnants of a water clock that was used for timing (probably political) speeches, which I think is genius for the time.
As you head away from the stoa, you’ll inevitably be drawn to the other large building dominating the agora, the nearly complete Temple of Hephaestus. With massive columns, pediments and facades intact, it’s complete enough to see what it was like back then without having to stretch the imagination. With massive columns, pediments and facades intact it is awe-inspiring to realize that the ancient Greeks constructed such a momentous building without modern tools. Take a moment to ponder the intricacy of the carvings. I stood at the base of this extraordinary temple feeling both very small and intrinsically linked to the past at the same time.
When you’re done marveling at the Temple of Hephaestus, head town the paths and through the other side of the agora. On this side you’ll encounter more ruins of things such as the round ruins of the Tholos, the headquarters for the Prytaneis of the Boule (the executives of the senate). You’ll also see remnants of where the Boule met and the ruins of the Metroon, or state archives.
As you near the stoa, you’ll run into a building that doesn’t really seem to go with the rest of the agora. It is a Christian church, The Church of the Holy Apostles, and dates from the late 10th century. In 1956 it was restored and stands whole today. The fresco paintings on the walls inside are definitely worth a quick peek.
Finally, after walking all around the agora, you’ll eventually reach the stoa. The imposing building is larger than the Temple of Hephaestus and even though it’s largely reconstructed, you can still see some pieces on it that are original. And that’s it. The Ancient Agora, an often overlooked tourist location, but phenomenal none the less.