If the Stones Could Speak - A Visit to the Parthenon, Athens
If your ideal holiday is one comprising sand, sea and fun then the odds are quite high that you are considering two weeks on a Greek island. Even for a sun worshipper a trip to Greece is not complete without a visit to one of the oldest monuments in the world, the Parthenon. So before you head off to catch a ferry from Pireaus why not factor in a short stay in Athens the birthplace of democracy and home to one of the oldest monuments in the world.
You will see Parthenon long before you reach it, towering above the city on a massive rock formation known as Acropolis. The word literally 'acro' means the extremity and ‘polis’ city. An acropolis is the highest point of a city and Athens is not unique in having an acropolis, a fortress like rock formation where citizens could retreat to comparative safety. It is the buildings which have stood there for 2,500 years and in particular the magnificent temple built for Athena the guardian goddess of Athens that have made this particular acropolis unique.
A statue of Athena the patron goddess of Athens
The Parthenon was commissioned by Pericles in 447 at a time when Athens was the cultural centre of the world and was built as a tribute to honour their patron virgin goddess, Athena, following the Greeks' victory over the Persians. ‘Parthenon’ means simply ‘virgin’. It was not only a tribute to her however, but also to the courage of its fighters, to the skill of its architects and builders, to the pride of the Athenians in their city state, to their wealth and their status. The temple housed a 40 foot statue of Athena and it became the most important temple in Greece for nearly 1,000 years.
In view of its subsequent history it is incredible that such a building has survived. If the stones could speak they would have a dramatic and tragic story to tell.
Before you take a closer look at the monument stand back and imagine, if you can, how it must have appeared before the ravages of war, time and pollution. The pristine Pendelic marble stones glistening in the sun, and inside the statue of Athena made of chryselephantine – a mixture of ivory and gold surrounded by friezes depicting myth and history. It is believed that the ceiling was painted blue and some of the surroundings blue and red.
The history of Parthenon reflects the history of Greece. When Greece converted to Christianity in the fifth century the pagan temple to the virgin Athena became a church dedicated to the virgin Mary. The statue of Athena was removed and taken to Constantinople where it disappeared perhaps as a result of the sacking of the city by the Crusaders in 1204.
If the stones could speak they would tell of another conversion, this time to a mosque in the fifteenth century when Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire. A minaret was added on this occasion. In the course of two thousand years Parthenon was temple, church and finally mosque. A place of worship for pagans, Christians and Muslims where men acknowledged in their different ways their need to worship someone higher than themselves.
Parthenon aged gradually over the years, victim to climate, war, looting, vandalism and neglect, in common with other ancient buildings. However for Parthenon the worst was yet to come.
In 1687 the Venetians bombarded Athens and with little interest in the value of the Parthenon, the Ottoman Turks used Parthenon as an ammunition dump, the ammunition exploded with such a force that the roof was destroyed with many of the sculptures and stones scattered in rubble around it. After this catastrophe the temple beloved of the Greeks became a disused ruin.
In the 19th century travel to Classical Greece became the vogue for wealthy Europeans who were appalled when they saw the damaged temple. One man in particular, the Earl of Elgin, took advantage of the situation and obtained permission from the Ottoman Turks to remove some of the carvings and stones from Parthenon. He took more than his share of statues and friezes which he later sold to the British Museum where they have become known as the Elgin Marbles. Other museums have also acquired works of art from Parthenon.
Elgin marbles exhibited in the British Museam
During the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 the Greeks, realising that the Turks were melting lead from the columns of Parthenon to make bullets, offered to give their enemies free bullets if they would cease this practice, such was the Greeks’ esteem of their ancient monument. When the Greeks took possession of Athens the minaret was removed along with other medieval buildings built on Acropolis.
In May 1941 Greece was again invaded and its treasures looted. The German swastika flew from the Acropolis. For two Greek patriots this was too much to endure and climbing the Acropolis they tore the flag down.
The swastika is raised on the Acropolis
There remains one battle to be fought for the dignity of the Parthenon and that is the return of the extant statues and friezes that have survived the years of conflict and abuse and are displayed in museums in London, Paris and Copenhagen. They have a fitting home awaiting them as the Greek authorities have restored much of the ravages inflicted on Parthenon and built the Acropolis Museum http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/?pname=Home&la=2 with a Gallery especially devoted to Parthenon. There you can see for yourself many of the statues and carvings that originally adorned the temple of Athena.
Before you leave Athens a fitting end to your visit to the Parthenon would be to climb Philopappou Hill where you will enjoy a majestic view of Parthanon presiding over the city below from the lofty Acropolis just as it has for 2,500 years. Although the great statue of Athena is no more and much of the decoration depleted, nevertheless the Parthenon itself is an awe inspiring sight and one you will never forget.
See also :http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/athens-parthenon