Building the Parthenon

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).

Parthenon under Construction

The Parthenon Under Construction (Again) 2007.

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.

Parthenon after the explosion of 1687

Parthenon in the late Ottoman period - temple with explosion damage, small mosque.

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!

The explosion of the Parthenon, 1687

Explosion of the Parthenon, 1687 - spot the minaret!

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?

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3 Responses to Building the Parthenon

  1. Melaszka says:

    This has rather randomly reminded me of a couple of things:

    1. The Polish language, artificially kept alive during decades of partition. Although what many Poles tell you – that there are no dialectal differences whatsoever in modern Polish – is not strictly true, the Polish preserved during partition was artificially pure, with non-standard forms carefully ironed out, so that the language people speak today is (I’m told) more a testament to a romantic ideal of Polish purity than an approximation of how real people really spoke before partition.

    2. People who attempt to perform Shakespeare “as it would have been performed in Shakespeare’s day”. (a) How do they know? Often the claim to have reconstructed Shakespearean staging/unpicked Shakespeare’s intentions is blatantly no more than an attempt to imbue one’s own opinions with some kind of pseudo-authority (b) What exactly is the point? As I once heard the Shakespearean scholar Jerzy Limon say, even if you could reconstruct all the details with 100% authenticity, you wouldn’t end up with the play that Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw, because you can’t reconstruct an Elizabethan audience and what the audience brings to the party is a crucial part of constructing meaning.

    Sorry, that was a bit stream-of-consciousness. I’m sure there is a link to the parthenon somewhere – honest!

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Melaszka, these are such good parallels – because there are many ways of reconstructing or (re)inventing the past. The Parthenon is fascinating because it represents this process in stone – at least as it is now, but I think other processes like this are more common. Interestingly, Greece also had its own affair with language purity, when the spoken verion of modern Greek was replaced (or perhaps better augmented) by a language artifically closer to ancient Greek (katharevousa)… I never knew that something like this had been going on in Polish, too.

  3. Hello Maria Pretzler,

    I am looking for images for a forthcoming book and found the image of the explosion on the Acropolis on your blog. Can you tell me where it’s from? Another site suggested Jacques Carrey, but it doesn’t quite look like his work. I suspect it’s out of copyright, but if you can help me with this I’d be grateful

    Your image of of the scaffolding on the Parthenon is one of the best I’ve found. Would you be willing to let me use it (with credit, of course).

    Many thanks,
    Patricia Vigderman

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