Panos Profitis
Visual artist Panos Profitis models one of his prop masks. Myrto Papadopoulos

The first golden age of Athenian tourism occurred around 435 B.C., when culture-lovers from around the Greek world flocked to the city at the peak of its glory. It was an unforgettable travel experience: After arriving by sea at the port of Piraeus, wide-eyed ancient sightseers would walk the four miles along defensive walls to the central Agora, the market square where illustrious philosophers like Socrates debated, young athletes worked out beneath marble colonnades, mathematicians drew their geometric theorems in the sand, and splendid temples were crowded with ravishing artworks by the world’s most talented sculptors. Travelers rushed to the houses of historical celebrities, the grave of lawgiver Solon and the supposed resting place of the mythic hero Oedipus. The main attraction, however, was to ascend on foot the Panathenaic Way up the steep flanks of the Acropolis, the soaring “sacred rock,” which was crowned with the newly completed Parthenon, considered the most perfectly proportioned structure on earth.

There, they might attend one of the theatrical performances for which Athens was justly famous, for its dramatists had invented tragedy, comedy and choral poetry.

In Athens today, centuries can dissolve in the blink of an eye, as I found on a recent summer’s evening when I set off on foot along the same Panathenaic Way with a stream of modern Greek-culture-lovers. Every step was an echo of ancient tradition: Climbing to the Acropolis, I passed serene olive groves with sweeping views of the Agora, where the near-intact Temple of Hephaestus still rises; thanks to blasts of the etesian winds, I could see the blue Aegean sparkling on the horizon. My destination was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a majestic 4,680-seat amphitheater on the Acropolis’ southwest side named after the arts patron who funded its construction. The audience members all edged along narrow rows of the steep semicircle to take their limestone seats, which were thankfully softened by thin pillows. On the night’s playbill was Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, which had premiered in 405 B.C. at the Theater of Dionysus a stone’s throw away, when it won first prize in the annual theater festival.

The head of the philosopher Socrates.

Now, 2,400-odd years later, the play was performed in Greek with projected English translations and modern sound and lighting systems. But otherwise, there was a rich sense of continuity: Like the original Athenian audience, we watched in fascination as the god Dionysus came down to earth to visit the women of Thebes, who had taken up his secret Bacchic rites in the nearby mountains. The tragedy unfolds inexorably as the arrogant King Pentheus infiltrates the sacred female ceremonies in disguise but is discovered and torn limb from limb by the delirious and ecstatic celebrants—who, it turns out, include his own mother and aunts.

Leaving the theater afterward, we all looked in wonder at the Parthenon hovering above and the moonlit city below. I could only agree with the classical travelers who felt that Athens’ exquisite natural setting was matched by the harmony of its man-made adornments. As the Athenian comic poet Lysippus proudly declared around 400 B.C.:

If you’ve never seen Athens,
your brain’s a morass;
if you’ve seen it and weren’t
entranced, you’re an ass;
if you’ve left without regrets,
your head’s solid brass!

For me, watching the live performance of Euripides was a pleasing connection to antiquity. It was also a serene way to experience the Acropolis, which has become so jampacked with tourists that in September 2023 their numbers had to be limited to 20,000 per day. But a night at the amphitheater is not the only unexpected gateway to the past.

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Acropolis Museum
A display at the Acropolis Museum of statues (some reproductions) that once graced the east pediment of the Parthenon. Myrto Papadopoulos

A fresh energy is evident in Athens today, allowing the ancient and modern worlds to interact in creative ways. “There is a new sensitivity to how archaeological finds are being saved and presented,” said Paul Cartledge, an ancient Greek historian emeritus at the University of Cambridge, pointing to the array of innovative showcases for the city’s historic treasures in the pipeline.

The National Archaeological Museum has been home since 1889 to many of the finest artistic masterpieces of the ancient world, including a bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon and the so-called Mask of Agamemnon made from beaten gold. In 2023, it announced a $300 million expansion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect David Chipperfield and Greek firm Tombazis, adding around 200,000 square feet of exhibition space and lush gardens. Plans were also approved in 2023 for a striking “invisible” museum devoted to the history of Athens, where underground galleries will blend with verdant parkland to revive the run-down inner-city area Akadimia Platonos, or Plato’s Academy.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, in a 1913 print, was built as an artistic venue between A.D. 160 and 174 and is still in use today, hosting everything from plays to rock concerts.

And the fascination for the classical world ripples through society in unexpected ways: There are now museums in subway stations, ancient aqueducts are being repurposed, and Athenians are drawing on the past for inspiration in art, gastronomy, even massage therapy. At the same time, historians are looking more critically at ancient Athenians’ society and culture, offering a less worshipful and more complex understanding of both their genius and their faults.

As a base for exploring our changing attitudes about ancient Athenians, I checked into the Grande Bretagne, the favored hotel for visiting Hellenophiles since it opened in 1874. When Athens had been chosen as the capital of Greece four decades earlier—the country won its independence after four centuries of Ottoman rule in 1832—it was barely larger than a village, with 2,500 inhabitants, a shadow of its classical peak of 300,000. To remedy this, the Greek government embarked on excavations and a building program, erecting grandiose public edifices, museums and a university in the neoclassical style. The palatial Grande Bretagne accommodated foreign admirers—many of them Britons inspired by Romantic poets like Lord Byron and Percy Shelley—and it still rises like a marble-sheathed temple over Syntagma Square, the official heart of the modern city. My gilded room was adorned with evocative 19th-century engravings—Greek urns, overgrown ruins, images of the gods and heroes—and from the balcony I could watch the Sunday changing of the guard outside the Hellenic Parliament, with the soldiers marching in traditional pom-pom shoes past classical-style statues.

Acropolis Museum
From the $200 million Acropolis Museum, completed in 2009, visitors have unparalleled views of the modern city of Athens, as well as the Parthenon and other ancient monuments. Myrto Papadopoulos

It was only in the 1950s that Athens exploded in size, with internal migrants flooding in from the Greek countryside and islands to create sprawling suburbs bristling with TV antennas and electricity wires, as well as notoriously gridlocked traffic. The new building methods created a collision between the ancient and modern cities, with developers damaging archaeological sites in the breakneck push for expansion. When I first visited 25 years ago to research my books on the ancient world, Athens was a chaotic and exhausting place where most visitors stayed for a night or two before beating a hasty retreat to island beaches. But the 2004 Olympics brought radical improvements, with new highways easing traffic and pedestrian-only areas growing around historic sites. Today, despite ongoing economic pain since the 2010 debt crisis brought rioters into the streets, Athens is recreating itself as one of Europe’s most energetic cities, where past and present coexist in ways that once seemed impossible.

George Sachinis
George Sachinis, director of strategy and innovation for Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company, has big plans for Hadrian’s nearly 2,000-year-old aqueduct. Myrto Papadopoulos

My first stop was the most unlikely new “museum” in Athens: a subway station called Dimotiko Theatro, or Municipal Theater, more than 50 feet underground. It’s located in Piraeus, the port of Athens, where ancient travelers would often arrive and where the Athenian fleet was built and berthed in the days of Pericles to rule the empire. Today, it’s a gritty industrial area and hub for shipping and ferries, where trendy restaurants in warehouses sit alongside art galleries and nautical machinery shops. Twenty minutes from downtown, I joined throngs of rush-hour commuters as they followed subterranean tunnels through Dimotiko’s gleaming chrome-and-blue interior. Surrounding us on all sides was a permanent exhibition called “Tales of Invisible Water,” displaying objects unearthed during construction related to Athens’ ancient hydraulic system, including the imposing carved stone remains of below-ground aqueducts and bell-shaped cisterns. Under glass beneath our feet were the foundations of a villa from the fourth century B.C. complete with floor mosaics and softly lit domestic water tanks and amphoras.

The underground tunnels of Hadrian’s Aqueduct
The underground tunnels of Hadrian’s Aqueduct begin about 12 miles north of Athens at Mount Parnitha and end in the upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki, in the city center. Myrto Papadopoulos

Inaugurated in late 2022, the metro museum in Piraeus is the latest phase of the subway project that began in 1992 and has become the city’s largest and most fertile archaeological dig. Athens is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and the sheer density of material evidence is mind-boggling. “You’re dealing with a city whose site has been occupied since Neolithic times and built on continuously,” said Florentia Fragkopoulou, a scientific collaborator at the Acropolis Museum. “It’s a paradise for archaeologists and visitors, where you can see the strata of everyday life for millennia.” Almost every time a spade is put into the earth, a trove of relics is revealed, Fragkopoulou said. For example, one of the city’s most striking contemporary structures, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, designed by Renzo Piano as the home of the Greek National Opera and a splendid library, was erected on the site of an ancient cemetery that was in use from the eighth to fourth centuries B.C. When construction work began in 2012, the private company brought in a team of archaeologists, including Fragkopoulou in 2013 for 12 months. In that time, they unearthed and cataloged hundreds of artifacts from the site and placed them safely in storage.

Hotel Grande Bretagne
Located in the former mansion of a wealthy Greek businessman, the hotel Grande Bretagne has been an Athenian landmark since it opened in 1874. Myrto Papadopoulos

The metro system has been even more fruitful. Since excavation began in 1992, some 50,000 artifacts have come to light. Apart from the new Piraeus stop, several subway stations, including the central hub Syntagma itself, display the finds in exhibits that are now a casually accepted part of the urban fabric.

But while the ancient infrastructure in the Piraeus subway is only for display, another section of the water system is being put to practical use. To explore it, I returned to central Athens and climbed the steep streets into the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood below Lycabettus Hill, the city’s highest point, to meet George Sachinis, director of strategy and innovation for EYDAP (the Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Company). We were joined by Lynnette Widder, a Columbia University architecture expert who specializes in sustainable environmental building, and two members of Urban Dig, an Athenian group that hosts cultural events in historic sites. Sachinis, a wiry engineer in khaki work clothes, led us down steps into a cavernous, empty reservoir chamber whose arched roof was being strengthened. Before us gaped the carved stone entrance of Hadrian’s Aqueduct, about five feet high and three feet wide. We put on hard hats and climbed a ladder to enter, using our iPhones to light the way as we crouched through the barrel-vaulted tunnel. “It was a different technological approach to what we imagine as a Roman aqueduct,” explained Widder. “It was an invisible water supply, unlike the heroic arched versions.”

Built in the second century A.D. as part of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s renovation of the city—he was a devoted Hellenophile—the aqueduct starts in the mountains above Athens, some 100 feet higher than the Agora, and is replenished along its 12-mile route by some 400 bore wells. It was such a fine piece of engineering that it remained one of the main water sources for Athens until 1931, when a new aqueduct was built with help of New York engineers. By then, the groundwater for Hadrian’s Aqueduct was becoming contaminated, because Athens had no effective sewerage system, and it soon fell into disuse. The 200 million gallons of water passing through it daily are still simply flushed out to sea, a terrible waste in a city parched by the Mediterranean sun. “We tried to use the water for irrigation in the 1980s,” said Sachinis, “but all the plants in the parks died.” The sewerage system was finally improved in the ’90s, and today the water is relatively clean, he said, with bio-membranes and UV treatments to purify it further. With European Union funding, EYDAP plans to redistribute water in ten spots along the aqueduct’s route, many in poorer areas that lack parks. “With climate change, urban heating is a huge problem in Athens,” he said. “We need these green projects to bring shade and cool.”

Dorotea Mercuri
Actress, model and chef Dorotea Mercuri, in her home kitchen in Athens, recently starred in a documentary about the ancient Greek influence on regions of Italy. Myrto Papadopoulos

Meanwhile, Urban Dig is inviting artists to increase community involvement. It plans to use the reservoir as a venue for theatrical events and as a “digital canvas” where images about its history will be projected on the walls and ceilings. It will also be connected with another ancient water tank to create a new plaza called Reservoir Square, with underground galleries and cultural centers. “For centuries, Hadrian’s Aqueduct was a major water source for the city,” Sachinis summed up. “Athenians used antiquity in their daily lives. Now we are revisiting it for the new urban needs of the 21st century.”

If the aqueduct is a hidden 21st-century site, the Acropolis is at the opposite extreme: As one of the Mediterranean’s most visible attractions, every renovation or alteration is the subject of furious debate. (In 2021, paving over part of the plateau’s surface with concrete to make it more accessible to disabled visitors was decried by many scholars as “Disneyfication.”) Thanks to its popularity, timing a visit by day is a delicate art: When I revisited, I went late in the afternoon via the lesser-known secondary entrance by the pedestrian street Dionysiou Areopagitou, where the crowds were magically thin. In the relative serenity, it was easy to imagine the excitement of the classical Greek travelers who rushed to the hallowed site. The Parthenon’s friezes were then colorfully painted, and the temple was presided over by a colossal statue of the warrior-goddess Athena, whose gold helmet glinted in the sun. To appreciate the many pagan shrines and relics that crowded the site, these pioneer tourists consulted guidebook-scrolls, hired learned guides called periegetai (“leaders around”) or exegetai (“explainers”), and even paid artists to dash off souvenir portraits with the Parthenon in the background.

Today, the plateau is uncluttered in a way that would have surprised the ancients. “The Acropolis as we see it now is not as it was but a modern creation,” Cartledge had explained when I spoke to him before my visit. “When the Greeks became independent in 1832, they wanted to see themselves as linear descendants of the ancient Athenians, specifically those in the fifth-century B.C. golden age. With both excavations and standing ruins, everything before and after those dates was removed or destroyed.” At the Parthenon, a Byzantine tower and mosque from the Ottoman era were knocked down. Greece’s first archaeology museums, meanwhile, privileged the relics of the city’s Periclean heyday over items from earlier eras or the non-Greek world. “Now museums are showing the historical context and the foreign influences on the Athenians.”

The most vivid example of this is the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 in a light-filled contemporary structure designed by architect Bernard Tschumi. Visitors ascend floor by floor through the physical strata of Athenian history from the Bronze Age to the end of antiquity. The spectacular top floor is angled to parallel the Parthenon, which is visible through vast picture windows. On display are copies of the sculptures that once decorated its pediment, often referred to as the Elgin Marbles after Lord Elgin, the British aristocrat-collector who removed the originals and had them shipped to England between 1801 and 1812.

In a parallel movement, historians are broadening the idealized view of Athenian society formed in the 19th century, which focused only on its intellectual splendor. “The Athenians can make a very good case that their ancestors’ achievements are at the root of Western civilization,” said Cartledge. “They invented democracy, which is today a worldwide phenomenon. Add to that their cultural breakthroughs, inventing historiography, medicine, theater, philosophy—even the words are of Greek origin. But today in the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo era, we have to look at the ancient Athenians more critically. Slavery was taken for granted. Women were never allowed anywhere near politics. Non-Greeks”—that is, those beyond the Hellenic lands and the dozens of Greek colonies around the Mediterranean—“were regarded in a negative way that today we would find offensive.” Meanwhile, the building program of the 440s and 430s B.C. that created so many masterpieces was funded by the Athenians’ empire, which exacted tribute from 200 or so Greek towns, cities and islands. “Who physically constructed the Parthenon? Who hauled the marble? Slaves. They did much of the carving as well,” Cartledge added. “It’s not a straightforward situation. One has to be more nuanced.”

Dolli hotel
Steps from the Acropolis, the Dolli hotel, opened in 2023, reflects old and new Athens, with classical views and sleek, modern interiors. Myrto Papadopoulos

Today, Athenian museum curators are taking these academic shifts to heart. “We hope to tell new and different narratives about ancient Greece,” said Anna Karapanagiotou, the director of the National Archaeological Museum, as she led me into its sprawling storage rooms to show me the staggering depth of its collections. Currently some 12,000 items are on display in the stately neoclassical edifice, but behind the scenes 150,000 more are arranged by type—cemetery reliefs, urns, statues—with slices of foam to protect them if an earthquake hits. There are many misconceptions about the ancients, Karapanagiotou added as we passed staff photographing a Mycenaean pyxis, or carved stone jewelry box, starting with their politics. “Athenian democracy was such a powerful idea,” she said, “but few realize that women could not vote. They couldn’t hold office or even go to the theater. The only public role was for priestesses.” (One of the main differences in my visit to see The Bacchae, she added, was that there are today female actors and women in the audience.) Slaves and foreigners, who were dismissed by Athenians as “barbarians,” were also unable to vote. In fact, only 40,000 male citizens participated in the first democracy—out of a population of 300,000.

Then there is ancient sexuality, which many Greeks in particular are slow to accept. Cartledge points out that, according to the dogma of the Greek Orthodox Church, homosexuality is still frowned upon. But ancient Greek men, including Alexander the Great, openly slept with men as well as with women. When Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander depicted this, a Greek organization claimed it was defamatory and threatened to sue in an attempt to stop its distribution.

Profitis with plaster mask
Profitis with a plaster mask he created for Meteors, an installation at an archaeological museum in the Greek city of Amfissa. Myrto Papadopoulos

Meanwhile, our perception of the physical appearance of Athens is changing. Victorian scholars popularized the idea that Greek sculptures were pristine white marble, making them a pinnacle of refined taste. In fact, they were all painted in bright colors, which can seem garish to modern eyes; they often had ivory eyes for expression, and copper or brass adornments. “The lack of color distorts our view of the past,” said Panagiotis Iossif, scientific director of the Museum of Cycladic Art. “I tell my students that if you want to imagine ancient Athens, look to the modern-day souks of the Middle East. They are very noisy, very colorful, very smelly. Forget about the white!”

The creative dialogue between ancient and modern infuses Athenian daily life in other unexpected ways, as I discovered when I visited Anthologist, a design store located in a splendidly restored 1912 building and hidden, incongruously, above two busy falafel restaurants. The entryway was adorned with stained-glass images inspired by the art of Knossos, the Minoan city in Crete, while the jewelry and textiles on display rework favorite ancient Greek motifs like dolphins and the chimera, a mythological creature that combined the parts of a lion, goat and snake. These were blended with design elements from the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, reflecting the recent academic acceptance of foreign influences. “Athens has always been at the center of the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean,” observed Andria Mitsakos, the founder and creative director of Anthologist. “The ancient Greeks were influenced by Persia, Egypt, North Africa, even Afghanistan and Armenia. They were never in isolation.”

Mitsakos, the granddaughter of Greek Armenians who fled to the Boston area in the 1920s, moved full time to Athens in 2013 to work with local Athenian artisans and metal foundries. “I take ancient Greek design and see how it translates to the modern world,” she said. “The type of objects that were in use 3,000 years ago are still in use today. The cubed floor mosaic patterns you find in Delos, Apollo’s sacred island, are still popular. They have been reinterpreted by designers over the centuries, but you can recognize them.”

The ancients even made a surprise appearance when I moved to my second hotel, Mona, located in a renovated textile factory from the 1950s in the former working-class neighborhood of Psirri. The hotel’s industrial-chic aesthetic was strikingly contemporary, with postmodern furniture set against raw concrete walls and polished stone floors suggesting a refined Hellenic corner of Brooklyn. But then I learned that the hotel hosts a regular social club that was testing out an ancient banquet theme. This “archaeo-gastronomy” was taking recipes from classical references like Athenaeus’ The Deipnosophists, a detailed description of a symposium, or philosophers’ banquet, involving food, wine and learned debate. Its title is usually translated as “Banquet of the Learned,” although some scholars suggest the more evocative “Partying Professors.”

And so I joined the Greek Italian actor, chef and TV host Dorotea Mercuri on a shopping trip for fifth-century B.C. banquet ingredients in the busy Kallidromiou Farmers Market, held every Saturday in a narrow laneway. Farmers come from the countryside around Athens to sell their produce while small groups of musicians busk with bouzouki music. It evoked the exuberant market in the ancient Agora, which by the fifth century B.C. overflowed with culinary treats, brought by traders from Syria to Spain. (As the Athenian poet Eubulus said, you could find anything in the prototype piazza; there were figs, roses, chickpeas, fish, lawyers, lambs, water-clocks, iron mongers, perfumers …)

Andria Mitsakos
Andria Mitsakos, founder of the design shop Anthologist, is dedicated to supporting artisans who use traditional methods. Myrto Papadopoulos

“The first thing you notice in a market is what we can’t use,” Mercuri said. Many beloved “Mediterranean” vegetables actually came from the Americas post-1492, she noted. “There were no tomatoes, so ‘Greek salad,’ the most famous Greek dish on the planet, didn’t exist. There were no potatoes. No corn.” There was no sugar—they sweetened dishes with honey—and little of the modern Greek dining favorite, lamb: “The ancient Greeks didn’t eat much meat compared to today. It was only at religious festivals, when animals were sacrificed. Then, everyone was given a piece.” Instead, we loaded up on fresh fish, chickpeas, onions and garlic, as well as thyme, oregano and bay leaves for seasoning. “Ancient Greek food was very light, fresh, easy to digest and very colorful,” Mercuri said, and was far humbler than imperial Roman banquets made famous by Hollywood, designed to titillate jaded aristocratic palates. “The ancient Athenians enjoyed what we would call ‘comfort foods,’” she said. “They had a healthy diet with little fat, and people walked a lot!”

The actual banquet—or ancient Greek “test kitchen”—was held the next day in Mercuri’s apartment in the leafy Mets neighborhood, around a table decorated with flowers, nuts and pomegranates. Unlike at the all-male symposia, all the guests beside myself were Athenian women, including the creative director of Mona, Eftihia Stefanidi; her artist sister Elli; and the photographer Alexandra Mercuri. One by one the dishes emerged: fava beans with red onions and extra-virgin olive oil from Messinia, oven-baked white snapper with lemon and thyme, hard sheep and goat cheeses from Samos served with plump Kalamata olives and grapes, boiled zucchini in sea salt from Kythera. Of course there was wine, which for the Greeks was as essential a staple as bread, although it tended to be strong, so it was drunk mixed with water; only drunkards took their wine “neat.” For another touch of authenticity, I had picked up a bottle of Assyrtiko, wine made from grapes that have grown on the volcanic slopes of the island of Santorini for over 3,500 years, a uniquely venerable lineage: The tough island vines, accustomed to dry and sandy soil, were resistant to the phylloxera pest that decimated world vineyards in the 19th century. Its lively taste lived up to its description as “smoky,” “salty” and “flinty.”

Parthenon Sculpture
Among the displays in the Acropolis Museum is this life-size plaster restoration of one of the sculptures that once adorned the roof of the Parthenon. Myrto Papadopoulos

In ancient symposia, a guest was chosen as the master of drinking, who poured the wine into decorated bowls called kraters and regulated the pace of the meal. In the fourth century B.C., the poet Eubulus wrote a humorous verse about drinking parties that often descended from refined to rowdy, quoted in The Deipnosophists. I read it aloud as a toast to the evening. After the first three bowls of wine, Eubulus opines, “wise guests go home.” The fourth bowl of wine “belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes. The eighth belongs to the policeman; the ninth to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.”

Later, Dorotea Mercuri suggested I continue my research into the renewed interest in the ancient world with a “Pythagorean sound massage.” She pointed out that the thinker Pythagoras, who lived on the island of Samos from around 570 to about 532 or 530 B.C., is known today as a mathematician—the Pythagorean theorem is a cornerstone of geometry—but he also believed that mathematics could explain musical tones and harmony, and that music had medicinal qualities for its calming and healing effects. I was skeptical, but the next day I dutifully climbed the stairs of a nearby apartment in Mets to meet the 40-something Nikolaos Unalome, who greeted me at the door in down-to-earth Nike shorts and T-shirt. “Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato—all the ancient Greek philosophers talked about the vibration of the universe,” Unalome said. “Sound can unblock deep emotions and induce a profound level of relaxation.” Laid out in a room were musical instruments handcrafted by specialist artisans in Poland, including bilas, “flat bells,” sheets of polished bronze that are struck by mallets, and “singing birds,” a set of 21 small metal disks that make a sound, he explained, “as if a flock of birds were singing while flying over space.”

“Pythagoras said that the highest aim of music is not to entertain but to connect one’s soul to its divine nature,” Unalome told me as I lay down on a padded table in a candlelit room. I was still dubious. But as he played the instruments, I could indeed feel the vibrations rippling through my body like a subtle massage.

Later, I went to a more formal immersive experience, the new House of Classical Greek Ideas, which opened in late 2023 in a sleek conservatory that overlooks the ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum. The museum celebrates the art of philosophy, perhaps the most influential of all Athenian contributions. “We look at eudaimonia, which is the search for ‘human well-being,’” explained curator Lida Arnellou as we entered a chamber with moving projections on every wall. “The great moral and social questions first posed by the Greek philosophers are still debated today. How can we live a good life? How can we be happy? How can democracy be better?” Groups of 20 pass through high-tech interactive exhibits and are encouraged to debate the issues. The experience ends with a real-life historical dilemma: Visitors are returned to 399 B.C., when Socrates has been condemned to death unjustly for “corrupting Athenian youth” and introducing new gods. Should he accept the law and drink the cup of deadly hemlock or (as his friends begged) flee to safety? Depending on how visitors vote, they leave through different exits.

House of Classical Greek Ideas
A visitor immerses himself in a digital exhibit at the newly opened House of Classical Greek Ideas. The museum showcases ancient Greek ideas and philosophy. Myrto Papadopoulos

“Think of it as a philosophical escape room,” Arnellou said with a laugh.

Athens’ contemporary artists are also engaging with the ancients, as I found when I visited the city’s annual art fair, Art Athina. It was held in Zappeion Hall, an enormous circular structure that was built in 1888 in classical style as a venue for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, with an open atrium, gleaming white Corinthian columns, and brilliantly colored frescoes and floor mosaics. At the stand of a provocative gallery called The Breeder, the artist Aristeidis Lappas had created a giant portrait of the Minotaur. The mythical half-man, half-bull lived in the Labyrinth of Crete and received the sacrifice of young Athenian men and maidens, but Lappas had made him a colorful, friendly forest creature. “I’m trying to transform the symbol,” he said. “Picasso used the Minotaur as a symbol of aggressive masculinity, but Minoan culture was matriarchal, and this bull is very gentle.” Another artist, Panos Profitis, was displaying sculptures that included a giant foot of Hermes, messenger of the gods, spray-painted silver and with bat-like wings on his ankles instead of bird wings. He also used classical torsos, masks from Greek tragedy and references to Aristophanes’ 405 B.C. satire The Frogs, which involves a visit to the underworld.

On my last night in Athens, I took an ancient journey to the underworld myself. Throughout antiquity, the most intellectually adventurous travelers to Athens would embark on a 14-mile procession west along a stone road called the Sacred Way to visit the shrine of Eleusis, one of the most sacred in the pagan world. There, secret rituals were held in honor of the earth and fertility goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, whose annual passage back and forth to Hades regulated the cycle of the seasons, with her absence creating the barren winters and her return the fertile warmth of spring. Initiates could not divulge details of these so-called Eleusinian Mysteries on pain of death, and the rites remain hazy even today. But as far as historians can tell, they simulated a symbolic journey to Hades via a cave with an altar to the underworld’s ruler, the god Pluto—possibly with hallucinogenic substances taken to induce visions—followed by a healing spiritual rebirth.

The narrative of regeneration suffuses Eleusis’ later history. In the early 1900s, the coastal town (then known as Elefsina) got new life as one of the busiest industrial sites in Greece. But economic depression set in after World War II, and by the 1980s Elefsina had become a byword for environmental damage and urban blight. Today, the Sacred Way is a busy six-lane highway lined with factories, while the rusting hulks of abandoned freighters are scattered offshore, many half-sunk like the discarded playthings of the Titans.

Ancient town of Elefsina
The nearby ancient town of Elefsina has undergone many cycles of death and rebirth. In 2023, it was named a European Capital of Culture. Myrto Papadopoulos

Despite its post-apocalyptic appearance, Elefsina’s fortunes turned around yet again in 2023, when its ancient status as a pagan religious and artistic center (it was also the birthplace of the playwright Aeschylus) helped it be chosen as a European Capital of Culture. It became the unlikely focus of an E.U.-funded art festival, with exhibitions in restored factory spaces and theatrical pieces staged in ruins. Each event was labeled a Mystery but also numbered to distinguish it on the modern program. “We don’t want to simply revive ancient history,” said Michail Marmarinos, creative director of the festival. “We play with the term ‘Mystery.’ After all, art is the closest modern equivalent of the ancient cult rituals: Artworks are secrets whose meaning has to be revealed. We are fascinated by the question mark.”

As dusk approached, I joined an audience of 50 Athenians at an avant-garde performance in the legendary ruins created by Italian director and playwright Romeo Castellucci. Once again, the centuries dissolved. As the golden light sloped across the site, we all picked our way cautiously past broken marble columns and carved stairs to observe strange, beautiful—and indeed, mysterious—scenes. Women in black mourning weeds gathered and hummed dirges. Naked actors were glimpsed behind the remains of a frieze, their limbs smeared in blood. A young man entered the gateway to Hades and emerged with new life. As if on cue, a flock of birds flew overhead.

The imagery of decay and renewal felt like a commentary on the fate of Athens itself, which has gone through so many cycles over the last 2,500 years. After the play, I returned to the city’s heart and ascended to the rooftop of my third and final hotel, the Dolli, which opened in 2023. There, the floodlit Acropolis was reflected in the waters of an infinity pool, yet another unexpectedly beautiful blend of classical and modern. “Decay and renewal are rules of life,” Marmarinos had told me earlier in the night. “Rome, Athens, Alexandria—all of antiquity’s great cities have followed the cycle of the seasons, with its pattern of withering, rebirth and return to strength.” Whatever else happens, I felt sure, the ancients will be there to help usher Athens into a creative new future.

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