Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Athenian Adventures of the Timeless Temple

                      There is a legend that tells how Cecrops was the first King of Attica, who re-named the ancient city of Aete after himself, Cecropia. The sea-god Poseidon struck a rock in the city with his trident and a well was formed, following which Poseidon asked Cecrops to name the city in his honour, but Athene came and planted an olive tree in the city in Cecrop’s presence, and asked for the city from him. Cecrops chose the goddess and named the city ‘Athens’ for her. 

Reconstruction of the Acropolis

Athens has two part, a lower and a higher city, the higher part called the Acropolis (akron – άκρος – higher, upper, and polis – πόλις – city); the acropolis is a steep rock, 150 feet high, 1150 feet long and 500 feet wide, approached from the west by the Propylæa (Προπύλαια), a colonnade of Pentelic marble. An early temple to Athene was built on the acropolis but following the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks, the ruins of the temple that had been burned by Xerxes’ Persians invaders in 480 BCE was rebuilt under the reforms of Themistocles, and particularly the improvements made under Pericles, in what is known as the Golden Age of Athens. 

Reconstruction of the Acropolis

The new temple to Athene Polias (the Goddess of the State) was built under the supervision of Phidias, a sculptor of legendary skill, and by common usage it became known as the Parthenon, after the great chryselephantine statue of Athene Panthenos. Every year, a festival was held in honour of Athene, called the Panathenaea (with a Great Panathenaea held every fourth year), with games, literary and musical competitions, feasting, religious ceremonies and sacrifices; the prizes for the games were vases of olive oil, in memory of the tree given to the Athenians by Athene. 


A central event was the Panathenaic procession, in which the citizens of Athens participated; crowned with flowers, they met on the Eleusian plains and processed through the city streets, with the older men carrying olive boughs, the younger men clad in fine armour, youth singing hymns, young maidens carrying baskets of sacred offerings on their heads, foreigners bearing gifts of honey and water, with deputations from other Greek states bringing offerings of sheep and cattle. 

Eight musicians, four playing flutes and four playing the cithera, together with rhapsodists singing Homeric songs and dancers performing the deeds of Athene, also took part, and the central object of all this was a ship, seemingly rowed and impelled by the wind but actually accompanying propelled mechanically, the sail of which was a sacred peplos embroidered in gold by the aristocratic maidens of Athens and showing the triumph of Athene over the Giants. As Athene was celebrated as the inventor of weaving, the overall object of the Panathenaea was to carry a newly-made peplos of the finest quality up the Propylæa to the Erechtheum and place it on the olive-wood statue of Athene Polias. 

The Panathenaic procession is represented on the interior frieze of the Parthenon, most authorities agree, whereas on the exterior pediments (the gable ends) were, on the east end, a depiction of the birth of Athene from the head of Zeus and, on the west end, her competition with Poseidon to become patron of the city. The external frieze had 92 alternating triglyphs (triple-stones) and metopes, rectangular panels with carvings of the battle of the centaurs and the lapiths. 

The Acropolis from a distance

In 435 CE, the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, when Constantine the Great ordered that all pagan temples in his Empire were either to close or change over to places of Christian worship. And so Athene was baptised and became Saint Sophia. As the Roman Empire fell apart and the eastern parts became the Byzantine Empire, we have little information about the Parthenon; we know that Basil II celebrated his victory over the Bulgarians in 1019 by presenting a number of precious gifts to the Virgin, including a much admired silver dove, symbol of the Paraclete, that was placed above the high altar. Over time, the Parthenon became the cathedral of the Orthodox Greek faith in Athens, but in 1205 the Burgundians and Lombards under Boniface compelled the Archbishop to surrender his cathedral to them and it became a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

The Parthenon

There were internal architectural alterations made to the Parthenon, to make it conform to Christian orthodoxy, as a door was cut into the western cella wall and the eastern end was closed up to accommodate an altar. An semi-circular apse was added and some spaces between the columns were built up to form walls, but on the whole the exterior remained unaltered. The Frankish lords ruled Athens for just over a century and were replaced in 1311 by Catalans from Sicily, who were in turn replaced by the Florentines in 1387, when Nerio I took the Acropolis after a lengthy siege. Nerio I reinstated the Greek clergy and exercised care in preserving the ancient monuments and so things went quite well until 1394, when the Venetians took charge of Athens, and then, in 1458, the Acropolis was surrendered to the Muslim Turks. The Parthenon was converted into a mosque, with little change to the fabric of the building apart from the removal of Christian imagery, a coat of heavy whitewash over the internal walls and the addition of a minaret. In 1646, a thunderbolt destroyed the powder magazine housed in the Propylaea, destroying that beautiful building and presaging far worse damage to come. General Francesco Morosini (later Doge of Venice) was driving the Turks from the Pelopennesus and turned his attention to Athens. 

Bombarding the Acropolis

On September 21st 1687, the Venetian fleet sailed into the harbour and batteries were placed on the hills adjacent to the Acropolis. A Turkish deserter informed the Venetians that his countrymen had moved their powder reserves into the Parthenon, expecting that the Christians would not fire upon a church (in fact, it was only one day’s supply of powder), but nonetheless, on the evening of Friday September 26th, a German lieutenant aimed a shell at the roof of the Parthenon, which shattered it and ignited the gunpowder store. 

Bombarding the Acropolis

The Parthenon was blown to pieces, with the greatest damage done to the centre of the building, but columns were toppled and walls destroyed. Two days later, the Turks surrendered and the Acropolis passed once more into the hands of the Venetians, for a mere six months, as Morosini abandoned it after looting some of the remaining statuary. The Turks reoccupied the Acropolis, rebuilding their mosque on a more modest scale (it remained until 1843) and using the wrecked stonework to build wretched hovels, fortunately covering fragments for later archaeological excavators. 

The Damaged Parthenon

But there was plunder and destruction of a different sort to follow. I will turn to this tomorrow.

The Damaged Parthenon, Turkish hovels and the Mosque

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