Strictly Platonic? Loving the Ruins Less Known

In Athens, the Acropolis and Ancient Agora are only the beginning...

Romantic, mysterious and more or less falling apart—and no, I'm not talking about either the New York City subway or Cher's collection of wigs—ancient ruins are the true thrillers of the traveler's landscape.

“The lone standing column, the broken column, has had metaphorical status since the 18th century,” says Claire Lyons, Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California. According to this expert, that singular status has to do with nostalgia, resilience and the judgment of history.

Lyons says some of the best-known ancient sites are based on the great capital cities. “They're capsules of history embedded in these locations,” she says, adding that “ruins are excavated to remove the later history — the Roman Forum had at one point become a pasture — and expose one period.”

In Athens the Parthenon and Acropolis dominate: a classical and instantly recognizable pairing that's a sacred space too. But when ruins are so iconic, they can also obscure some that are not as widely known. Even when they're right under your nose. Case in point, the archaeological site and museum of Kerameikos.

Kerameikos is a large and now mostly green stretch of land slightly northwest of the Acropolis that was the potter's quarter in classical Athens. Its where the word "ceramics" comes from and Chances are pretty good that that beautiful black-figure vase depicting Greek heroes at work, play or (ahem) was turned out from an ancient potter's workshop here.

While most of the vases are on display (or in storage) at the National Archaeological Museum, you can see a number of fine examples at the small museum here. The interesting thing is to see these artifacts in such proximity to the places where they were likely made; in this sense a visit to the museum at Kerameikos is reminiscent of the excellent archaeological museum near the Oracle of Delphi.

But this was also the entrance to the city—the Dipylon Gate—and of course the famous ancient Athenian cemetery. As if that wasn't enough archaeology packed into one place, Kermeikos is also home to the best-preserved ancient Athenian fortification walls in the city.

The Dipylon consisted of four tall towers that created a rectangular courtyard meant as a sort of holding area for would-be invaders. It was the biggest entryway in the ancient world and today you can see the foundations of one of the towers. With the Acropolis looming behind, it just takes a little bit of imagination to appreciate how impressive, and probably daunting, the scene was here so long ago.

That said, probably the most evocative of the ruins at Kerameikos are the funerary monuments of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. lined up near the eastern perimeter on the so-called Street of Tombs. These likely once led to the fortified Long Walls of Piraeus.

On my first visit to Kerameikos I spent most of my time in the small but excellent archaeological museum and missed this area completely, but it is quietly breathtaking. You see the marble stele of the young Athenian warrior Dexileos, who is depicted as falling in battle under the hooves of a Spartan horse. Other funerary monuments come in the form of a marble bull, a fierce-looking Molossian hound guarding the tomb of Lysimachides and more.

The rustling of the olive tree leaves is punctuated by the occasional toot of a horn from the busy avenue beyond; time stands still but everyone's in a hurry. This is an urban dichotomy that fits Athens perfectly.

The ancient ruins in Athens as elsewhere in the world the compel you to summon your imagination according to what state they're in. Standing before the ruins of the Pnyx, the meeting point of the ekklesia, or ancient Athenian assembly on a hill only about 500 meters west of the Acropolis, it's not too hard to imagine speeches being made from the speaker's platform atop the large and well-preserved stone steps. Venture to the ruins of Plato's Academy, well outside the ancient walls, and you'll have to work much harder to conjure how it used to look. Mostly overgrown and not very well maintained, you might even call them ugly ducking ruins, but they're fascinating nonetheless. The ruins of Aristotle's Lyceum, home of philosopher's Peripatetic school, are situated close to Pagrati and are in a better state of preservation.

Ultimately, the power of ruins, beyond the history they reveal, is their power to stir the imagination. “Ruins evoke contrast between what is lost and what is retained, and between civilization and nature,” the Getty's Lyons observes. “There is something quite poetic about them in that sense.”

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