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The Propylaia and the Temple of Athena Nike (right) from the visitors' entrance to the Acropolis.
|The Propylaia is the grand Classical gateway to the Acropolis, built of white Pentelic marble, with some detailing in darker limestone from Eleusis. It consists of a central gateway with colonnaded porches on its west and east sides, leading to the sacred precincts on the Acropolis. This portal is flanked to the north and south by two wings.
The south wing forms an open entrance to the bastion of the Temple of Athena Nike.
The wider north wing has a colonnaded portico leading to a large enclosed room with a floor area of about 11 x 9 metres. Because of the paintings which were displayed here, this room has become known as the "Pinakotheke" (picture gallery). However, it is thought that it was used as an area where worshippers could prepare or cleanse themselves before entering the sacred precincts, and perhaps for ritual dining.
The word Propylaia (also Propylaea; Latin Propylaeum), from the Greek Προπύλαια (pro, before or in front of, plus the plural of pylon or pylaion, gate), literally means "that which is before the gates". This gateway and adjoining wings were secular buildings outside the sacred areas of the Acropolis.
It was built during Pericles' ambitious construction scheme following the destruction of buildings on the Acropolis by the invading Persian army of Xerxes in 480-479 BC, and replaced the smaller Propylon.
The sculptor Pheidias was responsible for the overall planning of the Acropolis building project, and according to Plutarch, the Propylaia was designed by Mnesicles (Mnesikles, Greek Μνησικλής) , about whose life and other work nothing is known, although he may have also been the architect of the Erechtheion.
Construction began in 437 BC, after the completion of the Parthenon, and ended in 432, though it seems the building was left unfinished, probably due to the start of the ruinous Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). It also seems that the original design called for a symmetrical structure, with matching wings on either side of the central portico. However, such a design would have encroached upon the ancient precincts of Brauronian Artemis and Temple of Athena Nike (see the plan of the entrance to the Acropolis below). Perhaps the officials responsible for these sanctuaries were unwilling to give up precious ground. The result is that the south wing became an entrance to the sanctuary of Athena Nike and appears like a mere stub compared with the north wing.
Nevertheless the Propylaia has been admired by writers since antiquity up to the present day, and hailed as a great architectural masterpiece. It draws attention particularly for its proportions (like the Parthenon based on 4:9 ratio throughout), the quality of the stonework, its coffered marble ceilings, painted blue with gold stars, and the fact that it was aligned with the axis of the Parthenon. The rebuilding on the Acropolis is also said to represent the new spirit of confidence and optimism among Athenians following the threat of extinction by the Persians and the unexpected victories of the allied Greeks at the battles of Salamis and Plataea (480 and 479 BC) against overwhelming odds, which were followed by a brief - and final - period of power, wealth, prestige and a great flourishing of the arts.
"Then shout, felicitating ancient Athens,
Appearing as of old – that wondrous city
Chanted in many a hymn, inhabited
By this illustrious people."
Aristophanes, The Knights
We owe the best known description of the Propylaia in antiquity to the Greek travel writer Pausanias:
"4. There is but one entry to the Acropolis. It affords no other, being precipitous throughout and having a strong wall. The gateway has a roof of white marble, and down to the present day it is unrivalled for the beauty and size of its stones...
6. On the left of the gateway is a building with pictures. Among those not effaced by time I found Diomedes taking the Athena from Troy, and Odysseus in Lemnos taking away the bow of Philoctetes. There in the pictures is Orestes killing Aegisthus, and Pylades killing the sons of Nauplius who had come to bring Aegisthus succor. And there is Polyxena about to be sacrificed near the grave of Achilles. Homer did well in passing by this barbarous act. I think too that he showed poetic insight in making Achilles capture Scyros, differing entirely from those who say that Achilles lived in Scyros with the maidens, as Polygnotus has represented in his picture. He also painted Odysseus coming upon the women washing clothes with Nausica at the river, just like the description in Homer. There are other pictures, including a portrait of Alcibiades,
7. and in the picture are emblems of the victory his horses won at Nemea. There is also Perseus journeying to Seriphos, and carrying to Polydectes the head of Medusa, the legend about whom I am unwilling to relate in my description of Attica. Included among the paintings - I omit the boy carrying the water jars and the wrestler of Timaenetus - is Musaeus. I have read verse in which Musaeus receives from the North Wind the gift of flight, but, in my opinion, Onomacritus wrote them, and there are no certainly genuine works of Musaeus except a hymn to Demeter written for the Lycomidae.
8. Right at the very entrance to the Acropolis are a Hermes (called Hermes of the Gateway) and figures of Graces, which tradition says were sculptured by Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, who the Pythia testified was the wisest of men, a title she refused to Anacharsis, although he desired it and came to Delphi to win it." 
See a plan of the entrance to
the Acropolis: the Beulé Gate,
the Propylaia, the Athena Nike
Temple, the Pedestal of Agrippa,
and the top of the stairway
to the Klepsydra,
at the bottom of this page.
Pericles (c. 495-429 BC)
Marble bust, 2nd century AD,
from Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli.
Roman copy of the Athenian
original, attributed to Kresilus,
around 440-430 BC, which
stood on the Acropolis.
"The Townley Pericles"
British Museum, London. 
Head of so-called "Aspasia".
It is thought that this Roman
period marble head may be a
copy of a Greek original from
circa 470-460 BC depicting the
influential Aspasia of Miletus
(circa 470-400 BC), Pericles'
consort (or second wife). 
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Inv. No. Sk 605.
Head of "Hermes Propylaios",
(Hermes Before the Gateway)
from a herm found at the
Athens Acropolis. Pentelic
marble. 1st century BC.
Thought to be a copy of the
herm mentioned by Pausanias,
perhaps made by Alkamenes,
and set up at the Propylaia
around 430 BC. 
Acropolis Museum, Athens.
See also the photos and article
about the "Hermes Propylaios"
The Propylaia as it looked in 1893, before further restorations and tree plantings.
|The two towers (or pylons) of the late Roman Beulé Gate can be clearly seen standing in front of the ascent ramp to the Classical Propylaia entrance to the Acropolis. The smaller tower on the right is today invisible from this vantage point because of the trees which have been planted around the modern visitors' entrance.|
To ease the flow of visitors at the entrance to the Acropolis, which can get very crowded in summer, you enter between the towers of the Beulé Gate and climb the stairs up to the Propylaia (see gallery page 8). On the way out, visitors are chanelled down a modern metal stairway, on the left (north) as you exit the Propylaia and down through the small gateway in the north tower of the Beulé Gate (see also gallery page 30).
Photo: William Vaughn Tupper, 1893. From the Tupper Scrapbooks Collection
at the Boston Public Library Print Department.
"All that is known of this celebrated city, previous to its decay and ruin, is more accessible in London than on the Acropolis. The story of its former greatness still lives in the classic page; the vestiges of its ancient splendour are now scarcely discernible upon the thinly tenanted and barren site."
The Elgin marbles: with an abridged historical and topographical account of Athens by Edward John Burrow. James Duncan, London, 1837. At Google Books.
Another view of the entrance to the Acropolis, around 1905.
Source: Stereograghic print, circa 1905. Photographer unkown.
At Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.
The central gateway of the Propylaia.
See also photos on Acropolis gallery, page 8.
The west side (outside) of the Propylaia in the early 19th century, by British architect William Kinnard
(died 1839), showing the Medieval and Ottoman fortifications. The Turkish cannon emplacement (left)
was built in 1687 from parts of ancient monuments, including the Temple of Athena Nike
(see gallery page 12), from the bastion of which this drawing was made.
|"... A late Disdar, or Turkish governor, ascending the Acropolis, accompanied by a dervisch and a servant, when a Greek, seen incarcerated in the dungeon beneath the high tower built over part of the south wing in the middle ages was visited by his friends."
The "high tower" was the 14th century "Frankish Tower", built by the first Florentine Duke of Athens, Nerio I Acciaioli, and used as a prison during the Turkish occupation. In 1875 Heinrich Schliemann paid to have the tower demolished amid the general drive to restore the Acropolis to its ancient Greek appearance and remove later Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman buildings. During this process many parts of ancient monuments, used as building material for the later buildings, were recovered.
Of the fate of the Disdar Aga (see gallery page 32), who lived in the "Palace of the Acciaiuoli" in the Propylaia and kept his harem in the Erechtheion, and the Turks in the Acropolis, the editor adds:
"That venerable octogenary was one of the first victims, who, with a great part of the Turkish garrison of the Acropolis, were ferociously massacred by the Greeks and Christian Albanees, on the 10th of July 1822. They had surrendered, stipulating a safe passage to Smyrna according to a solemn treaty of capitulation! See Waddington's Visit to Greece, 1825."
Source: James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The antiquities of Athens (Volume 4): The antiquities of Athens and other places in Greece, Sicily etc.: supplementary to the antiquities of Athens. Antiquities at Athens and Delos, illustrated by William Kinnard, architect, Plate I. Extracts from the description of the plate, A view of the Propylaea at Athens, pages 3-5. Priestley and Weale, London, 1830. At Heidelberg University Library.
Reconstruction of the entrance at the west side of the Acropolis, as it may have looked
in the late Roman period, after the building of the Beulé Gate in 280 AD.
Image source: Wilhelm Wägner and Fritz Baumgarten, Hellas, Land und Volk der Alten Griechen.
Verlag von Otto Spamer, Leipzig, 1902. Illustration by Friedrich von Thiersch (1852-1921).
Simplified elvation of the west face of the Propylaia (reconstruction).
width of Doric column base 5 feet 1 inch (154.9 cm); width between columns 6 feet (182.9 cm);
width of central entry-way 12 feet 4 inches (375.9 cm); height of columns 29 feet (883.9 cm)
The tapering of the large Doric columns is indicated, but not the subtle curvature known as
entasis (Greek, ἔντασις, tension), which was first noted in the early 19th century
by the English architect Charles Robert Cockerell (see The Cheshire Cat Blog, July 2011).
Today it seems astonishing that previous modern writers on ancient architecture failed
to recognize this feature, particularly as many of them would have been familiar with
Vitruvius who mentions entasis in his De Architectura. 
Illustration after Banister Fletcher and Banister F. Fletcher,
A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
6th edition. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1921.
Section of the Propylaia (reconstruction).
From left to right: the smaller porch of the north wing fronted by a colonnade of Doric columns;
the western portico of the central gateway, at the front (left) of which are 3 Doric columns
on either side of the ramp which passed through the centre of the gateway, and on the inner
side 3 Ionic columns; the eastern porch with a higher roof and a front porch (right) supported
again by 3 Doric columns on either side of the ramp and central entryway.
Image source: Adolf Boetticher, Die Akropolis von Athen: nach den Berichten der Alten
und den neusten Erforschungen. Verlag von Julius Springer, 1888.
Simplified plan of the entrance to the Acropolis, with the Beulé Gate (left) and the Propylaia (right).
The climb eastwards up to the Acropolis is a steep 25 metres in 80 metres: the Beulé Gate
is 125 metres above sea level, with the stairway and central ramp rising to 145 metres just
east of the Propylaia, The Parthenon is at the 155 metre mark, the highest point on the Acropolis.
Graphic by © David John 2011, based on various drawings, photos and surveys.
An Ionic capital from one of the six columns lining the central entrance of the Propylaia
(coloured yellow in the plan above). Pentelic marble. 437-432 BC.
New Acropolis Museum. Inv. No. Acr. 13304+.
A panel from the ceiling of the central entrance of the Propylaia with two square coffers.
The ceiling was decorated with painted mouldings and a gilt star in the centre of each coffer.
Pentelic marble. 437-432 BC.
New Acropolis Museum. Inv. No. Acr. 20504.
|Notes, references, links
1. Plutarch (Greek: Πλούταρχος, name as Roman citizen Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, Μέστριος Πλούταρχος, circa 46-120 AD), Greek historian, biographer and essayist, born in Chaeronea, Boeotia.
"The Propylaia of the Acropolis were brought to completion in the space of five years, Mnesicles being their architect. A wonderful thing happened in the course of their building, which indicated that the goddess was not holding herself aloof, but was a helper both in the inception and in the completion of the work.
One of its artificers, the most active and zealous of them all, lost his footing and fell from a great height, and lay in a sorry plight, despaired of by the physicians. Pericles was much cast down at this, but the goddess appeared to him in a dream and prescribed a course of treatment for him to use, so that he speedily and easily healed the man. It was in commemoration of this that he set up the bronze statue of Athena Hygieia on the Acropolis near the altar of that goddess, which was there before, as they say."
Plutarch's Lives, Pericles, 13.7-8. English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press and William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1916. At Perseus Digital Library.
See also: Plutarch's Lives, Volume I, Life of Pericles, XIII. Translated by Aubrey Stewart and George Long. George Bell & Sons, London & New York, 1894. At gutenberg.org.
The remains of the altar of Athena Hygieia and the inscribed base of a bronze statue by the sculptor Pyrrhos of Athens, have been discovered by archaeologists just to the southeast of the Propylaia, to the right as you enter the Acropolis.
2. Description of the Propylaia by Pausanias
Pausanias (Παυσανίας), 2nd century AD Greek travel writer.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book I, Chapter 22, sections 4-8. At Perseus Digital Library.
3. Bust of Pericles with the Corinthian Helmet
Marble. Height 58.42 cm.
British Museum, London.
Inventory Number GR 1805.7-3.91. Cat. Sculpture 549.
Inscription on the base (Inscription 1097) ΠΕΡΙΚΛΗΣ (Perikles).
"Roman, 2nd century AD copy of a lost original of around 440-430 BC"
Known as the "Townley Pericles", the bust is in the form of a "terminus", i.e. the top part of a herm. Terminus was the Roman god who protected boundaries, and stone pillars known in Latin as terminii were set up as boundary markers in a similar way to which herms were used by the Greeks. Such busts of gods and famous humans were made for the private collections of wealthy people.
This bust was found in 1780 at Emperor Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, near Rome, and purchased in 1783 by the Scottish artist and antiquities dealer Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) for the private collection of the wealthy English gentleman Charles Townley (1737-1805). It was acquired, along with around 300 ancient artefacts of the Townley Collection, by the British Museum after Townley's death.
It was one of three similar busts of Pericles (circa 495 - 429 BC) found in Rome 1779-1780, one of which, now in the Museo Pio-Clementino (part of the Vatican Museums), bears the inscription ΠΕΡΙΚΛΗΣ ΞΑΝΘΙΠΠΟΥ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΟΣ (Pericles, son of Xanthippos, Athenian).
The identification of the busts as portraits of Pericles has led scholars to believe that they were made as copies of a statue of the Athenian general and statesman made by Kresilas (Κρησίλας, circa 480-410 BC, also referred to as Cresilas, Ctesilas or Ctesilaüs), a sculptor of the Classical period from Kydonia, Crete, mentioned by the Roman author Pliny the Elder:
"Cresilas executed a statue of a man fainting from his wounds, in the expression of which may be seen how little life remains; as also the Olympian Pericles, well worthy of its title: indeed, it is one of the marvellous adjuncts of this art, that it renders men who are already celebrated even more so."
Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23–79 AD), Naturalis Historia (Natural History), published around 77-79 AD.
The Natural History, Book 34, chapter 19. English translation, John Bostock, H.T. Riley.
Published by Taylor and Francis, London, 1855. At Perseus Digital Library.
A mention by Pausanias of a statue of Pericles in the Acropolis has been taken as a reference to this work by Kresilas.
"On the Athenian Acropolis is a statue of Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, and one of Xanthippus himself, who fought against the Persians at the naval battle of Mycale. But that of Pericles stands apart, while near Xanthippos stands Anacreon of Teos..."
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book I, Chapter 25, section 1. Translation by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod. Published in 4 Volumes by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, and London, William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1918. At Perseus Digital Library.
He also mentions an Athenian dedication to Pericles in Book I, Chapter 28, section 2.
The base of a bronze statue discovered on the Acropolis is thought to be that of the work mentioned by Pausanias. The question of whether the statue was made during the lifetime of Pericles or after his death in 429 BC remains open, as the original has been lost. However, many recent references, including museum descriptions, prefer a date between 440 and 430 BC.
A fourth very similar marble head of Pericles, made for a statue rather than as a bust, was found on the Greek island of Lesbos and is now in the Altes Museum, Berlin (see photo right).
Marble. Height 54 cm. Made to fit in a statue.
Museum label: "Roman, after an original from around 430 BC"
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Inventory Number: Sk 1530 (K 127).
Found on Lesbos, acquired on the art market in 1901.
The bust of Pericles
in the British Museum with the
inscription ΠΕΡΙΚΛΗΣ (Perikles).
Head of a statue of Pericles.
From Lesbos. Marble.
Roman period copy "after an
original from around 430 BC".
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Inv. No. SK 1530.
Acquired in 1901.
4. Head of so-called Aspasia
Marble. Height 29.5 cm (approx. lifesize).
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Inventory Number Sk 605.
Museum label: "Roman, after a model from around 470/460 BC"
Acquired by the old Royal Prussian Collection in 1742. In 1799 in the library of Friedrich II's Neue Palais, Sanssouci, Potsdam. Transferred to the Königliche Museum, Berlin in 1830.
The head is one of over 30 sculptures of a type known variously as "Aspasia", "Sosandra", "Aphrodite Sosandra", "Aspasia/Sosandra", "Europa" or "Amelung's Goddess". All sculptures of the type show a woman draped in a himetion (long woollen cloak), part of which covers the top and back of her head like a cowl. Her hair is parted in the middle and tied back so that it falls diagonally to either side of her forehead in waves. Her face, solemn and austere, has been sculpted in a way which has been associated with the severe style of Classical Greek sculpture.
Statues and reliefs of women draped and "veiled" in cloaks were very common in antiquity, most often on funeral monuments showing the subject as the deceased or as a widow. However, men and women were also depicted in this manner as priests, and some deities are also shown hooded.
The association of this statue type with Aspasia of Miletus stems from a marble herm, discovered in 1777 near Civitavecchia, which bears the inscription ΑCΠΑCΙΑ (= ΑΣΠΑΣΙΑ). It is so far the only sculpture found to bear such an inscription, and many scholars have doubted its authenticity, pointing also to problems of reconciling the style of the sculpture with the time of Aspasia's life, as well as the fact that no statue of Aspasia is mentioned by ancient authors. Wealthy Romans had a preoccupation with acquiring portraits of famous historical personalities, and there are many examples of dubious labelling of statues from ancient collections.
Marble bust of Aspasia in Rome (see drawing, above right)
Sala delle Muse, Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museums.
Invoice Number 272.
Marble. Height 170 cm.
Identified by the inscription ΑCΠΑCΙΑ (= ΑΣΠΑΣΙΑ) on the base.
Inscription on front of stele: MVN. PIT. SEXTI. P. M
Found in 1777 at Torre della Chiarrucia (Castrum Novum) near Civitavecchia (80 km northwest of Rome).
Thought to be a Roman copy of the first half of the 2nd century AD after an Hellenistic original of the 4th century BC.
Another theory is that the type depicts a statue of Sosandra (Σωσάνδρα, saviour of men) by the 5th century BC sculptor Calamis (Kαλαμις, Kalamis) which stood on the Acropolis and was mentioned by the Roman author Lucian of Samosata (Greek, Λουκιανός ὁ Σαμοσατεύς; Latin, Lucianus Samosatensis; circa 125-180 AD) in his Essays in Portraiture (also known as A portrait study and Images).
See: A portrait study, in The works of Lucian of Samosata, Volume III (of 4), translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler. At Project Guenberg.
The sculpture mentioned by Lucian has in turn been identified with a statue of Aphrodite by Calamis which, according to Pausanias, stood near the entrance to the Acropolis, and was dedicated by Callias (Καλλίας, Kallias, circa 500-432 BC), the wealthy brother-in-law of Kimon, and a supporter of Pericles.
Pausanias's Description of Greece, volume I (of 6), Book I, Chapter 23, section 2. Translated with a commentary by James George Frazer. Macmillan and Co., London, 1898. At archive.org.
Possibly the best known statue of "Aphrodite Sosandra" is in Naples (see photo above right):
Statue of Aphrodite Sosandra in Naples
National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Location: Ground floor, Room XLV.
Inventory number 153654.
Marble. Height 183 cm.
Roman copy of a Greek original of around 460-450 BC.
Found in 1950 in the "Sector of Sosandra" at Baiae, Bay of Naples. The statue was unfinished and almost completely unpolished. It is believed that a workshop at Baiae mass-produced marble or bronze copies of Hellenistic and Greek sculptures for the Roman market from original works.
Drawing of the marble bust
of Aspasia in Rome, showing
the inscription "ΑCΠΑCΙΑ".
Statue of Aphrodite Sosandra.
Roman copy of a Greek original
of around 460-450 BC.
Marble. Height 183 cm.
National Archaeological Museum,
Naples. Inv. No. 153654.
5. Head of "Hermes Propylaios" in the Acropolis Museum, Athens
A herm head of the "Pergamon type", made of Pentelic marble during the first century BC. Found on the Athens Acropolis and now in the Acropolis Museum, Acr. 2281.
As with the similar herm of Hermes from Pergamon (see photo, right), which gave this type its name, it has three rows of snailshell curls framing the forehead and symmetrical groups of curls on the beard. It also originally had two long hair locks (ringlets), now missing, which fell from behind the ears, with an end resting on each shoulder.
The head is badly damaged and discoloured, and the missing herm shaft has been replaced by a simplified modern reconstruction. The eyes, cheeks and mouth suggest a cheerful-looking Hermes, with a trace of the enigmatic smile found on Archaic statues, such kores, but rarer on the generally more earnest faces of Classical sculptures (see the portraits of Pericles and Aspasia above).
I have not yet found any recent literature which examines this sculpture in any depth; it is usually mentioned briefly in relation to the Pergamon herm.
See further information about the two types of "Hermes Propylaios" herms - the Pergamon type and the Ephesos type - in the illustrated article about the "Hermes Propylaios" from Pergamon in Pergamon gallery 2, page 15.
See also a short description and photo of this head:
Ismini Trianti, The Acropolis Museum, pages 395 and 402.
Eurobank / Latsis Group. Published by OLKOS, Athens, 1998.
E-book in English and Greek.
This book is part of the excellent series, "The Museums Cycle", produced by the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation. The large, lavishly illustrated volumes are excellent guides to some of Greece's finest museums. However, they are very heavy: the book about the Archaeological Museum of Pella (the best book about Pella I have yet seen), for example, weighs 3.5 kg. This means that visitors are hardly likely to want to lug them around museums or archaeological sites, and they would cerainly put a strain on your airline baggage allowance.
However, since the guides are produced as limited editions for libraries and institutions, they are not on sale in bookshops. Fortunately, the Latsis Group have provided their electronic library, so that they can be read online as e-books.
The head of the Pergamon
"Hermes Propylaios" herm.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
See the photos and article on
Pergamon gallery 2,
6. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (circa 80–70 - circa 15 BC), Roman architect, engineer and writer, best known as the author of De Architectura (On architecture) written around 15 BC, published as Ten Books on Architecture.
Vitruvius on entasis:
"These proportionate enlargements are made in the thickness of columns on account of the different heights to which the eye has to climb. For the eye is always in search of beauty, and if we do not gratify its desire for pleasure by a proportionate enlargement in these measures, and thus make compensation for ocular deception, a clumsy and awkward appearance will be presented to the beholder. With regard to the enlargement made at the middle of columns, which among the Greeks is called entasis, at the end of the book a figure and calculation will be subjoined, showing how an agreeable and appropriate effect may be produced by it."
See: Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, translated by Morris Hicky Morgan.
Book III, Temples and the orders of architecture; Chapter III, The Proportions of Intercolumniations and of Columns. Sentence 13. At wikisource.org.
The view westwards from the east porch of the Propylaia to the Saronic Gulf.
|Photos, maps and articles: © David John
Additional photos: © Konstanze Gundudis
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