Christian History Greece The Renaissance

The Acropolis: Its significance in the development of religious

28 The Review of Religions – July 2006 Introduction The Acropolis in Athens has for millennia been the religious hub of the Greek world. Today it is a tourist magnet, but the rock and the adjacent parts of the city have played a major role in the development of religious thought – both ancient and modern. This article examines the debates and religious thought that have surrounded the Acropolis over so many centuries. Origins of the Greek culture There had been settlers on the Acropolis since around 4000 BCE. The first Greek Hellenic tribes arrived around 2000 BCE. Not long after, from around 1550 BCE, the Mycenians settled on the Acropolis. Around the same time, the great Minoan culture of Crete lost its regional power after the errupton of the volcano on the island of Thera. It was in the period from 1000 BCE to the time of Christianity that the Greek culture reached its zenith and produced so many world famous scientists and philo- sophers. The Greeks were not a single race at that time. Many tribes from the Indo-European steppes moved to Greece and brought with them their own local deities. Perhaps the need to keep the peace resulted in the need to worship all gods rather than the single Creator and led to the pantheon of gods and goddesses of Olympus that emerged about as a sort of democratic religion. The Greeks were agreed that Zeus, the sky god, was the chief deity. Many cults such as the Orphics THE ACROPOLIS: Its significance in the development of religious philosophy By Fazal Ahmad – London, UK 29The Review of Religions – July 2006 sprang up. They were more spiritual and abstained from meat and other foods. They believed that ascetism would lead to salvation just as Hindus believed on the other side of the world. Orphics were initiated by a sacrament just as Christians did hundreds of years later. By the 9th century BCE, many of the stories related to the individual deities and historical events around the early formation of Greece became intertwined in mythology as captured by Homer. The Greeks became a sophis- ticated and cultured race. The Olympic Games were another way of bringing together the various Greek tribes. The deities had temples built in their honour and many had mysteries attached to them such as Demeter and Orpheus. THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY The Acropolis 30 The Review of Religions – July 2006 The Greeks became aware of nature very early on. Philophers in Greece began to awe at the skies and the size of the universe. They wondered at the continents around them and the extent of the world. They developed a religion based on the need for protection from bad fate. The Oracle at Delphi is a famous example of a place where people would go to learn their fate, or to ask for help before a major task such as a long journey or battle. This form of religion commanded power and a hierarchy built up around it just as would happen in nearby Rome. Many of the rulers had become cruel and tyrannical and used their ‘knowledge’ to keep the population under control. The Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE was a turning point. The democrats of Athens overthrew the invading Persian army and also the tyrants of their own people to usher in a new era of intellectual freedom which spawned many great thinkers. Pythagoras began to think about spirituality in the 6th century BCE. He travelled widely and studied different faiths from the region including Zoroastrianism. He was intrigued by the soul and the concept of reincarnation. Another scholar of the time, Xenophanes taught monotheism. Athenian youth were also encouraged to learn and absorb the Homerian epics such as The Iliad (war against Troy) and the Odyssey. These epics captured their beliefs and traits of morality, heroism and poetry. Socrates(as) It was in this climate that Socrates(as) began to debate his own world view at the Agora, the marketplace of Athens standing just below the Acropolis in the 5th century BCE. He would debate with people of all ages and from all walks of life. He did not restrict himself to theologians or poets, but wanted to reform the wider Athenian population. Having been born and brought up in Athens, he had the same classical education, and was developing skills as a sculptor THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 31The Review of Religions – July 2006 (some of his work had been displayed on the road leading to the Acropolis). His life changed when a series of dreams and signs (he referred to his (‘Divine voice’) pointed him to his mission to reform the people of Athens. He encouraged Athenians to challenge their long-held beliefs and not to use Homer as a prop. He encouraged his friends to pray for good rather than just for material gain. He shunned the plurality of Greek gods and mythology and debated a more practical world view in the Agora. His principled stance led him to conflict with the state and he was arrested in 399 BCE with the charge of having denounced the Athenian deities and corrupted the youth. He was imprisoned in a cell on the Filopappou Hill facing the Acropolis. Having refused to denounce his own beliefs in monotheism, he was sentenced to death and forced to drink hemlock poison. He was followed by Plato who founded the Academy in Athens in 387 BCE. Academy was actually a suburb of Athens (thought to derive from the hero Academos), and the philo- sophical school that Plato founded remained in use until 526, over 900 years later, when the Roman emperor Justinian had it closed down. Plato expanded on the debate around the nature of the soul. He described the ‘psyche’ as a form of existence before a man was born, and how it departed after death to account for a man’s behaviour and deeds. One of the famous students of Plato’s Academy was Aristotle who later founded the Lyceum philosophical school of Athens after having studied for over 22 years in Plato’s college. The Lyceum is thought to be around the area between Syntagma Square and the National Gardens just north-east of the Acropolis (there is current archaeological work going on to try to confirm the location of the Lyceum). Aristotle is thought to have returned to his native Macedonia after Plato’s death to train the young Alexander the Great, and THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 32 The Review of Religions – July 2006 then returned to Athens in 335 BCE to establish hiw own school where he encouraged research, debate and dialogue based on his own concept of logic. Aristotle wrote on many subjects including morality, ethics and the obligations of citizens in Athens. He seemed to favour a view that the soul it was a part of the body and died with the physical body. There were many other philosophers and thinkers at that time such as Democritus, Anaxagoras and Epicurus who participated in this debate around the same time. The debate was not just on the nature of the soul and life after death, but also the purpose of life. The Epicurians are famous for their concept of life that it is for the pursuit of pleasure. In the next few centuries, there were many other schools of thought that emerged in Athens and elsewhere in Greece such as the Stoics and several Mystic sects influenced by Asia Minor and the East. Poets and theatre writers such as Sophocles started THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY The Agora – Marketplace of Athens 33The Review of Religions – July 2006 to move away from reliance on the deities for all actions and fate, and started to show how the characters in his plays suffered due to their own actions. Interactions with other cultures The Greeks were not an isolated culture. The mainland of Greece is largely coastal, so it is no surprise that the Greeks developed naval skills very early on and came into contact with many other cultures around the Mediterranean. They would have had dealings with Crete, the Romans, the Carthaginians, Turks, Persians and Egyptians, and these neighbours represented their world. Alexander the Great expanded their horizons around 300 BCE to cover the Middle East and the Indian sub- continent. It is the interactions with the Persians that are perhaps the most interesting, as there were regular battles, but they also came into contact with Cyrus the Great (possibly Dhu’l Qarnain as mentioned in the Qur’an) and the philosophy and religion of Zarathustra(as). Acropolis or Parthenon Many people confuse the Parthenon and the Acropolis of Athens. The Acropolis is the rocky outcrop towering over most of the city (but not the highest point in the city – that is Mount Lykavettos). It is a plateau on which the locals built many temples such as the Parthenon, especially after it was declared a religious and holy sanctuary by the Oracle of Delphi in 510 BCE. It was after this pronouncement that the Acropolis was exclusively used for ancient worship. The common people were banned from living there. The earliest temple was devoted to Aphrodite. By the 6th century BCE, a temple was erected to Apollo and another to Athena (from which the city takes its name). Much of these structures were destroyed by the Persians who had attacked Athens and the Greek mainland. This was followed by the golden period of THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 34 The Review of Religions – July 2006 Pericles during which the Parthenon was erected to the patron Athena and the nearby gateway to the Acropolis, the Propylaeum, were built. In ancient times, only the Priest was able to visit the temples, and his family and those of a few select helpers lived on the Acropolis itself. The rest of the population devoted themselves to the deities of Athens for their protection. The Acropolis was opened to the general population of Athens only once every ten years. This preserved the mystique about their religion and kept the general population in awe. Their concept of religion was not an accessible deity open to all as we have now in modern religion. Their faith was based upon fear and the need for protection rather than gratitude and love. However, it was during this period of security for Athens and democracy (fuelled by the efforts of Solon and Cleisthenes who guaranteed rights for the poorest) that the period of philosophical development was able to flourish. Over time, as with all polytheistic cultures such as the Egyptians and Romans, the focus shifted to grandeur and decoration, pomp and rituals rather than theology. The noble theology of Socrates(as) had been diluted over time, and by the turn of the Millennium and the advent of Christianity, although there was a significant Jewish minority in Athens, much of the population was absorbed in what amounted to idol-worship. Athens began to lose some of its status from the 4th century BCE when the Greeks lost the Peloponnesian War to the nearby Spartans. Although it peaked again after the death of Alexander the Great, soon the Romans arrived and the city was eclipsed by Rome, Egypt and Constantinople (modern Istanbul). During the Roman period, they built their own Agora and a Tower of the Winds commis- sioned by the Syrian astronomer Kyrrestes who built a weather THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 35The Review of Religions – July 2006 vane and water clock. The Romans also erected temples to their own deities in the city, and built a temple dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. Paul and Christian Byzantium When Paul began to preach to the non-Jews in Europe, his focus was on the Greek civilisation. A brief glance at the cities where Paul sent letters (the bulk of the modern Bible New Testament) shows that much of his effort was spent in Greece. The Bible preserves letters that he wrote to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and the Thessalonians. All these seven letters were to people in Greece. In his travels to preach his version of Christianity, both his second and third journeys took place in Athens and nearby towns such as Corinth, Thessaloniki and the area of Attica. In Athens, he is said to have stood on a rocky outcrop next to the Acropolis (the Areopagus) to start spreading his message. The Bible describes how he preached to the ancient Greeks of Athens: ‘While Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy) in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.’ (Acts 17:16-17) The Agora, the marketplace of Athens was more than just a traditional market on the foothills of the Acropolis. It was also the administrative heart of the city, the place where there were many temples to ancient Greek deities, and there were open spaces here were poets would read out their works, and philosophers would debate various issues, so it would have been a natural place for Paul to preach just as Socrates(as) had done a few hundred years earlier. Paul encountered both Stoic and Epicurian thinkers while in Athens. THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 36 The Review of Religions – July 2006 Paul had been disturbed at the wealth of temples and idols in the city and began to tell the Athenians about his concept of a living God: ‘The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boudaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.’ (Acts 17:24-27) Unfortunately, many of the original Jewish teachings of Jesus(as) about a living God that people could have a relationship with were distorted in his name into the worship of Jesus(as) himself. It is difficult to say whether Paul preached a monotheistic message which was later distorted, or whether Paul himself had distorted the message of Christianity to suit the idol worshippers of Europe. It is perhaps more likely that Paul himself had changed the message to some extent as he had been summoned to the Council of Jerusalem in 49 CE for taking the message to non-Jews and relaxing the conditions asso- ciated with being a Jew. Either way, the debates that he had in the Agora of Athens about not worshipping lifeless forms and understanding the nature of a living God are very interesting. Gradually, Orthodox Christianity took hold in Athens, but the Greeks still held their old schools of thought in great esteem. When the Odeon of Athens was rebuilt in the 2nd century, it contained statues of prominent members of the Stoic, Platonist, Aristotelean and Epicurean schools of thought. THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 37The Review of Religions – July 2006 In 390, Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion, and soon the Olympic Games were banned. A century later, in 529, the schools of Aristotle and Plato were closed and classical thought was discarded, not to be revived until the Muslims started translating the classic works a few hundred years later sparking the Renaissance of Europe. Christianity con- tinued to take a stronger hold, and in 841, the Parthenon on the Acropolis was turned into a cathedral. The Ottomans The Ottoman Turks had a long rivalry with their Greek cousins, a rivalry that is still strong today. The Ottomans began to extend their Islamic empire across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but faced stiff resistance from the Greeks. However, it took them many decades to get control of nearby Constantinople in 1453, and Athens was not taken until 1456. Thereafter, Athens and Greece became part of the Islamic world of the Ottomans, and new mosques sprang up around the THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY The Tower of the Winds 38 The Review of Religions – July 2006 Agora of Athens such as the Tzisdarakis Mosque in Monastiraki Square. Mehmet the Conqueror visited Athens in the late 15th Century, and the Fethiye Mosque which stands at a corner of the Roman Agora was built to mark that visit. The nearby Tower of the Winds became a sanctuary for Sufi mystics and the famous whirling dervishes (Muslim ascetics) who used to do a weekly frenzied dance in the Tower. Many Jews migrated to Athens under tolerant Ottoman rule fleeing persecution following the cruel Inquisition in Spain. By 1687, the Ottomans had crudely turned the Parthenon from a Mosque (at least it still had a religious use at that stage) into their Arsenal. Knowing this, when the Venetians of Italy attacked that year, they fired on the Acropolis and managed to destroy much of the Parthenon. The city was captured by the Venetian admiral Morosini but was later recovered by the Ottomans in 1690. During Ottoman rule, Christians were given full rights to worship, and Islam was not imposed on the Greeks. The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church was made accountable to the Ottoman Sultan for the native Greeks, and in return he was given wide powers over courts, schools and the Church. So the Orthodox Church began to take more political control in society than had previously been the case. At this time, Athens remained autonomous while neighbouring areas had Ottoman governors. The Orthodox Patriarchs had more freedom than when the Catholic Venetians had controlled the city, and they were relatively content. Some Greeks hid their Christian faith and pretended to be Muslims in order to pay a lower rate of tax, but there was no major drive by the Ottomans to convert them to Islam. As the Ottoman Empire fell into decline, there was an increase in corruption and in-fighting and THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 39The Review of Religions – July 2006 gradually many parts of Greece fell beyond Ottoman control. This resulted in greater militancy by the Ottoman rulers. The reaction from the Greeks was increased resistance. It was in the 19th century that Greece gained its independence and returned to its Orthodox Christian religion after four centuries under Muslim rule. Conclusion The Acropolis of Athens has been the scene of the debate and creation of philosophy for centuries, and has had an impact on much of the religious thinking of the Mediterranean region. Its prominent position overlooking the city meant that for centuries it held a position as a place of worship. The many tribes that came together to form the Greek civilisation brought their own beliefs with them, but it was after the battle of Marathon that a unified and free Athens was able to take its theology and science to new levels, with great thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taking the concept of the soul and God to new levels. References 1. Athens – Between Legend and History, Maria Mavromataki, Hatalis Publishing, Athens, Greece 1995. 2. The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version), Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, USA 1989. 3. The Greek Achievement – The Foundation of the Western World, Charles Freeman, Penguin Books, London, UK 1999. 4. Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Islam International Publications Ltd, Surrey, UK 1998. 5. The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, Jan Bremmer, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA 1983. THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY 40 The Review of Religions – July 2006 6. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, Stuart Gordon, Headline Book Publishing, London, UK 1993. 7. Cities of the Biblical World, Lamoine DeVries, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts, USA 1997, p.351-358. 8. The Religions of the Roman Empire, John Ferguson, Thames & Hudson, London, UK 1982, p.190 – 203. THE ACROPOLIS: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY References to the Holy Qur’an item count ‘Bismillah…’ (In the Name of Allah…) as the first verse of each Chapter. In some non-standard texts, this is not counted and should the reader refer to such texts, the verse quoted in The Review of Religions will be found one verse less than the number quoted. In this journal, for the ease of non-Muslim readers, ‘(saw)’ or ‘saw’ after the words, ‘Holy Prophet’, or the name ‘Muhammad’, are used. They stand for ‘Sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam’ meaning ‘Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him’. Likewise, the letters ‘(as)’ or ‘as’ after the name of all other prophets is an abbreviation meaning ‘Peace be upon him’ derived from ‘Alaihis salatu wassalam’ which are words that a Muslim utters out of respect whenever he or she comes across that name. The abbreviation ‘ra’ or (ra) stands for ‘Radhiallahu Ta’ala anhu and is used for Companions of a Prophet, meaning Allah be pleased with him or her (when followed by the relevant Arabic pronoun). Finally, ‘ru’ or (ru) for Rahemahullahu Ta’ala means the Mercy of Allah the Exalted be upon him. In keeping with current universal practice, local transliterations are preferred to their anglicised versions, e.g. Makkah instead of Mecca, etc.