A Brief History of the Propylaea of the Athenian Acropolis
What is the Propylaea?
The Propylaea is an imposing marble entrance to the Athenian Acropolis that marked the end of the Sacred Way from Eleusis.
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The Propylaea is a monumental gateway forming the main entrance to the Acropolis. It was built in the 430s BC, during the Classical Period, as part of the Periclean building programme to rejuvenate and glorify Athens after the destruction endured during the Greco-Persian Wars. During the years preceding the Peloponnesian War (the brutal conflict between Athens and Sparta in the latter part of the 5th century BC), building on the Propylaea was continued when all other work on the Acropolis’s sites had stopped. However, the outbreak of hostilities prevented it from ever being finished.
As ancient visitors zigzagged up the slope and approached the magnificent entrance, they would have seen a roofed structure consisting of a central gateway building with two rooms, a lower and an upper level, both with six-column porticos. The ancient Greek traveller and geographer Pausanias (who lived around 600 years after its construction) claimed it was ‘unrivalled for the beauty and size of its stones’, whilst the interior was famous in antiquity for its marble coffered ceiling, painted blue with gold stars. The cross wall separating the two levels had five doors or gates: two on each side of the central passageway. The central passageway, on the natural ground level of the Acropolis, constituted the end of the Sacred Way from Eleusis to the Acropolis and was reserved for ceremonial animals and votive processions.
Wings projected out from both sides of the central building. The wing to the left of the central building as you enter (the ‘north wing’) was probably a feasting room and once decorated with paintings of important Greek battles. The wing to the right (the ‘south wing’) constitutes an approach to the ‘Nike bastion’ and the small Temple of Athena Nike. If you pass through the gateway and onto the Acropolis itself, you can look back and see evidence of parts of the structure that were planned but never fully executed – two large halls inward of the north and south wings.
Like other monuments on and around the Acropolis, the Propylaea has been subject to numerous social, religious and cultural reinventions. During the later Roman period, the original zigzag ramp was replaced by the stairway seen today, and the Buelé Gate (found slightly lower down the slope) was built to further fortify the Propylaea after the invasion of the Heruli (an early Germanic tribe) in the 3rd century AD. Sadly, the Propylaea sustained significant damage during the 17th-century Ottoman Wars, notably from an explosion when lightning struck gunpowder stored inside the structure.
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