The program was led by an Athenian named Georgia Sermamoglou who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Plato in the Classics department at the University of Virginia. She’s an amazing teacher and guide.
Every time we would come upon a temple, Georgia invited us to stop and observe it carefully for a few minutes. She would then ask one of to describe it. “When you’re asked to describe something,” she began, “it forces you to truly look. You have to really fix your attention on what is before you.”
In the ancient Greek Agora, we sat on a bench facing the prytaneion. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates proposes as his punishment being fed at the public expense at the prytaneion: “Now what is fitting for a poor man who is your benefactor, and who needs leisure to exhort you? There is nothing, men of Athens, so fitting as that such a man be given his meals in the prytaneum. That is much more appropriate for me than for any of you who has won a race at the Olympic games with a pair of horses or a four-in-hand. For he makes you seem to be happy, whereas I make you happy in reality.”
In the Agora, we came upon a sculpture of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Then we took turns deciphering the symbolism as it relates to the general idea that while Rome had conquered Greece, the Greeks had culturally conquered the Romans.
During the Athens through the Ages program, we had two Modern Greek lessons. After learning how to order food, we decided to venture out of the touristy district in search for a restaurant where we would find menus only in Greek as well as a waiter who would patiently allow us to attempt to order in Greek. We walked and walked and eventually we had passed several windows through which we saw a dozen old Greek men in halls drinking and watching television, the place filled with smoke. Perhaps we had gone a little too far in our quest for authenticity, we reasoned. Seeking the golden mean, we retraced our steps a little and found just the restaurant for us. It was very traditional, practically empty then, and they only had Greek menus. There we practiced the Greek we had learned, getting the waiter’s attention, asking for a little water, ordering tirokafteri, the spicy cheese spread, salad, pita bread, tzatziki, potatoes, a huge platter of various meats to share, and wine. What a feast!
During the program, we learned about Ottoman Athens and visited the National Historical Museum. I appreciate that Athens through the Ages included a modern component as well as the classical dimension. One of the most striking things I learned in that museum was about the death of Patriarch Gregory V (1746-1821). The sign read: “Gregory V was Patriarch of Constantinople when the Greek War of Independence broke out. Despite the fact he was forced by the Ottomans to renounce the revolution, he did not escape the death sentence as head of the insubordinate Christians. On Easter Sunday, April 10, 1821, he was hanged in the main gateway of the Patriarchate, which since remains shut.”
Athens in the winter offers many unexpected joys. First of all, the tourist sites are much less busy than during the summer. This gave us the opportunity to observe the temples closely, sketch site plans of the ancient ruins, and enjoy the museums leisurely. I would definitely recommend visiting Athens in the winter!
One of my personal highlights from the program was visiting the site of Plato’s Academy, as well as the new Plato’s Academy Digital Museum. To be in these places from which the philosophical foundations of our civilization emerged in the life and thought of the most influential philosophers in human history was a wonderful and memorable experience. Being there brings to life history, philosophy, and politics in new and inspiring ways.
The time I spent in Athens has certainly increased my desire to study classics and ancient Greek philosophy more deeply. The sites we visited stirred my imagination and rekindled everything I loved about studying ancient Greece when I was a kid.
A major advantage of Athens through the Ages is that it involves an ancient and modern dimension. Most people are familiar with Greek antiquity but not as much with the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern periods. It is one thing to study history using timelines and textbooks and an entirely other thing to encounter real landmarks characteristic of the historical periods that you will not soon forget.
I can’t imagine any better way to have experienced Athens than with Greek Studies on Site. Our guide was so knowledgable and passionate about Athens. We got to study Athens through the Ages by visiting temples, monuments, and museums as well as learning some Modern Greek, getting acquainted with some Greek poetry, and reading Plato’s Apology together in a Greek restaurant with an evening view of the Acropolis.
If you’d like to visit Athens, be sure to check out the phenomenal programs offered by Greek Studies on Site!