What to say about the Acropolis and the important buildings on it which, like Santorini, are emblematic of Greece Past and Present? From every vantage point in Athens, you will see the Parthenon, especially at night when it is lit up. The other buildings on the Acropolis and nearby are also lit up - take some time to get to know them.
First, a word about the Theater of Dionysus, located on the south side of the Acropolis. We start the day here because the ascent is fairly easy and other important buildings line the path. The whole area of the south slope of the Acropolis was sacred to Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy, fertility, life, obscene humor, and sublime spirituality - he was a god for the entire city population, not just the rich elites who used to control Athenian religious life. The theater itself was considered sacred space, as were the performances, both lofty tragic and ribald comedy. Depending on the CLAS course(s) you're taking, you're reading one or more tragedies, and they were first performed in this theater.
This plan of the Acropolis shows where the Theater of Dionysus is relative to the Parthenon - we enter just off the Street of the Tripods (Tripod Road in illustration), which we talk about when we visit the Lysikrates Monument on the first full day. Please come back to this plan for the location of other buildings mentioned below.
The video above (6:53) is a good introduction to Greek drama and theater, which is useful information to keep in mind as we head into the site. It also contains good pictures the Theater of Dionysus in Athens and Theater at Epidauros - learn more about the acoustics of ancient Greek theaters on the page for Epidauros.
The two page summary below nails nearly every important fact about ancient Athenian drama and the Theater of Dionysus - please ask me questions if this is an area that interests you and you want to know more.
During Mycenaean times Greeks in Athens used the "high point of the city" (acropolis) for defense again enemy attacks. There is a water supply in the rock that made it possible for the city inhabitants to hold up there for long periods of time if necessary. If you walk around the Acropolis - which you can do by making a sharp right down a path before exiting the area - you will come upon a water fountain from the same water supply the ancients used.
Most early Greek settlements had an acropolis - the one at Corinth makes the one in Athens look tiny. But Athens' high point was given over to the gods during the 6th century BC and soon became the center of Athenian religion and ritual. When Pericles wanted to erect a treasury to house taxes and tribute paid by the Delian League (members, sometimes willing, sometimes not of the Athenian Empire of the second half of the 5th cen. BC), it was a no-brainer to build it on the Acropolis as a visible monument to the greatness of the city's patron deity, Athena.
If you read that closely, you realize that the Parthenon was built as a treasury. When Athena was worshipped in ritual, the Erechtheion (see below) held much more spiritual significance. But the Parthenon soon after it was completed came to represent Athens, whose reputation as the center of philosophy, logic, education, science, drama never diminished in antiquity, even though from Hellenistic times onward Athens was no longer a superpower.
As we head up to the Acropolis from the Theater of Dionysus, stopping at the Temple of Asclepius and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, we first have to go through the Propylaea, or Monumental Gateway, the only way in and out of the Acropolis. The video below (:32) that shows the Propylaea (Gateway) to the Acropolis with the Temple of Athena Nike. You have to go through the Propylaea to get to the Acropolis, and hopefully you'll appreciate seeing it in advance.
The video below (8:07) is a great overview of the Erechtheion, in particular noting the clever craftsmanship involved in adjusting the dimensions to fit the terrain and the mythology behind the temple. It was the site where Athena and Poseidon squared off for the right to be patron deity of Athens and housed the most sacred little olive wood statue of Athena that was far more sacred to the Athenians than the 40' statue Pheidias built for the Parthenon. NB: When you come out of the Propylaea and see the Parthenon, you'll be tempted to run over and get close. But follow the right path: you're seeing the back end of the building (west side). We'll get there, but first we go to the Erechtheion.
An excellent introduction to the Parthenon (below 16:03) that succinctly and with great illustrations captures what everyone should know about the temple to Athena Parthenos (Virgin Athena) before heading up the Acropolis. If you watch no other video on this page, watch this one!
In the video below (6:25) - you cannot beat the computer generated graphics on what the Parthenon would have looked like in 5th century Athens. All of the artwork is identified in this video, right down to Pheidias’ 40’ statue of the goddess with the birth of Pandora depicted on the base. What these videos emphasize is the color that used to decorate ancient monuments in the 5th and 4th centuries BC - some got very gaudy later on, but there was just enough color on sculptures and other temple elements at this time to make the art pop. The Parthenon still pops today, but in antiquity it was breathtaking.