Wednesday, 9 April 2014

41. Wonder: The Parthenon

(For the Parthenon preview, please click here.)

In 1801, 2239 years after it had been completed, the Parthenon had a new visitor. The British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin - but more commonly called Lord Elgin - was admiring the shattered corpse of the ancient Greek temple, noting the smashed columns and sculpture strewn around. Time is never kind to mankind's efforts, and 2239 years is a lot of time, but in this case the chief offending incident had occurred a mere 114 years earlier. The Parthenon had seen many uses over the years, and by 1687 it was suffering the ignominy of being an ammo dump for the Ottoman Turks. I guess they thought it seemed like a safe location - hence why they kept their women and children there. But in 1687, attacking forces from Venice besieged Athens. Knowing where the Turks kept their ammo, the Venetian field marshal, a Swede by the name of Count Koenigsmark, ordered a mortar barrage of the Parthenon to blow it sky high. His plan worked a dream. The ammo detonated, half the Parthenon was obliterated, and around 300 people - almost all women and children - killed. Later, the Venetians tried to take some of the sculpture with them, but broke it in the attempt. The Swedish Count, as it happened, was a keen Hellenophile, that is a fan of all things ancient Greek, and later expressed his regrets at blowing up what was perhaps the finest surviving example of Greek architecture. His views on the 300 women and children killed are not recorded.

It is against this background that Lord Elgin stood, permit in hand, upon the imposing rock that is the Acropolis, which hosts the Parthenon and a smattering of other ancient Greek structures. At the base, spread all around, is Athens. Over a century after the explosion, the Parthenon had been used as a convenient quarry by the locals, who had reused some of the marble and material for their own, more mundane, constructions. It had also become a popular haunt with wealthy European tourists, who began taking pieces home; locals soon got wise to this, and began selling "souvenirs". The Turkish authorities in control of the city had become corrupt and were happy to turn a blind eye to it all, especially if a bribe came their way. Lord Elgin had received permission from the Ottoman government to put some scaffolding up and make some plaster casts of the upper sculpture. He took things a little further.

Whether his permission allowed him to go so far is perhaps a moot point - the Ottoman authorities were not exactly responsible guardians - but Elgin thought the sculptures were in such perilous condition that the only way to save them was to remove them from the Parthenon entirely. Some he took from the ground, but some he forcibly removed from the upper sections with crowbars. The process was systematic: from 1801 to 1812, he took boatloads away. If you can imagine stripping the Notre-Dame of all its sculpture - for safe-keeping of course - that was what Elgin did to the Parthenon. He didn't leave very much. It was shipped back to Britain, where it became somewhat of a contentious issue; eventually in 1835 the government bought the entire set for £35,000, giving it to the British Museum. It was not a profit-making enterprise for Elgin - he'd spent around £70,000 on the entire operation.

The pros and cons of Lord Elgin's interference can be argued endlessly. The British Museum believe the Elgin Marbles, as they have been dubbed, are an important museum piece for the world to see, and by returning them opens the door to returning all the museum pieces they've acquired over the years. Greece's argument is more simple - the Elgin Marbles clearly belong to Greece, and Elgin is a prick-and-a-half for nicking them. Which is adroitly countered with the argument that Elgin saved them - they were at threat from theft anyway, and pollution over the last century has seen what was left behind more degraded. To which Greece say that's not the point, and anyway disastrous cleaning attempts by the museum in the 1930s permanently damaged coloured layers. And so on. The fact remains throughout - the Elgin Marbles are in the British Museum. For one side, that's where they now belong. For the other, the Parthenon was broken by one invader and stripped by another.

By which time, you may well be asking, what exactly did he steal or save or whatever? What are the Elgin Marbles? And to understand that, we need to understand the Parthenon a little. And the best way to do that is to simply visit it, as Danielle and I did on a lightly overcast afternoon.

Why's it called the Parthenon? It's most likely due to the goddess Athena, the city's mythical protector and the goddess of all kinds of things, like wisdom and justice. Her gold and ivory statue was once the temple's centrepiece. The Greek "parthenos" means "virgin", and this was a title of Athena's, Athena Parthenos.  "Parthenon" can also be "of the virgin", and it has been speculated that the temple may have been a house of young girls, but without any solid basis. It's part of the overall ensemble that is the Acropolis of Athens, the rock plateau standing 156 metres above sea level, or around 100 metres above the city. No doubt, the Parthenon is the focal point of the Acropolis, but its lofty surroundings with the other temples and ancient walls are so intrinsically tied together than I may as well be considering the whole Acropolis as my Wonder. Acropolis simply means "highest city" in Greek, referring to settlements built upon high ground, and there are many such around the ancient world. Athens' is the most celebrated example.

As it happens though, the Acropolis isn't the highest of Athens' rocks or hills. Not too far away is the much higher Mount Lycabettus at 277 metres above sea level, on which a little church is perched, although it's a peak rather than a plateau. Athena had a hand in it too. She dropped it - yes, the whole mountain - while on the way to build the Acropolis.

Out of sight, but further in that direction, about ten miles, is Mount Pentelicus, which is where all the marble came from to build the various monuments on top of the Acropolis.

The Parthenon was built from 447 BC to 438 BC, a remarkably rapid time for a remarkably precise structure. Clearly without the use of machines, everything was hand-crafted to a level of subtlety and detail that still confounds modern restorers. There are almost no straight lines on the Parthenon, everything that looks straight actually curves ever so slightly. This wasn't done for fun, it was likely done to correct the optical illusion of sagging that can occur with actual straight lines in such buildings. The floor and roof bulge in the middle, up to 10 centimetres. The columns too bulge, again to correct for an illusion, this time of looking thinner in the middle than they really are. Or so we think - no existing documents explain the ancient Greek thought behind it. This curving effect is called entasis, derived from the Greek for "tension" or "to strain", possibly representing the swelling of a strained muscle under a load, and some believe the effect may have been done simply to represent strength. One of the information boards in the Acropolis Museum refers to these technical and artistic subtleties, and especially the deliberate irregularities, as having "achieved the rhythm and pulse of a living organism".

It A man called Perikles, the leader of Athens, ordered its construction, to commemorate and celebrate victory over the Persians. He wanted the city to be great again, not just as a power, but as an artistic force too, and oversaw a golden age for the city. He redeveloped the entire Acropolis, building upon the ruins left by the last Persian invasion, with structures that survive today such as the Propylaea (432 BC),
the Temple of Athena Nike (424 BC), and the Erechtheion (406 BC).

Temples were obviously a big part of his design, and architecturally the Parthenon looks like a temple. It's just under 70 metres long, a little over 30 metres wide, and is 14 metres high in total, with the columns 10.4 metres high. If you're lost by these numbers, think of a football pitch shrunk to two-thirds and imagine a three-storey building upon it. But a very nice one, of course. However, despite looking just like a temple, it is thought the Parthenon actually had a different function - as a treasury. Inside, a huge gold-and-ivory statue of Athena was kept, but it doesn't appear to have been the focus of worship. Rather, according to some historical accounts, it had removable parts, just as bars of gold could be removed from a gold reserve. The statue had so much riches lavished upon it, it likely cost more than the entire Parthenon to build. It is long lost now - being made of gold is usually a surefire way for something to get stolen and melted down - but it would have dominated the final price tag of the Parthenon of 469 silver talents. What's a talent? A talent was about 26 kilograms, so at today's silver price of 48p per gram, that would make £5.8 million. I think we can dismiss this figure - the further back we go in time, the less reliable these kind of calculations become. Instead, a better estimate of cost is comparison. A trireme, one of the Greeks' best ships, cost 1 talent, so the Parthenon cost 469 of their finest ships. Athens annual income was around 1000 talents, so the total cost over eight years of the Parthenon was around half the city's income for a year, with most of that being the statue of Athena. Other precious materials were likely kept in the building too. The Parthenon was a showcase of Greek architecture and a treasury of immense wealth, but it appears it was only a temple in name.

In its day, the Parthenon would have been gorgeous - towering columns, gleaming marble, incredible painted-and-decorated sculpture wrapped around, with a mighty gold-and-ivory statue of Athena, the city's guardian inside. But that was in 438 BC. As I write, it's 2014 AD, and the Parthenon looks like this:

Scaffolding. Oh boy, there's a lot of scaffolding. Not just scaffolding, but cranes and tracks and a portable cabin. The modern day Parthenon is a building site.
For today's visitor to the Acropolis, this must surely be one of the overwhelming impressions: a 2500-year-old temple wrapped in metal poles. It's like seeing a once-proud athlete on life-support. In fact, what we're seeing is a very extensive plastic surgery, or even a revival from near-death. The Parthenon is undergoing a very long restoration. It began, full-scale, in 1983, and continues on past any deadlines set. Another ten years? Maybe. When I spoke to a security guy about it, he just shrugged, saying he couldn't ever remember the Parthenon without the scaffolding. For him, although he didn't say so in as many words, it was just another building site, wrapped around some old ruins.
It's a difficult image to shake at first. Depending on the work being done, the scaffolding moves, but currently it's at the western side, the front. As you enter the Acropolis, passing through the Propylaea, it's this side you first see. Not the best first impression. Wandering round, the other side is uncluttered. It's less elevated and therefore not quite as grand, but it's the best way currently to imagine the Parthenon in different days.

For these reviews, I am reviewing the actual Wonder rather than temportary distractions such as tourists or scaffolding, and I always do my best to disregard these. With the Parthenon, it was challenging. At least the tourist numbers weren't too distracting (I gather in the summer it can be overwhelming), but trying to picture a scaffolding-free Parthenon wasn't easy. It was difficult to sense the glory and the history of the temple with so much modern construction around.
Yet, all this scaffolding is worthwhile. A good job is worth doing right. In the late 19th Century, a Greek engineer called Nikaloas Balanos did it all wrong. The black and white picture above is how he found the Parthenon, still shattered after the 17th Century explosion. He wanted to rebuild it as best possible. But he rebuilt columns from the wrong blocks, and used iron clamps to hold blocks together. He didn't look to the example of his ancient countrymen, who had lead-covered the clamps, and over the next century his iron clamps rusted, expanded, and broke the Parthenon's marble. This time, considerable more care is being taken, the job is a meticulous one. A vast jigsaw puzzle of over 70,000 pieces - some of them in different parts of the world - it is being reassembled carefully and slowly, piece by piece. When pieces are missing, new pieces are cut, from the same quarry on Mount Pentelicus. Soluble cement is being used, so that if a better way is found in the future, it can be dissolved without damage to the marble. Laser cleaning removes many centuries of dirt, most of the black crust being acquired in the last century after Athens became industrialised. Pollution remains one of the Parthenon's greatest threat - modern Athens is not treating its monuments well. Such was the concern, in the 1970s UNESCO suggested encasing the entire Acropolis in a perspex bubble to protect it - but hey, this was a decade in which water beds and clogs became fashionable. For a short period though, some statues were encased in perspex before being removed to the museum. This is the fate of the Parthenon's and its peers on the Acropolis - the statues are in museums for safe-keeping, any you do see on the monuments are copies.

Clearly, I am all for restoration, and the Parthenon restoration seems about as considered and precise as any around today. Who, therefore, am I to say, "Hmm..." Because I have reservations about the restoration of the Acropolis. Take a closer look at the Temple of Athena Nike.

Looks kind of patchy, doesn't it? The lighter, cleaner blocks are new. They are designed to stand out so that we don't confuse them for the original parts.

The constructed north side of the Parthenon is likewise. It was blown up by the 1687 explosion, but has been carefully put back, with new blocks when necessary. They aren't what I'd call discreet.

I just don't think this looks good. Like Chartres Cathedral's interior, being cleaned, but leaving patches of medieval paint, it looks unattractive. Why have the differences to be so jarring? Am I missing something? I get the point with not rebuilding it so that new blends with old, but if we're going to the colossal effort of authentically restoring this ancient temple, why have the new blocks so glaringly obvious? Let them blend in more subtlety - not invisibly, mind - so that they don't distract. Because for the average visitor, it looks distracting. But perhaps I'm missing something.

After all, doing a restoration is pretty difficult when so much material is missing, whether blasted apart or stolen by scavengers with varying motives. Lord Elgin's motive was likely not a malicious one; indeed, by taking the Elgin Marbles he at least ensured a whole bunch of sculpture was taken together rather than taken and dispersed by numerous parties. What exactly did he take then? I know I've not quite got round to answering that question. Well, he took these: metopes, parts of the frieze, and pediments. All these are sculptural, to different degrees, telling stories in different ways, and crucially at different positions on the Parthenon. Once, they were brightly coloured, many with actual swords and weapons and other adornments fixed to them. Think of metopes as marble-carved cartoon panels, each one with a self-contained scene. They ran along the top part of the Parthenon, on the outside, and told mythical stories like gods versus giants and the fall of Troy. The frieze, on the other hand, was more freeform, without constraints of individual panels, likely depicting events of a great festival held every four years, called the Panathenaic procession, in which a new robe for the Athena statue was escorted through the streets. It ran the length of the exterior walls of the inner building of the Parthenon, 160 metres in all. And the pediments are the triangular roof-like parts at the front and back of the temple, fully-fledged sculptures of gods enacting various mythical scenes.

But you'd be forgiven for not appreciating some of these subtleties upon a casual visit to the British Museum. I've visited them a few times, but shorn of their context I must admit I found it all a bit... boring. Just a bunch of sculptures. But hey, I thought, would they look any better in an Athens museum? Of course not. They belong on the Parthenon, not in a museum, and if Athens is too polluted to take them back then they may as well stay where they are.

And that's what I thought until I visited the Acropolis Museum.

That's the Acropolis Museum, as seen from the Acropolis. It was opened in 2009, and it's great. Inside are more Greek statues and artefacts than you can shake a stick at (unless you can stick-shake over 4000 times, which would be a particularly dedicated session) but it's the top level that's the ingenious part. Look at the above picture, it's that big glass rectangle on top, aligned oddly. In fact, it's directly aligned with the Parthenon. Inside that section are the tops of 46 metal columns, and running along the side of a space directly equivalent the Parthenon are the metopes, the frieze, and the pediments. Elgin's Marbles, in other words, and whatever other "marbles" that have been retrieved or are still elsewhere in foreign collections. In the case of unreturned marbles, a cast has been taken and put in its place. A glance outside, and you can see the Parthenon; inside, and you can see exactly where the sculpture would once have been. It's brilliant.

And it is where the Elgin Marbles should be. If a direct return to the Parthenon is no longer possible, then this perfect museum in direct sight of the venerable temple is the next best thing. Lord Elgin may have done the right thing by taking the sculptures in the first place, saving them from looters and 200 years of pollution; but it is time for the British Museum to do the honourable thing and return them to a very good home.

Throughout this review, the Parthenon is described in terms of what it once was. Unfortunately, much of its greatness no longer is: this a temple that has been raided, blown up, stripped, and thoroughly soiled over the years. It was never the biggest of the Greek temples, although it seems to have been one of the most sophisticated and attractive, and up until the late 17th Century still in pretty decent condition. Sadly, no more. The Parthenon today is a ghost. On my first visit, the scaffolding dominated my impression - I tried to see beyond it but each pole or plank or chain was another mote in my eye, and I couldn't see it properly. On my second visit, I tried harder. I sat for a while and gazed, and the scaffolding seemed to go away. The Parthenon I saw was broken and hollow, but it was still grand and beautiful. Despite the abuses, it hasn't lost its pride. Take away the scaffolding and tourists and it is really surrounded by the ancient world, on an ancient hill, and you can sense that ancient air. The Parthenon is from a different time, and we are very lucky to have it, in any condition. Looking at how we've treated it over the last few centuries: we really don't deserve it.

Nonetheless, my Wonders quest judges what we have today, not what we had 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, or in the Parthenon's case, 2500 years ago. I am not assessing the world's monuments on how they were at their peak - this would be a very different quest involving rather a lot of conjecture - I am assessing them on how they are right now. Scaffolding excepted - it's obviously not a permanent feature - the Parthenon today is still a bare and broken creature. It is once-glorious rather than now-glorious. The ancient Greeks built it well, very well, and so even the ruined shell has a commanding presence, but it is not at its best, nor can it compete with the very best. It's just a little too ruined.

Some criteria then.

Size: Not particularly big - 69.5 metres by 30.9 metres if we want to be precise, and 14 metres high. But at a commanding position on the Acropolis.
Engineering: A sublime feat of subtlety and precision execution. Genius.
Artistry: Likewise, exquisite. Sadly, time and ruin have diminished this somewhat, and modern restoration threatens to distract with its clash of shades.
Age/Durability: 2452 years old. Pretty much only Egypt has anything older. This is one of the true grand-daddies of world architecture.
Fame/Iconicity: It could probably do with a better name - everybody seems to get it and the Pantheon in Rome confused. Nonetheless, it is the archetypical Greek temple
Context: On a huge rock, with other temples, surrounded by Athens.
Back Story: It's got rather a lot, starting with ancient Greece, falling into Roman hands, being converted into a church, then a mosque, then an ammo dump, blown up and pillaged, before resuming its place as the pride of Athens.
Originality: As a Greek temple, it wasn't the first of its kind, but it was one of the best examples. However, a couple of thousand years later we don't give much thought as to what came first, we just admire what's survived and how good it looks.
Wow Factor: Modern scaffolding entirely deflates any initial impact, but the wow is there, you just have to look for it. In a dream world without scaffolding, I still don't think the Parthenon is in the condition to truly leave people speechless, nor is it the right size to compensate for its poor condition.

Despite being around way back in the way, when the likes of Herodotus and Antipater were making up their lists of original Wonders of the World, the Parthenon doesn't appear to ever get a mention. Back then, the Greek temple genre was a competitive one, and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus got the nod. But time changes everything, and the Temple of Artemis is just a single reconstructed column with storks nesting upon it, surrounded by a lot of rubble and a dirty pond. The Parthenon is one of the big boys of the Greek temple world now. Sadly though, the Ottomans, the Venetians, Lord Elgin, and other saboteurs have not been kind. The Parthenon's best days are over, its treasures gone, its details scattered. The sheer weight of history and power of reputation still give it a commanding aura and the skeleton remaining is still a handsome one, but any chances at being one of the world's greatest have been long scuppered. I'd rate it below the Notre-Dame de Paris, which has the benefit of relative youth and intact (and happily restored) sculpture, but higher than its fellow hilltop monument, the baby Cristo Redentor.

(However, if you visit any time in the next decade, before the scaffolding is finally removed, prepare to rate the Parthenon a lot lower.)

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House


Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)

The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. A very interesting and thought-provoking article. Generally, I think that it is a good thing that historically important artefacts are kept in reputable museums in international cities around the world. Many people do not have the money, time, or in your case, a World Wondering project, to see works of art of humanity's major founding civilisations in their original context, and I think that it is important that we can see these things by going to a capital city relatively close by, rather than having to go to several far-away countries. In fact I don't begrudge Americans for having bought major European works of art in the late 19th/early 20th centuries even though they would not be sold to them now in this day and age.

    With the Elgin Marbles it's different. Your article says it all really so I won't go into why I think so, as it seems that we share the same opinion as to the reasons (although I haven't been to Athens). I saw them in the British Museum in the late 90s and was very impressed to say the least.

    Regarding the lighter, more recent blocks of marble. I'm afraid I disagree with you on this point. I think that a historic building is more than just a snapshot of when it was built - it's almost a "living" thing, in that it has been there throughout its whole tumutuous history, warts and all. For example the Frauenkirche in Dresden was reduced to rubble in 1945, rebuilt since German reunification, with parts of it being new and the other parts from the 17th century (blackend by fire) still visible in it structure. Therefore to me it isn't a late 20th century church, but a 17th century church that has been destroyed and rebuilt. So in the same way I feel that ancient monuments shouldn't have their restoration camouflaged as being ancient, but should stand out as "these are the parts that were put back in the 21st century". The structure was there in the 5th century BC, it's still here now, we can see the wear and tear, and we can see the reparations. To me, it's all a part of a whole, regarding the history of the building itself.

    1. I actually agree with your points about restoration, but with the Parthenon I found the new blocks just too glaring. They ended up being a distraction. I agree entirely that they shouldn't blend in invisibly with the old, but I don't think they should make the thing look worse. I guess it's personal taste, but I'd have preferred to view the Parthenon knowing where the new blocks were without it being REALLY obvious. I think we owe it to the Parthenon to make it look aesthetically good, and over-visible restorations don't improve its looks, in my opinion.

      In saying all that, I wonder how quickly the new marble will start to darken given Athens' pollution. Perhaps that's part of the plan.