Propylea

A place as important and sacred as the Acropolis of Athens needed to have an entrance in accordance with its level. Architect Mnesicles completely exceeded expectations with these monumental Propylaea. This construction of the classical period of ancient Greece would make the visitor feel small today…

Hello, traveler! I am a tour guide in Athens and welcome to this special blog. Are you interested in the Propylea? Here you will find EVERYTHING you need to know about it. 

Note: This article is part of the virtual tour of the Acropolis of Athens that we offer free of charge on our website. If you do not know what this is about and want to find out EVERYTHING about this sacred enclosure (including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, etc.), then you should visit the homepage.

The Propylaea of the Acropolis of Athens

The Propylaea is located on the west slope of the sacred rock, being the only access point to the interior of the fortification of the Acropolis of Athens. Despite being “alone” at the entrance of the enclosure, they are considered a monument in itself. – And no wonder! – Many people don’t know it, but the Propylaea have a much older history than the Parthenon and the rest of the temples:

History

The history of the Propylaea of Athens dates back to the Mycenaean civilization (from the 16th to the 12th century AD) when an access door to the fortification of the Acropolis was built. From this time, you may be familiar with the name of King Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus (who would be renamed Ulysses by the Romans). All heroes and protagonists participated in the Trojan War, which is recounted in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Later, during ancient Greece, Athenian tyrant Pisistratus ordered the construction (6th century A.D) of new Propylaea at the entrance to the sacred rock. At this time, the Acropolis had already become an enclosure dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, wars, and the city’s protector.

Although these Propylaea would be even simpler than what Athens would later know:

New Propylaea were built between 510 and 480 B.C. However, these did not last long as the Persians destroyed them in the Second Medical War (480 B.C.). Now moving on to the “definitive” ones…

After the Greek victory in the war mentioned above, Athens would know a new era. Thus that’s when the classical period began. It is where, in addition to repairing the existing Propylaea as part of the new fortification of Themistocles, the magnificent construction that modern visitors can appreciate today would BEGIN to be built.

Why is the word “begin” used?

You see, here’s an unusual fact: The Propylaea was part of the construction plan of the famous Athenian legislator Pericles (supposedly the person who “invented” the world’s first democracy). The architect in charge of this work was Mnesicles, who had in mind to build something architecturally and artistically very daring.

ATTENTION: The Propylaea of the Acropolis of Athens was NEVER finished. Indeed, then the Peloponnesian War broke out (between Athens, Sparta, and the respective leagues they commanded), and the original construction of the Propylaea was stopped permanently…

Let’s find out now about the different (AND VERY DIVERSE) uses that this construction had, besides its peculiar and unfortunate destruction:

Propylaea: uses and destruction

  • After the arrival of Christianity, the central section and the southern wing of the Propylaea were converted into churches.
  • Later this construction would be used as a residence by the Dukes of Roche during Franco’s rule (between the 13th and 14th centuries).
  • The last use of the Propylaea was that of the headquarters of the Ottomans, who also used this space as their armament and gunpowder storehouse… This brings us to the last point:
  • In the 17th century and during a siege by the Venetians, this place exploded.

Was it due to enemy bombardment or the fact that its storage of gunpowder?

I don’t know the answer. I’ve heard and read about both versions. However, at the end of the day, I “just know that I don’t know anything“…

The Propylaea of Athens, like the Acropolis, was restored in the 20th century. However, another quite ambitious restoration process of the ENTIRE site is currently underway. Let us find out about what the entrance to this sacred site looked like:

Characteristics and Architecture of the Propylaea

View of the Propylaea from inside the fortification

The most crucial element of the architecture of the Propylaea is the Temple of Athena Nike (for which you can find a separate article). However, here you should find more about the greatness of the Propylaea since they have nothing to envy to any other monument.

The construction of the Propylaea follows the form of the letter π (pi). Note this fact when you have the building in front of you and before entering the fortification of the Acropolis. The material used is the very famous white Pentelic marble, i.e., the same used to build the Parthenon and other important monuments of Athens.

However, keep in mind one thing: ALL the solid and whole pieces that make up the temples of the Acropolis have had to pass through the Propylaea before. Of course, they have been dragged (albeit with a rather interesting counterweight system) along the slope that many tourists complain about today (that you have to climb to enter the enclosure). But let’s move on:

The central part of the building, which is considered the Propylon itself, had an interior and an exterior facade. Both were supported by six Doric columns, among which there was a wall with five doors. The front door was flanked by three Ionic columns on each side.

It should be noted that the Propylaea was built on a steep slope, so it had to be adapted to this situation. As a result, the east portico and its pediment were constructed at a much higher elevation than those on the west side. Similarly, the lateral sections were also placed lower than the central one. 

Interesting fact: There are theories that this space was used as a resting area for visitors to the sacred rock, even that it would have beds.

Congratulations, traveler, on reading this far! You’re definitely getting ready to make the most of your visit to the Acropolis of Athens. You can now skip to the next monument and continue with our virtual tour.

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