Does anybody else find the sight of the Acropolis more dismaying than inspiring? I’m not talking about the dilapidated state of the buildings and statues, or even the fact that many of them have had to be replaced with replicas and the originals stashed in a museum because of pollution. No, I mean the bare, blanched emptiness of the Acropolis itself, a few crumbling ruins set amid stone paths and tumbled columns. How many people who visit the site to pay their respects to the Parthenon know that this site was once an entire walled city, filled with homes and shops and government buildings? Or that the Parthenon itself, that sad shell, was once one of the great churches of Christendom? I’ll let Alexander Masters describe it (from a review in the TLS of Mary Beard’s The Parthenon):
Some time in the sixth century, the virgin Athena lost her home to the Virgin Mary, and the Parthenon became a Christian church. The main entrance was moved from the east to the west, a few windows were cut through the frieze sculptures to allow in more light, and inside, where once had stood a gaudy, stolid forty-foot gold- and ivory-coated statue of the goddess of war and wisdom… the Christians created one of the greatest cathedrals in Greece. The doors were said to have once been the gates of Troy; the apse glittered with a gilded mosaic; among the adornments was a “miraculous” lamp, and a “magnificent” canopy supported on four columns of jasper. Basil “the Bulgar Slayer”… came down south especially to see this famous catalogue of Christian loveliness, and added to it: a golden dove with a golden crown that “circled continuously around the cross”.
Further testimony comes from perhaps Athens’ greatest medieval inhabitant, its archbishop Michael Choniates (whose younger brother Nicetas wrote one of the best Byzantine histories); I quote from Molly Mackenzie’s excellent little book Turkish Athens: The Forgotten Centuries, 1456-1832: “The Cathedral in particular—the former Parthenon—gave him constant delight: he loved it for its superb setting, the beauty and balance of its proportions, and its glorious treasures piled up through the centuries.” After the Ottoman conquest of Greece, the cathedral was turned into a mosque, with a minaret at one corner; Evliya Çelebi, visiting in the seventeenth century, wrote: “In the middle of the fortress there is one mosque, marvellous and luminous, famous among the philosophers and travellers of the world…. There is no such magnificent mosque in the whole atlas of the globe. In civilized countries no sanctuary exists to equal it. May its construction remain eternal unto the completion of time.” And what happened to this glorious pile of amassed treasures? Of course, it was badly damaged when the Venetians shelled it in an entirely useless attack in 1687 (Mackenzie: “As the building went up in flames, a great cry of joy and triumph burst from the Venetian soldiers. The women and children inside were burnt to death and the fire raged for two days, reducing the Parthenon to a ruin”), and again when Lord Elgin and others looted it in the early nineteenth century, but the final devastation was perpetrated by, of all people, archeologists. Masters again:
Though the church of Our Lady of Athens lasted half a millennia [sic], almost as long as the Parthenon had been a pagan temple, there is not a brick of it left standing today. In 1890, the Greek Archaeological Service declared that it had delivered the building “back to the civilized world, cleansed of all barbaric additions, a noble monument to the Greek genius”. Scoured of history, stripped to a stony simplicity that its fifth-century-BC builders never intended, even the hilltop on which it stood had been scrubbed down to the rock. “As one historian of Byzantium has recently put it,” writes Mary Beard, “a visit to the Acropolis today is rather like being taken on a tour around Westminster Abbey, blindfold to everything but the work of Edward the Confessor.”
These archeologists, of course, were Germans (as was the ruling family that had been imposed on the resentful Greeks); they had no attachment to the slowly built up mosaic of buildings and cultures, but oh, how they loved Ancient Greece! For similar reasons, they insisted (over the objections of the Greeks, who thought Nauplion or Corinth would be far more suitable than this depopulated village) on making Athens the capital of the country, leading to the overcrowding and pollution that has put the finishing touches on the devastation.
So try and picture Rome or Istanbul with their glorious melange of ages cleared away and nothing left but a few ancient structures; or picture, if you can, the Acropolis as it might be today if different policies had prevailed, vibrant and crowded, with mossy lanes and jumbled buildings of all periods, mosques inside churches inside temples, messy life in place of the deadly purity of a city reduced to a site. Now look at what remains, and think about what we owe to history.