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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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The Physical Setting of Athens













Page 8

The Topography of the City of Athens


    So much for the land of Attica in general; but what of the setting of the city of Athens itself? The city lay in a plain, somewhat in the south central part of Attica, and about four miles back from the sea. A number of mountains came together to form an irregular rectangle with the Saronic Gulf upon the south. To the east of Athens stretched the long gnarled ridge of Hymettus, the wildest and grayest mountain in Attica, the home of bees and goatherds, and (if there be faith in pious legend) of innumerable nymphs and satyrs. To the west ran the lower, browner mountains, Ægaleos, across which a road (the "Sacred Way") wound through an easy pass towards Eleusis, the only sizable town in Attica, outside of Athens and its harbors. To the rear of the plain rose a noble pyramid, less jagged than Hymettus, more lordly than Ægaleos; its summits were fretted with a white which turned to clear rose color under the sunset. This was Pentelicus, from the veins whereof came the lustrous marble for the master sculptor. Closer at hand, nearer the center of the plain, rose a small and very isolated hill,—Lycabettus, whose peaked summit looked down upon the roofs of Athens. And last, but never least, about one mile southwest of Lycabettus, upreared a natural monument of much greater frame,—not a hill, but a colossal rock. Its shape was that of an irregular oval; it was about 1000 feet long, 500 feet wide, and its level summit stood 350 feet above the plain. This steep, tawny rock, flung by the Titans, one might dream, into the midst of the Attic plain, formed one of the most famous sites in the world, for it was the Acropolis of Athens. Its full significance, however, must be explained later. From the Acropolis and a few lesser hills close by, the land sloped gently down towards the harbors and the Saronic Bay.

    These were the great features of the outward setting of Athens. One might add to them the long belt of dark green olive groves winding down the westward side of the plain, where the Cephisus (which along among Attic rivulets did not run dry in summer) ran down to the sea. There was also a shorter olive belt west of the city, where the weaker Ilissus crept, before it lost itself amid the thirsty fields.

Sea, rock, and sky, then, joined together around Athens as around almost no other city in the world. The landscape itself was adjusted to the eye with marvelous harmony. The colors and contours formed one glorious model for the sculptor and the painter, one perpetual inspiration for the poet. Even if Athens had never been the seat of a famous race, she would have won fame as being situated in one of the most beautiful localities in the world. Rightly, therefore, did its dwellers boast of their city as the "Violet-crowned" (Iostephanos).


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