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.


  1. This kind of nostalgia bugs me, too, and it happens everywhere. They’re tearing out a street here in Galesburg to replace the concrete with cobblestones.

    I love Red Square so much exactly because this kind of thing has not happened. There are people who think the mausoleum should be removed, but I think it should stay, along with that little church just inside the walls, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and GUM. Of course, I don’t think they should tear down the Lenin statues, either–after all, they’re now rebuilding all the tsarist monuments that the Communists tore down–but I suppose I’m a minority voice on that one.

  2. It’s true that Red Square is much less mucked up than it could have been (the Soviet architect I.I. Leonidov wanted to put “a 50-story monumental building in the form of a huge factory chimney” in it), but it certainly hasn’t escaped unscathed. On the south side, the church of St. Nicholas (“Nikola moskvoreckii”) was destroyed along with all the adjoining buildings in the late ’30s in the course of constructing the new bridge, and on the north the Kazan Cathedral was pulled down in 1936 (and subsequently rebuilt in the ’90s; the phenomenon of rebuilding vanished structures is a whole different topic). But the worst vandalism was the destruction of the Iberian Chapel (Iverskaya chasovnya), one of the most beloved bits of prerevolutionary Moscow. If you’re interested in city history, I urge you to find a copy of I.K. Kondrat’ev’s Sedaya starina Moskvy, originally published in 1893 and reissued in 1997 by Citadel’ with extremely thorough end notes detailing the subsequent fate of everything discussed in the text. (Lovely endpapers too.)

  3. Yes, depressing. No wonder the Turks and Greeks are on both sides so hysterical and confused about their respective identities when everyone else had to pitch in….

  4. Oddly enough, the November 11 entry at the always amusing (but not always archived, thus the full quote) Collins Library was:

    Dr. Schliemann, the successful discoverer of Troy’s remains, has obtained Greek government permission to demolish a great square tower at Acropolis at Athens. It is known as the Ventian tower, and apparently dates from the fourteenth century. It is 80 feet high, and covers 1600 square feet, with walls 5 feet thick. The materials for its construction were drawn from the Acropolis and the theatre of Herodes Atticus.

    Dr. Schliemann pays the cost of demolition, which will cost about $2325, and in return he has the exclusive right for three years to publish any inscriptions uncovered. It is thought its removal will bring to light a great number of inscriptions, and other interesting objects. The Athenians manifested great delight when the work of demolition began, which was on the 2nd of June.

    Galaxy, November 1874

  5. Ray: Thanks for the quote (highly apropos), and for introducing me to the Collins Library!

  6. Somebody – possibly Vicki Rosenzweig, who helped put the blogging bee in my bonnet – observed that all those dear old buildings (in England), that now cannot legally be demolished or altered, were put up by people who were free to alter or demolish any buildings on their property (and who I might add never applied for a permit).

  7. Your comments show cultural insensitivity as well as sloppy historical knowledge.
    What is a real shame is that so many invadors
    did not respect the miracle that was the Parthenon (as well as the rest of the buildings and temple on Acropolis), not that the Acropolis was finally cleansed of stables, shops, mosques, churches, etc.
    The Turks used to keep their livestock there,too. Should the archaeologist kept the Turkish barns and hen pens on the Holy Rock (as it is called by the Greeks) What is cute or romantic about that? The Italians would appreciate anything like that in the midst of their Roman ruins, not would the English. So why the Greeks or any educated person appreciative of the Greek culture for that matter.

  8. The proper use of antiquities is to use them, and what counts as using them depends on the needs of the time. Consequently, nothing can be definitively said about whether a building should become a museum, a living museum, or just remain a cowshed. Context is all.

  9. The bane of the modern era:
    “Purity is history, history purity,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.

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