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Athens, capital of “the cradle of civilization,” is the site of the greatest achievements of the classical age of Greece. Its architectural, social, artistic, and political triumphs have become a universal legacy. Against its ancient standards are measured the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual development of all Western civilizations. The appeal of Athens to today’s traveler, therefore, is not so much its modern attractions, but the allure of its extraordinary ancient sites.
Grecian history extends as far back as 3000 BC with the Minoan civilization of Crete. By 1400 B.C. there were Mycenaean settlements on the mainland. Then about 1100 BC, a people called the Dorians invaded and wiped out all Grecian cities. The small communities created by the Dorians were bleak and illiterate. This Dark Age of Greece lasted about 100 years. Around 800 BC, the Greeks came into contact with the Phoenicians, who gave the Greeks their alphabet; Homer learned it and then used it to translate his works onto stone. After this Aristocratic Age (800 to 600 BC) came the threat of the Persian Wars, which continued from 520 to 480 BC.
From 480 to 430 BC, the grand era known as the Classical Age, Athens and the whole of Greece experienced the peak of its ancient glories. It was during this period that the Parthenon was built under Pericles’s rule; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were writing their plays; and Socrates and Plato were teaching.
Shortly thereafter, however, Athens was repeatedly conquered and dominated by foreign powers. Though the early rulers were relatively benign, Athens lost the freedom and democratic structure that had nurtured its greatest cultural accomplishments. First conquered by the Macedonians (360 BC to 300 BC) and later by the Romans (200 BC to AD 300), Athens remained an important seat of learning until the Edict of Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in AD 529. Under Byzantine rule (AD 300–1200), many temples were modified to Christian use, and Athens became somewhat of a provincial city. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans seized the city and ruled for almost 400 years, during which time the most sacred sites of the Acropolis were damaged and desecrated. Athens became the capital of a liberated Greece after the end of the War of Independence in 1829.
The country was ruled as a monarchy until 1967, when former King Constantine fled Greece after failing to topple the dictatorship established earlier in the year. In 1974, five months after the restoration of democracy in Greece, the monarchy was formally abolished by plebiscite in favor of a republic. On Jan. 1, 1981, Greece became the tenth member of the European Union. Recent events of note in Greece include the successful and symbolic hosting of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, and the Parliamentary elections of 2009, which brought the Social Demokrat Party into power.