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”.

  10. It’s worth noting that the -5C Acropolis we see today is itself the result of similar cleansing measures. In The Praise Singer, Mary Renault puts into the mouth of Simonides a reflection on the destruction of what remained of the Acropolis from before the Persian invasion, when all non-religious structures were removed:

    […] As for Athens, that comes back like yesterday.

    It has all gone, now. Oh yes, they will be making it very fine. By the time they’re done, my Athens will be nothing to it. At one time, they were vowing they’d keep the High City just as the Medes had left it, to witness their impiety. They soon got tired of that, as who would not, but one learns not to talk sense to men at such a time. When they came round, they resolved at least not to mend what the barbarians had defiled with blood and fire. It can all go for rubble, to fill in the new foundations or raise the bastions up. Then they will build their victory ode in marble. Well, they have the right.

    Aischylos was in Sicily [where Simonides has retired] a few years back — turned fifty, which I can hardly credit yet — and said to me over a jar of Etna wine, ‘It was you, Simonides, who first opened my ear to song. But it was those days that taught me tragedy.’

    I could not keep from smiling. ‘If you mean what I think, son of Euphorion, in those days you were ten years old.’

    ‘True, master of memory. And what I saw has mixed with what I’ve heard, most of all from you; and those again with what my mind’s eye has made of them. It’s all one cloth now; I shall never tease out the threads. But it taught me tragedy, all the same.’

    ‘Yes. I can understand it. You grew up knowing the end, as the audience knows when the play begins that it will end with Agamemnon’s death. But when you were ten I was forty; when I first saw Athens, your father was hardly born. The end came to us from a bright noon sky.’

    He sat staring out through the porch towards the harbour, knitting his fair thick brows above his beaky nose; a strong man still, whose greatest pride is that he fought at Marathon. I could see him setting the ancient tale to his own sonorous music. No, he never knew the lyric years.

    There was building then, too. I suppose it is all forgotten now. The new High City is to be for the gods alone; no human ruler shall have a stronghold there any more. It will be a dedication of the people, a pledge of freedom from Medes and tyrants. A great conception. I shan’t live to see even the first stones laid. It’s half ruin still, half builder’s yard.

    The Medes burned the gatehouse. By the time they’d cleared the fallen timbers, it was just as I remembered it when I first set foot there; a gap in the oldest wall, that the old men called King Theseus’ Gate. Like enough he would have had one there. The stones were dark with time, mottled with lichen, and with ancient stains which they used to call the blood of the Amazons. The threshold was sunny, and lizards lived there.

    From this dark entry, you came out into gleaming light. (The Mysteries teach us the power of that.) Much was brand-new, but everything seemed to be, it was kept so bright, the bronzes shining like gold, the paint on the marble never left to fade. Yet in all the splendor there was something welcoming, homelike; nothing on the great hubristic Samos scale. There were the comings and goings of a great house, not a palace; though the Athenians always said that the Palace of Erechtheus used to stand on that very site where the Archon [Peisistratos] built.

    It’s Renault’s last book, and there are echoes in this passage of her whole work, from Theseus to Alexander.

  11. A wonderful quote from a wonderful novel; thanks!

  12. There’s a moment in each of Renault’s novels when the author refers, without the characters knowing it, to our own time. In The Praise Singer, it’s historical that Onomakritos, the oracle-keeper of Athens, forged a lot of oracles and used them for petty political purposes, and that he was found out by the poet Lasos. But Renault tells us what some of those forged oracles were about in Lasos’s conversations with Simonides:

    “[…] It’s my belief that old fraud makes half his oracles up.”

    “I’ve seen the scrolls; they look a hundred years old to me.”

    “They look dirty, you mean. From old inscriptions I’ve seen, a few generations back they had a different way of writing, more like Phoenician. They’re hard to read. Not his. He makes them up, I swear.”

    It was true that those I’d seen, I’d had no trouble in reading. “All the same,” I said, “you might find yourself well out of it after all. […]”

    After some thought, he said I might be right, but if so it was the fault of that old dog-face, and it was time he was shown up. […]

    I was surprised when [Lasos] began professing to Hippias a keen interest in ancient oracles; […]. Hippias received very well his modest seekings, and at last was so pleased with his new pupil that he took him to the sanctuary to see the oracular scrolls. From there he rushed panting to my house, crying in the doorway, “I knew it, Simonides! I knew it!”

    As it happened, I had just got half of a good line, and had had the rest almost in reach before he scattered my thoughts. I felt like telling him to jump off the Rock, but resigned myself to listen.

    “You were right, some of those scrolls are old: the Pythians, the Orphics, the Mousaios. I asked to look at them; but no one’s to look at them any more, in case they crumble. Only Onomakritos, and guess why. Because he’s recopying them!”

    Keeping my patience, I said that it seemed best, if they were to be read by men to come.

    “Copying, he says. Hippias read me some of the Mousaios. Why, the old charlatan’s style is stamped all over it! The very plod of his feet. Listen to this.”

    He had a sound memory, did Lasos. (How seldom one finds it now!) He had kept a dozen lines from a single hearing. They were very gnomic, about a lightning-flash from Macedon which would burn the Great King’s throne. I had to admit that, apart from their being nonsense, they did have an Onomakritan sound.

    “Oh, some were crazier still. About Atlantis rising in the west, and aspiring to rule the moon, sending up heroes in flying chariots. And a thunderbolt that burned a whole city of men. I can’t give you above two lines of that, but they have his mark. He must be plotting something, just working up to it.”

    “So what will you do?” […]

    Lasos waits his chance and catches Onomakritos in the act, and then tells Hippias, who is outraged by the impiety:

    Lasos was present when [Onomakritos] was brought before the Archons. All he could find to say in his own defense was that these visions had come to him, sent him by some god; and that he wished them to be read by men to come. He was told to be over the Attic border by nightfall; an order he obeyed so fast that he never bade me goodbye.

    Lasos came to me to report his triumph; and I asked him what oracle the man had been forging, when he was caught. A prophecy, Lasos said, that the islands off Lemnos would one day sink into the sea. [Herodotus tells this part of the story, and Pausanias reported in the 2C that the island of Chryse had in fact sank at some earlier time.]

    “What madness,” I said, “to lose a good living for. I’ve sailed by Lemnos, and those islets hardly serve for fishermen to put in overnight. I doubt more than a couple have water. What possessed the man?”

    “I can tell you that. He was possessed with a belief that these things would really happen.”

    “You mean he really took himself for a prophet?”

    “I believe so, now.” He sat back in my guest-chair, quite limp. I called my boy to bring him a cup of wine. He had had his moment; now the flame had sunk in him, leaving him chilled. “Yes, I think that he really thought so. I never saw a man more earnest. He could have fudged up some story; but he never tried. He said he had sought no glory for himself; he’d been content to give Mousaios all the credit; he only wanted his predictions kept safe.”

    I used Simonides’s most famous couplet, and Renault’s conceit about Atlantis, for my poem “The War”.

    The analogous point in The Mask of Apollo, whose main character is a fictional tragic actor, is reached when Nikeratos is having a fever-dream:

    I had a bad chest, and fever, and nearly went my father’s way [pneumonia]. I remember little of it, except some of the dreams. They [the Pythagoreans who rescued him from shipwreck] played soft music to restore my body’s harmony, and dosed me with sweet hot syrup. The alembic’s blue steam danced all day before my eyes like a snake to the charmer’s flute. I sweated, or shivered, and they raised me on high pillows to let me breathe. Once I woke from a dream to see my own body propped in the bed, myself looking down on it. A priest stood praying that I might be reborn as a philosopher. Then I dreamed I was beside some tomb or grave, holding a skull in my hand. It was clean, and I knew this was a play. Some flashes still come back to me; I was the son of a murdered king whose shade had cried me to avenge him; yet I was not Orestes. It would be nonsense, I suppose, like most dreams, if I could recall the whole.

    Or else it wouldn’t.

  13. A relevant quote from The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth:

    The [1821] conspirators succeeded, however, in sparking an insurgency in the Peleponnese and some of the islands. Though the Russians withdrew their ambassador from Istanbul, and Metternich opined (quite rightly as it happened) that Greece was merely a geographical expression, the Powers supported neither side. Then the Turks executed the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, even though he had roundly denounced the rebellion – and the idealists of Europe rallied to the cause of Greek independence. The volunteers (including Byron), the money, and, not least the publicity which they supplied contributed greatly to the success of the cause. Albeit indirectly, they also helped to ensure that the emergent state of Greece would adopt a Western-type constitution highly unsuitable for a society that was largely traditional and innocent of Western values. Events were to demonstrate that although the seeds of Western democratic ideas were to germinate in Eastern Europe, unlike the rampant bean-stalk of nationalism, the plants that grew out of them would be weak and spindly.

    Greece’s first head of state, Capodistrias, understood the problem. He was an authoritarian in the mould of the enlightened despots. He set out to build sound administrative and educational systems, to improve communications and the economy. He also favoured land reform. Anticipating Stolypin, he regarded a free and prosperous peasantry as the foundation of a stable society. Traditional interest groups, whom he held in contempt, and idealists starry-eyed with Western ways, all hated him. In 1831 he was assassinated. When the ensuing anarchy finally subsided, independent Greece found herself (thanks to an agreement between Russia, France, and Britain) with a sizeable Western loan, a Bavarian King [Otto] and a small Bavarian army.

  14. A parallel case, as described in Antioch: A History by Andrea U. De Giorgi and A. Asa Eger:

    The version of Antioch typically remembered is invariably the classical one culminating in the fourth and fifth centuries, when it was an imperial capital city at its largest and most populated. Arguing that 900 years was its lifespan, Downey devoted but a single page to Antioch following the Islamic conquest of 638. […] Downey’s own omissions fit into a much larger pattern of how postclassical cities in the Mediterranean have been regarded. Despite a growing body of scholarship on the nature of early medieval cross-cultural interactions and a recent trend in trans-Mediterranean history, most Western civilization, art history, philosophy, and literature surveys still follow a common and entrenched assumption: that “Western” culture was manifested in the great classical cities of the Greek and Roman periods in the Mediterranean, and when they declined, all achievements in learning, art, economics, and social organization transferred to medieval Europe. What is left out of this model and continues to remain uncritically engaged with is the crucial role played by post-Roman cities, mostly under Islamic rule, in shaping Mediterranean and European cultures, east and west. With few exceptions, archaeologists have excavated classical cities and discarded their later (Islamic and medieval) levels, granting institutions continue to give money to classical excavations and not Islamic or medieval ones, and tourist and antiquities departments of various countries present these cities to the public with their Islamic and medieval incarnations eviscerated. Inaccurate and incomplete knowledge about the development of Mediterranean society after the Roman period is thus a form of history-making that substantiates a fictional West-versus-East division, thereby disconnecting the West from an interconnected history with its Islamic forebears.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    The Collins Library link from 2002 is dead .

    The imprint seems to have gone elsewhere, or under.

  16. Thanks, I substituted an archived link.

  17. A parallel case

    That’s a great quote. To think I had thought that was only the story of Algerian archeology…

    In Luxor I remember seeing a medieval mosque perched precariously over an enormous and otherwise thoroughly excavated ancient Egyptian temple. Its ground level looked a good two stories above that of the temple floor.

  18. Supposedly, some of the best Roman architecture in Britain may be in Bath, forever buried underneath some of the best Georgian architecture ditto.

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