During our ockdown in Athens, one thing remained reassuringly constant: the Parthenon was still standing tall, watching silently over the empty city. The absence of cars and planes swept away the Athenian smog and the spring skies shone with an uncanny clarity, throwing the familiar outline of the monument into sharp relief. The Parthenon seemed to vibrate with the promise of transcendence – a symbol of humanity’s ability to outlast, to overcome, to survive. But one thing was missing: the tiny tourists, clinging to the edges of the rock like a trail of black ants, were gone. There was nobody up there communing with the spirit of Athena, except perhaps for a few stray cats snoozing in the shade of those giant columns.
So when archaeological sites opened up again – along with shopping centres, beauty parlours and high schools – in Greece on 18 May, I wanted to be the first up on that hill. But my plan was foiled by an unseasonal heatwave that kept Athenians confined indoors; there was no question of scrambling up the Acropolis hill in 37C. On Thursday, the heat finally broke. In the silvery evening light, my seven-year-old son and I wandered past the restless shoppers parading up and down Ermou Street, the equivalent of Oxford Street. The crowds dissipated in the old town of Plaka, the souvenir shops still shuttered, the touts who normally prowl hungrily outside the tavernas gone. Usually, there’s a long queue of people waiting to enter the Acropolis, even at the quieter entrance on the north slope, by the ancient theatre of Dionysus. For us, there was nobody.
“The marble had space to breathe, the temple had a chance to rest,” the gloved ticket seller smiled behind her plexiglass shield, when I told her how excited I was about our private audience with one of the wonders of the world. “Imagine, there are usually 10-12,000 people a day clambering over these stones. Today, there might be 10 of you up there.”
A couple of masked security guards waved us up the slopes to the Propylaea, the monumental portico that marks the entrance to the sacred precinct. Yellow stickers warning visitors to “keep safe distance” had been stuck on intermittent steps, fashioned from massive slabs of marble. “Were people really huge in ancient Greece?” my son wondered, marvelling at the size of the stairs. Everything seemed amplified without the chattering, snap-happy crowds. The Parthenon looked even more monumental than usual. A gusty wind drove moody clouds across the mountains that encircle the city. Shards of sunlight pierced the clouds, like searchlights scanning the cascading blocks of concrete that surround the site, whose vanilla and nicotine palette matched the fragmentary columns scattered about in poetic arrangements.
And there, on the horizon, was the sea, punctuated by stationary ships and islands, still off limits to travellers.
Four teenage girls were taking selfies on a ledge, the Greek flag fluttering behind them. Three students were sitting on a marble bench, staring variously into their phones and into the distance. A man was fielding phone calls, while his two young daughters scampered around the ruins. There were plenty of affectionate cats, to my son’s delight. But I didn’t expect the gulp of swallows, slaloming in and out of the Parthenon’s columns in a joyous, sonorous game of tag.
I took a couple of photos that didn’t do justice to the view or the monument or the moment. And then, auspiciously, my phone died. I didn’t have to filter this once-in-a-lifetime experience through a screen. I felt suddenly liberated, elated – like the tanned, insouciant tourists in photographer Tod Papageorge’s On the Acropolis, a recently published series of black-and-white photographs shot in the early 1980s. Reclining, embracing or unselfconsciously draped on the ruins like a modern-day frieze, these luminous mortals represent a time when touching the Parthenon and one another was perfectly natural.