Athens: Summits and Sunsets

The Filopappou Hill with RHUL’s History Society

By Kyle Hoekstra

The sun fringes the hills of Attica. It’s punctured by silhouettes, the pointed heads of ancient mountains, leaking a carmine flush onto the horizon. The modern metropolis in the foreground turns a new, bluer shade of grey. We’ve been waiting for this moment for the last hour. The hills rise higher until finally the sun is hidden from view.

“Right,” someone says, “let’s go.”

“Well, we’ve seen the sunset now,” someone else adds, triumphant.

They rise and prepare for the easy descent to Athens’ busy centre. I linger, held by the twilight glow which follows sundown and lights the capital in ever-darkening tints. The Filopappou Hill remains the most naturally beautiful space in the heart of the city, a retreat for those seeking solitude and peace while most tourists decide one hill – the Acropolis – is enough. With ruddy hues hanging above, I wonder if any old Athenian sat in this spot, watching the same horizon.

“What were sunsets to us,” wrote Mark Twain of his 1867 journey, “who were about to live and breathe and walk in actual Athens… (and) gossip with the neighbors about the siege of Troy or the splendid deeds of Marathon? We scorned to consider sunsets.”

He had a point. Theseus was here before me; it was on this hill that the city’s founding hero fought the Amazons after he kidnapped their princess. These tales animate the city, but especially so here on the Hill of the Muses, beside the Hills of the Nymphs and the Pnyx where the democratic ecclesia once met. Though long departed, it gladdens me that through the suitably Greek novelty of astronomy we share something intangible with those old Athenians.

The Filopappou Hill remains the most naturally beautiful public space in Athens, partly thanks to the public’s efforts to defend its character, the city declaring it an archaeological park in the 1950s. Cyclists, walkers and couples retreat here, finding solitude and peace at the heart of the city with most tourists deciding one hill – the Acropolis – is enough.

Surrendering, I join the others. Walking back, we pass the monument on the hill’s summit, built in honour of a prominent Roman. The nearby rocks provide spots from which to scour the modern cityscape for more reminiscences of the ancient world.

To the east, fifteen pillars remain standing of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which after 6 centuries of labour was considered the largest in Greece; nothing remains of the colossal gold and ivory statue it once housed. Beside it, the Arch of Hadrian, and beyond it the entirely marble Panathenaic Stadium, refurbished for 1896’s Olympic games. Like virtually anywhere else in the city, you can’t miss the Parthenon, vigilant on its fortified rock. Gaze south and you may spy Salamis, whose straits once hosted a great victory over the Persian navy (if it’s not obscured by, I’m told, a typically Athenian haze of smog).

“I suppose,” Twain continues, “that ancient Greece and modern Greece compared, furnish the most extravagant contrast to be found in history.” To our romantic gaze and in the context of today’s economy, the comparison to the prosperous city-state of the fifth century BC, whose cultural achievements are imagined to have laid foundations for Western civilisation, remains an unfavourable one.

I stroll beside the worn steps, hopping between ancient boulders and turning to the horizon for last glimpses of the blackening west. My constant thought is this: seen before an Aegean sunset and with a sense of history, there are in the physical landscape seductive glimmers of Athens’ enchanting past.


Kyle Hoekstra

The Founder May 2015

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