I'll be celebrating my birthday in Athens again this year. I've had many memorable birthday parties there over the years, and as this year several friends will be arriving in Athens for a reunion, I wanted this one to be extra-special. So I decided we'd have a sunset picnic on the Hill of the Pnyx which is the place where the ancient Assembly used to meet. It's been a bit hard to co-ordinate the weekend's plans though what with other events, people arriving at various times, Athens friends working (they all work in tourism, long hours every day). But in the end everything will come together and somehow the picnic will take place.
The agora and the area surrounding it are favorite places of mine in Athens. I've spent lots of time wandering about the ruins and doing research there as the Agora and surrounding Hills feature in part of my novel. This is where Socrates hung out, and Plato too. And the great tyrants of Athens who left their mark on the city with buildings like the Parthenon. This excerpt is from a blog I wrote in 2005 after a day browsing around the site with my friend Patrick.
Today's mini field trip took us up the Aereopagitou pedestrian path along the foot of the Hill of Muses. The path follows the ridge of a hill along what was the Diateichisinic walls which had been built to connect with Themistocles Long Walls, and enclosed the ancient quarters of Koile and Melite, site of many ancient dwellings dating to 5th C. B.C. (the time of the Peloponnesian War). It leads past the site of the North tower of "Dipylon above the Gates' where now stands the little church of Agios Dhimitrios Loumbardhiaris. The name comes from loumbardhaor "canon" and is derived from a miracle attributed to the Saint in which a Turkish canon, located on the Acropolis, was struck by lightening at the moment it was about to open fire on the congregation.
Just above the church rises the Hill of the Pnyx, in Classical times popularly called "The Rocks."This was the meeting place of the Assembly or Ecclesia, where the great statesmen such as Aristides, Themostocles, Pericles and Demosthenes held their audiences.Pnyx means "the place where people were tightly packed". Piknos: compact, dense, crowded.This was in reference to the single entrance way. The area itself could hold about 5,000 citizens as well as the Assembly officials. The Assembly was presided over by the Prytaneis. The citizens were hustled to the Pnyx by Scythian archers who held cords daubed with red paint across the streets of the Agora and neighbouring streets in order to hurry up the laggards and prevent citizens from cutting a meeting. There was only the one entrance, and everyone was scrutinized so no unauthorised persons could slip in. Nobody who was not a citizen could attend without special permission. Late comers who had been marked by the red paint, forfeited their allowance.
The Pnyx itself is a huge rock terrace in the form of a semi circle with a colossal retaining wall built of stone blocks. The excavations are more clearly marked now, including the Bema, a broad terrace levelled from the rock which served as the speaker's platform. (Up until a couple of years ago this is where they held the Athen's Sound and Light Show each night.) There's a magnificent view of the Parthenon from there, it also looks down over the Agora on the East side and a sweeping view of Athens right out to the port of Pireaus and the sea on the west. As well, there is a clear view of the Philoppapou monument on the Hill of Muses nearby.
Once the Assembly had gathered, prayers were offered at the altar of Zeus Agoraios and the shrine of the healing god, Zeus Hypeistos. The Assembly met ten times a year. The Chairman of the Prytaneis presided, assisted by a secretary and a Herald who made the announcements. The audience sat on wooden benches. At the lower level of the Bema sat the Prytaneis assisted by Scythian archers who kept order.
After the 4th century BC the Pnyx was abandoned and the Assembly met at the Theatre of Dionysos. I'd been to the Pnyx many times before but today was the first time I'd ventured beyond it, along the crest of the Hill of Nymphs where there is an old observatory (Asteroskopion) built in 1842, and nearby there are traces of the long Walls and the Barathron, the ancient place of execution. On the top of the Hill is the tiny Church of Agia Marina with its multi-domed modern successor dominating the hill. An inscription found on a rock here marks the limits of the Precinct of Zeus.Patrick and I walked down the hill and arrived on the pedestrian walkway in Thisseion where we stopped for a frappe at a very expensive side-walk cafe.
The weekend of my birthday, will be a gathering of friends from everywhere: Norway, Finland, Germany, Canada and those who live in Athens, a highlight of my Greek holiday. It's been a little tricky co-ordinating the time to have the sunset picnic. The most suitable date now seems to be on the day of my birthday, June 3. Being on the Pnyx for my birthday will conjur a lot of memories of other picnics my friends and I have held there. I have some great photos of gatherings over the years from the 80's and the 90's. Missing will be my dear friend Roberto, and the poet/magician James, and my pal Graham. So we'll have to pour some libations in their memory. No matter what, it's going to be a grand celebration!