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ATHENS: The Parthenon

Looming in quiet splendour over modern Athens is the awe inspiring Acropolis. Best known for housing the iconic Parthenon, it is also home to another mysterious and beautiful temple called the Erechtheum. 

The Erechtheun was completed in 406 BC, reputedly on the spot where Athena and Poseidon battled for control over Athens. The Parthenon however, was begun earlier in 447 BC but completed an incredibly short 9 years later in 438 BC although decorations of the Parthenon continued until 432 BC.

It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, generally considered the culmination of the development of the Doric order. 

While its decorative sculptures are still considered some of the high points of Greek art,  the Parthenon itself is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece and of Athenian democracy and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. The Greek Ministry of Culture is currently carrying out a program of selective restoration and reconstruction to ensure the stability of the partially ruined structure, which you can see in the above video clip.

The Parthenon itself replaced an older temple of Athena, which historians call the Pre-Parthenon or Older Parthenon, that was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 480 BC. The temple is archaeoastronomically aligned to the Pleiades. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon was used as a treasury. For a time, it served as the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire. In the 5th century AD, the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After the Ottoman Turk conquest, it was turned into a mosque in the early 1460s, and it had a minaret built in it.

In 1687, the Parthenon suffered its greatest blow when the Venetians under Francesco Morosini attacked Athens, and the Ottoman Turks fortified the Acropolis and used the building as a gunpowder magazine. 

On 26 September a Venetian mortar, fired from the Hill of Philopappus, blew the magazine up and the building was partly destroyed. Morosini then proceeded to attempt to loot sculptures from the ruin. 

The internal structures were demolished, whatever was left of the roof collapsed, and some of the pillars, particularly on the southern side, were decapitated. The sculptures suffered heavily. Many fell to the ground, and souvenirs were later made from their pieces. Consequently some sections of the sculptural decoration are known only from the drawings made by Flemish artist Jacques Carrey in 1674. After this, much of the building fell into disuse and a smaller mosque was erected.

In 1806, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin removed some of the surviving sculptures, with the Ottoman Turks' permission. These sculptures, now known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles, were sold in 1816 to the British Museum in London, where they are now displayed. A few sculptures from the Parthenon are also in the Louvre in Paris, in Copenhagen, and elsewhere, but over fifty percent are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

There exists a well publicised dispute around the Parthenon Marbles which were removed by the Earl of Elgin, which are now houses in the British Museum. 

While a few Parthenon marbles can still be seen on the building itself, the Greek government has campaigned since 1983 for the British Museum to return these sculptures back to Greece. However, the British Museum has steadfastly refused to return the sculptures, and successive British governments have been unwilling to force the Museum to do so partly because this would require significant legislation. Nevertheless, talks between senior representatives from Greek and British cultural ministries, and their legal advisers took place in London on 4 May 2007. These were the first serious negotiations for several years, and there were hopes that the two sides may move a step closer to a resolution.

In 1975, the Greek government began a concerted effort to restore the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures. After some delay a Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments was established in 1983. The project later attracted funding and technical assistance from the European Union.

An archaeological committee thoroughly documented every artifact remaining on the site, and architects assisted with computer models to determine their original locations. Particularly important and fragile sculptures were transferred to the Acropolis Museum. A crane was installed for moving marble blocks which was also designed to fold away beneath the roof line when not in use. 

In some cases, prior re-construction was found to be incorrect, but these were dismantled, and a careful process of re-restoration began. Originally, various blocks were held together by elongated iron H pins that were completely coated in lead, which protected the iron from rusting. Stabilizing pins added in the 19th century were not so coated, and therefore rusted. Since rust expands, the expansion caused further damage by cracking the marble. Fortunately, all new metalwork now uses titanium, a strong, light, and corrosion resistant material.

The Parthenon will not be restored to a pre-1687 state, but the explosion damage will be mitigated as much as possible. This will be achieved by 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. New Pentelic marble is being used from the original quarry. Ultimately, almost all major pieces of marble will be placed in the structure where they originally would have been, supported as needed by modern materials. While the repairs initially show as white against the weathered tan of original surfaces, they will become less prominent as they age.

The Erechtheun

The Erechtheun was completed in 406 BC, reputedly on the spot where Athena and Poseidon battled for control over Athens. 

The structure actually unites two separate temples. First the east porch which once sheltered an olive wood statue of Athena, while the second is the west porch which held a statue of Poseidon. 

Of course, the most famous feature of the Erechtheun is the south porch which is held up by six columns in the shape of voluptuous, drapery-clad maidens.

These beautifully carved stone maidens are collectively known as the Caryatids, possibly named after the woman of Caryae, who were famed for their beauty and served as Athenien slaves.

 It was probably for this reason alone that inspired the Ottoman commanders to convert the Erechtheum temple into a hareem during their occupation!

Although the six Caryatids are of the same height, build, and similarly attired and coiffed, they are in fact are not the same. Their faces, stance, draping, and hair have all been carved uniquely. 

The three on the left stand on their right knee, while the three on the right stand on their left knee.

And if you were wondering why they have such large 'French plaits', it is because their bulky, intricately arranged hairstyles serve the crucial purpose of providing static support to their necks. Otherwise this section of the statue be the thinnest and therefore structurally weak.

Unfortunately, the six Caryatids the you see on the south porch today are only copies, but the originals still exist. Five are being restored while on display at the new Acropolis Museum, while the sixth was removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and is currently housed in the British Museum in London.

The Acropolis housed Caryatids currently stand on a special balcony that allows visitors to view them from all sides. 

The pedestal for the Caryatid that was removed to London remains empty.

The Romans also copied the Erechtheion caryatids, installing copies in the Forum of Augustus and the Pantheon in Rome, and at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli.

For related articles click onto:
ATHENS: How to get to Athens City from Athens International Airport
ATHENS: The Arch of Hadrian
ATHENS: The Caryatids
ATHENS: The Parthenon
GREEK HISTORY: Who was Archimedes?

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