It’s time to talk about the photograph at the top of my blog. It’s part of a picture I took on the Acropolis of Athens in summer 2007: let’s call it The Parthenon Under Construction (Again).
Of course, ancient buildings need restoration and conservation, and this will at times require scaffolding and fairly serious intervention – especially if we are talking about a 2500-year-old marble building in the centre of a very large modern city.
But during that visit, I spotted a sign right in front of the building (and I am still kicking myself that I didn’t take a photograph) which suggested that the aim of the works was to restore the building to before the state of 1687. This aim is now explicitly denied – and numerous websites discussing the Parthenon mysteriously carry the same phrase:
The Parthenon will not be restored to a pre-1687 state, but the explosion damage will be mitigated as much as possible, both in the interest of restoring the structural integrity of the edifice (important in this earthquake-prone region) and to restore the aesthetic integrity by filling in chipped sections of column drums and lintels, using precisely sculpted marble cemented in place.
Perhaps somebody realised that a restoration to the state before the explosion, if you took it seriously, wouldn’t quite achieve what most people would expect to see.
1687 was the year when the Venetians attacked Ottoman Athens. They shot at the Parthenon, which was at that time used to store gunpowder. Unsurprisingly, it blew up, leaving a big, clearly explosion-shaped hole in the two long colonnades along its side. I have to say, that gap had grown on me – once you knew what it was, it gave you such a vivid picture of what had happened there. Can you learn to like the missing parts of a ruin? I think you can!
But these holes are now almost gone – we still have a ruin, but it’s not quite in any state it has ever been in during its long history. It certainly doesn’t look like the Parthenon which was blown up in 1687. If they really wanted to restore it to that state, they’d need to put the sculptures back (few Greeks would disagree with this idea) and of course, they’d also need to put back the minaret (not so much agreement on that, I’d assume).
History is almost always selective – and in few places it is as selective as on the Athenian Acropolis. The hilltop has been subject to careful selection – stripped down to a rather sterile imaginary landscape of buildings which mainly date to the Classical period (fifth and fourth century). And though they are in a ruined state, the amount of ruination is also being carefully manipulated and controlled.
What we see is the image of an ‘ideal’ ruined Acropolis, in a way a new design created with ancient material, or on an ancient canvass: a historical site stripped of almost all its layers, and particularly most traces of 2500 years of later history.
And this is the perfect image to illustrate what I mean by ‘Working Memories’. History is being worked and shaped, as is the marble brought ‘from the ancient quarry’ which is used to fill the gaps, and nothing can fix history more in people’s imagination and memory than a physical monument which confirms a particular version of the past.
But the Parthenon is also a memory that works for Greece, as a national symbol, and it works for us too – who doesn’t imagine those iconic (‘iconified’?) ruins when they think about ancient Greece? And who is willing to remember that those glorious fifth-century buildings are also a monument to the oppression by the Athenians of many other Greek states whose tributes provided a good part of the funds?
How will we - how will future generations - remember that after serving as a temple for about 850 years, this building became a church for about 800 years, and then was a mosque for another 230, before it was, somewhat paradoxically, ‘resurrected’ as a glorious ruin? Will we remember that the building might hardly be there now, its stones long carried away to be reused elsewhere, if it hadn’t been put to different uses?
History is necessarily selective. But how selective can we allow ourselves to be – and when does selective history simply prevent us from seeing a lot that’s colourful, unexpected and more interesting than the obvious? Suffice to say: I feel rather uncomfortable with the restored, manicured, purified Acropolis. As long as the scaffolding is up all around the Parthenon, it’s still easy to see the shaping of memories in progress. But I wonder: once the building works are finished, how quickly we’ll all take it for granted, how soon we’ll forget that we ever saw it differently?