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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the National Observatory of Athens

What is the National Observatory of Athens?

The National Observatory of Athens is the first research institute founded in the Balkans and was a centre for scientific research until the 1980s.

National Observatory of Athens History

Perched here on top of a rocky outcrop, high above Athens, sits a time machine. This isn’t a machine that will transport you back into the past; although during your ascent of one of ancient Athens’ seven sacred hills, you will pass a 2,400-year-old inscription in which the citizens of the city offered their praise to the nymphs. No, this time machine was the central arbiter of time for Greece, the Balkans and the seas of the eastern Mediterranean for over half a century. Founded in 1842 and fully functional four years later, the National Observatory of Athens occupies a commanding spot atop the Hill of the Nymphs. After Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire, one of the most urgent priorities was a reliable repository of time. From this small, cross-shaped Neoclassical building, the time was set for the whole country and beyond.

We take being able to tell the time for granted today, with digital clocks expected to be accurate to the second – if not the millisecond. Back in the 19th century, it was anything but straightforward. Having the means to keep time properly was deemed crucial to the functioning of society and the growth of the economy, but most importantly to help Greece's maritime industry flourish.

Without a reliable timepiece, it’s impossible to accurately establish a ship’s longitude. If you don’t know your longitude – that is, your position horizontally or east/west on the globe – you don’t really know where you are. In daylight hours, there are other means of navigation, but at night, you’re literally in the dark. Yet, if you know your longitude, you can use the light of the Pole Star to work out your latitude – your position vertically, or north/south – and plot your position accurately on a nautical chart.

Inside the observatory building, you’ll find the Meridian line marked by a stone groove, with the original Meridian telescope, or transit instrument, which was used to oversee the passage of stars across the Meridian line from 1846 until 1902. The same star will pass over the Meridian line every 23 hours and 56 minutes. This gives us the Sidereal Time, which has to be translated into Mean Solar Time, which is the measurement we all use in our everyday lives.

The construction of the National Observatory was funded by Baron Georgios Sinas, one of the richest Europeans of his era. It was designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, the leading force behind Athens’ post-independence Neoclassical construction boom. The Latin inscription Servare Intaminatum appears above the observatory’s grand doorway. It means literally ‘keep intact’ or ‘use it and respect it’, which was the Sinas family motto and can also be found on the magnificent Széchenyi Chain Bridge which connects Buda and Pest in Budapest, Hungary, also funded by Sinas in the 1840s.

The National Observatory was the first research institute founded in the Balkans and over the years it has been the site of a wealth of scientific discoveries. German astronomer and geophysicist Johann Friedrich Julius Schmidt became the observatory’s director in 1858 and is credited with the most detailed lunar map of the 19th century.

The more modern Gauthier telescope you’ll see further up on the Pnyx Hill was built in 1902 and used for scientific research until the 1980s, including mapping the surface of Mars. Eventually, though, light pollution made this central Athens location unviable and today the National Observatory’s research is conducted from state-of-the art telescopes located in the Peloponnese.

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