View of the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike from the Pynx – 2008
Beginning with the crown jewel of experiences in Athens, let’s talk about the Acropolis. This focal point, at the centre of the city, is as impressive at night as it is during the day. With a mixture of gleaming marble and scaffolding, the conservation and reconstruction on the Acropolis is visible at a great distance and illustrates a multi-generational project.
The rebuilding of the Parthenon began after the expulsion of the Ottomans, and the cause of its ruinous state might surprise you. We have all heard the story of how the Ottomans stored munitions in the Parthenon, which exploded and was the cause of the destruction in the late 17th century, I assume. A less frequently repeated aspect of the story was that while the Venetians were bombarding the Ottomans in their encampment within the Parthenon, they had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis with 200 of their women and children. The Venetians fired at the Parthenon, then a thousand-year-old Christian church, and killed hundreds of non-combatants. Arguably, the Ottomans did not destroy the Parthenon, it was Christian Europeans. And thus it remained in a ruined state until the 1830’s when the restoration programme began.
Why Was it Built?
The explosion which left a scar on this famous Greek symbol, interestingly, was not the first time such a disaster was unleashed on the Acropolis.
The growing power and development of Greek cities in the 490s B.C.E. allowed them a significant degree of self-determinism. While Ionian Greeks were under the rule of the Great Kings of Persia, the Athenians were working in a burgeoning democracy, the Spartans had dual kings, Thebes and Megara were ruled by oligarchies. It should be said that, most Greek cities of this period were governed by oligarchies, and the experiment of limited democracy which the Athenians were operating under was the exception, not the norm.
Once the Ionian Greek cities came into conflict with the Persian Empire, after rising up against the tyrants placed in charge of these cities by the Persian king, a rebellion spread. This led to a series of battles which would culminate in the burning of Athens before the Persians would be ousted (for a time) at the Battle of Marathon.
Column drums from a building before the Persian invasion, were later integrated into the north-facing side of the Acropolis.
King Darius’ death in 488 B.C.E. led to his son, Xerxes’ (yes, the one from 300) invasion of Greece in a George Bush-style attempt to ‘finish what his dad started’ manoeuvre which was equally unsuccessful. This led to several incredibly famous battles at Thermopylae and Salamis, which are still in being re-imagined in our modern era.
A depiction of one of the triremes used in these battles, Acropolis Museum – 2016
An incredible cultural florescence occurred in the years following the Persians eventual defeat. The Athenians expanded their imperial reach during these 50 years of peace between the Greek city-states. The Athenians had amassed an impressive navy through the taxes which each member of the Delian League (the allied city-states) paid to maintain and develop their navy, “should the Persians strike again”. The colonies and subject people of the Athenians also provided revenue streams to the state. The leadership of Athens was in a good position to start spending some of their wealth on crafting the image of how they wanted the world to view them. Through an impressive architectural campaign under Pericles, Athens began to invest in portraying itself as the natural leader of the Greeks.
Modern historians have called this the ‘Periclean building programme’, as it was organised and led by Pericles, who was the most prominent statesman in Athens during the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. The whole point of the Periclean building programme was to make a statement focusing on Athens’ new position in the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. Pericles, his chief architects Callicrates and Ictinus, and the famous sculptor Phidias, were the dream team which gave us the innovative and impressive buildings we see today.
The Temple of Athena Nike
The newly restored Temple of Athena Nike – 2016
The construction of the Temple of Athena Nike was completed around 420 B.C.E. (possibly directly) atop of the previous temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians in the second invasion led by Xerxes.
This impressive temple stood proudly at the entrance, a bold statement to honour of the city’s namesake and of the power the Athenians sought to rebuild.
Entrance to the Propylaea – 2016
This structure was the monumental and imposing gateway into the Acropolis. It had dual purposes in restricting access to the sacred spaces as well as protecting the state treasury held within.
Above, you can see the areas of modern materials added in the conservation of the Propylaea. Modern techniques and approaches no longer attempt to hide the reconstruction, rather they discretely blend the new materials into the damaged ancient structure/objects, but use a different shade.
In 2008, the Propylaea and the Temple of Nike were heavily scaffolded during my visits. As you can see in the bottom left corner, there is still work being done on the columns of the Propylaea, but it has come a long way from my first encounter in 2001, or the subsequent trips. These incredible buildings offer a tantalizing greeting to any visitor, and I was thrilled and impressed to see them so nearly complete!
Fifteen years ago I went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe.
It was my first time leaving North America for the wider world, with the best company in the world: my mum and big sister. Long before I became the avid, capable travel planner I am today, I had a great teacher in my mum.
Theatre of Dionysus – 2016
Interested as we were in European history, it was trekking among the ruins and sketching my first real views of Greek temples, stones and statues which would influence the path my life would take thereafter. Athens was the last stop on our month-long trip, but left a resounding impact on my life.
In Greece, I began the process of ruining my life in North America for myself. I fell in love, and knew that whatever it took, I would make my way back and find a way to the columns, capitals and carvings of the Mediterranean.
Greece in particular holds a special place for me. I’ve done my most comprehensive traveling there, trying to see for myself the places I have read about. It is an understatement to say that it’s a place brimming with history, since you find traces of the past basically everywhere.
View of the Acropolis from the Areopagus – 2016
There is a lot of agency in creating the past. We choose to highlight aspects, or periods, which mean something to us, or do so to imbue these places or periods with meaning. It is important, when considering the presentation of the past, we remain aware that at some point a choice was made about what to present on an archaeological site, and how to present it.
Creating a Historical Narrative:
The archaeological monuments we see before us today are only skeletons of times past, and most notably often illustrating one particular phase of site use. There have been many discussions in the last few decades about the way archaeologists, governments and historians construct and present an image of the past.
For instance, you may not be aware that there was a Byzantine period which saw a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the Parthenon, which was turned into a mosque! Or a period which saw the Propylaea become part of the Ducal Palace. Not to mention the Erechtheion being turned into the Ottoman governor’s private Harem.
None of these phases are represented any longer on the site. In fact, archaeologists dug so far down on the Acropolis there is bedrock exposed, which is slick to walk on and would not have been the stuff and muck under a Classical Athenians’ feet.
Ottoman period building near Monastiraki station, one of the few visible reminders of the 400 year occupation – 2008
What does all this mean?
From 1833 onwards, following the expulsion of Ottoman rule from Greece, the interest in the cultural florescence of the “Classical Period” of Greece would direct the new freedom the Greeks felt. Perhaps, it was appropriate to hearken back to a period following the expulsion of the Persians, after living so long under the rule of the inheritors of the Persian Empire.
With an interest in archaeology, the new leadership of Greece under Otto, Prince of Bavaria, focused the gaze on the Classical period architecture to develop a new sense of Greek identity, officially making Athens the capital of Greece. His initiatives for conservation and restoration attempted to look back to a period of self-determination and incredible inventiveness which had so set them apart in the ancient world.
A 19th Century painting depicts the presence of a minaret on the Ottoman building, illustrative of the romantic notions brought by travelers who admired the ruins, and wrote poetry about them in the din of the moon….as one does.
Unfortunately, the 19th century interest in presenting the period of ‘Classical Athens’ required the removal of structures from other periods. This has left a disjointed archaeological impression and historical representation. We know from sketches and paintings made by gentleman travellers in the 1800’s how the landscape has been changed. Those other phases of history have been deconstructed and left unspoken in many areas.
Early Photograph of ‘Classical’ elements of Athens
When viewing archaeological monuments and cities like Athens, it is worth remembering that the image you are presented reflects a moment in time and often is meant to symbolize how the people in power wanted to signify their rule. King Otto wanted to be seen as a liberator from the occupation by the Ottomans. Following a long established practice (especially in Athens), which we will look at in the Hellenistic and Roman posts upcoming, Otto focused on rebuilding and patronizing a period of history which saw the Greeks as leaders in Mediterranean politics and culture. None of what we see today is by accident.