The Parthenon's Many Lives
The 2,500-year-old Parthenon is among the most
recognizable embodiments of Greece's golden age, hailed worldwide as a
symbol of wealth, culture, and intellect. The marble building was centrally
important as a religious sanctuary to all empires that came to rule Greece,
first as a temple to the Athenians, then as a church to the Byzantines, and
eventually to the Ottomans as "the finest mosque in the world," as
one 17th-century writer put it. But the structure has served other purposes in
its storied history—as a treasury, an ammunition store, even an army
barracks. In this time line, follow the Parthenon over the centuries and learn
what is being done today to restore it for its latest incarnation—as a
must-see tourist destination.—Rima Chaddha
In this 1868 painting, the sculptor Pheidias
(center) shows off the Parthenon's newly painted marble friezes to
Pericles, standing at right.
Rebuilding and renewal
Dedicated to Athena Parthenos, or "Athena the
Virgin," the magnificent Parthenon stands atop the Acropolis, on the site
of another lost temple to Athens' patron goddess. Little is known about
this first structure except that it was still under construction in 480 B.C.
when Persian forces sacked the city and demolished the Acropolis. Devastated by
the invasion of Greece, approximately 100 Greek city-states joined forces to
form the Delian League, a democratic military alliance headed by Athens. Member
states contributed money and warships, and the Athenian empire grew powerful
under the famed general Pericles, who spearheaded the new Parthenon's construction
beginning in 447 B.C. It took workers just eight years to complete the temple,
which measures over 23,000 square feet at the level of its top step.
Visitors to Nashville, Tennessee can walk inside
a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, which includes the requisite
40-foot-high statue of Athena, this one cast from gypsum cement.
The treasury and the cult
Architectural evidence and historic record, including
reference to the Parthenon's 40-foot-high, gold-and-ivory statue of
Athena, essentially confirm the building's original function as a temple.
But while the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess upon its completion in 438
B.C., scholars speculate about other aspects of its early use. For example,
because the structure housed the Delian League's financial reserves, some
experts maintain that the early Parthenon was little more than a treasury.
Other scholars suggest that the structure gained its name, and Athena her
epithet, from a temple room where young girls wove sacred textiles used in the
worship of the goddess. (The word parthenon in its Greek form
means "of the virgins.") A similar cult of girls lived at the
temple of Athena Polias, "Athena of the City."
This Byzantine mosaic from the Daphni Monastery
in Greece depicts Mary much as she might have looked in a large mosaic that
once adorned the Parthenon's altar.
Circa Sixth Century
Our Lady of Athens
The Parthenon remained a temple for a millennium before
Greece fell to the Christian Byzantines, who promptly enacted a series of
decrees outlawing pagan worship. The Byzantines converted the temple to a
church around the sixth century and made a handful of structural changes, most
significantly blocking the building's main eastern entrance so that
churchgoers would enter instead from the west in standard Christian fashion.
The famed statue of Athena had already been removed, possibly after a fire in
the third century. In its place, the Christians installed a pulpit and a marble
bishop's throne, and the temple of Athena Parthenos became the church and
later the Latin cathedral of Parthenos Maria, the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of
Under Ottoman rule, many Greeks converted to
Islam. Here, "Young Greeks at the Mosque," by Jean-Leon Gerome,
An Ottoman mosque
The Parthenon's function as a church, along with
the Byzantines' reign, lasted another millennium until the Turkish
Ottoman Empire captured Athens in 1458. The new Muslim rulers converted the
Parthenon to a mosque, but according to written accounts from the mid-1600s,
they made fewer changes to the building than the Christians had. For most of
the Parthenon's years as a mosque, Muslims conducted their worship
beneath numerous Christian paintings and the large mosaic of the Virgin Mary.
Some additions the Turks made even incorporated details from the
building's past: For example, Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi described a
painting of the Last Judgment depicting an extraordinary range of
figures—pagan, Christian, and Muslim. Faint traces of the painting
Following the Venetian attack and consequent
explosion, the Ottomans erected a new mosque within the Parthenon's
ruins, as seen in this 1836 engraving.
The beginnings of ruin
In 1687, when Venetian forces that were part of a Holy League
against the Ottoman Empire raided Athens, the Ottomans converted the Parthenon
into an ammunition store as well as a shelter for women and children. Some
historians speculate that the Ottomans believed the building was safe because
the Venetians cherished its Christian history. But the Venetians bombarded the
building with cannon fire; an estimated 700 cannonballs struck the
building's western facade alone. Eventually, gunpowder the Turks had
stored in the Parthenon ignited, blowing out 28 columns, damaging several
internal rooms, and killing up to 300 people.
Many of the Parthenon's marble friezes
depict scenes from Greek legends. Here, a centaur battles a mythological
The Elgin Marbles
In the ensuing century and a half, the Parthenon became
little more than a haven for looters. Most notorious of all was Thomas Bruce,
Britain's 7th Earl of Elgin, who had his men systematically remove a
large number of the temple's remaining sculptures, including its famous
friezes, and ship them to England from 1801 to 1812. While Lord Elgin had
received the necessary permit to look for and examine sculptures in and around
the Parthenon, it is unclear whether he had permission from the Ottomans to
remove them from the site. Also, Lord Elgin and his men elected to cut the back
halves off of many of the sculptures to lighten the load for shipment back to
England, an act deeply frowned upon by modern preservationists.
In this 1865 painting, a Greek leader blesses a
flag of the revolution against the Ottoman Empire during the War for
War for Independence
In the 1820s, the Acropolis once again became a battleground.
It occurred during the War for Independence, the Greek struggle to gain freedom
from the Ottoman Empire. Archeologists estimate that Turkish soldiers removed
520 blocks of marble from the Parthenon ruins to create makeshift defenses, or
broke them apart to make bullets from the lead that coated the iron clamps
holding the marble together. In 1829, the Greeks finally achieved independence.
Records indicate that when Bavarian soldiers arrived in Athens in the 1830s to
drive the remaining Turks from the Acropolis, they took up residence in the
Parthenon's mosque, turning the building, albeit briefly, into an army
Many observers from Balanos's day saw
his finished restoration (above) as a great improvement upon the Parthenon's
earlier, more ruinous state. But modern restorers see things
The controversial reconstruction
A major push to renovate the Parthenon came in the 1890s
when chief restoration engineer Nikolaos Balanos, under the auspices of the
Greek government, embarked on a long-term project to strengthen interior walls,
insert casts of some sculptures removed by Lord Elgin, and re-erect some of the
colonnades lost in the 1687 explosion. Unfortunately, modern preservationists
believe Balanos did more damage to the Parthenon than good. He made little
attempt to replace blocks in their original positions, compromising structural
integrity. Worse still, he added iron clamps to keep the masonry together.
Unlike the lead-coated iron the ancient Greeks had used, Balanos's clamps
were exposed to the elements and eventually corroded. The expanding iron caused
irreparable damage to many of the already cracking building materials.
Once renovations are complete, the Parthenon
will reopen to the public, though that may not be until 2020.
Restoring the Parthenon
Since 1975, the Acropolis Restoration Project team,
headed by Greek architect Manolis Korres, has spent roughly $90 million to
restore the Parthenon and surrounding structures. The team has inventoried and
measured thousands of marble fragments scattered across the Acropolis. Korres
plans to place each salvageable chunk in its original position, while new
marble from the very quarry that initially supplied stone for the temple will
fill in gaps where possible, with non-corrosive titanium rods holding the
masonry together. All remaining original sculptures have now been removed to
the climate-controlled Acropolis Museum, their places on the Parthenon taken by
exact replicas. Despite all these efforts, the Parthenon, when it finally
reopens, will remain a partial ruin, with traces of the original temple,
church, and mosque intentionally left intact—a testament to its
We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.