Secrets of the Parthenon

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

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In this 1868 painting, the sculptor Pheidias (center) shows off the Parthenon's newly painted marble friezes to Pericles, standing at right.


447 B.C.
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.

Hind leg
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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.


438 B.C.
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."

Hind paw
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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 Athens.

Front leg and forepaw
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Under Ottoman rule, many Greeks converted to Islam. Here, "Young Greeks at the Mosque," by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1865.


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 survive today.

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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.

Nasal cavity
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Many of the Parthenon's marble friezes depict scenes from Greek legends. Here, a centaur battles a mythological fighter.


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.

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In this 1865 painting, a Greek leader blesses a flag of the revolution against the Ottoman Empire during the War for Independence.


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 barracks.

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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 differently.


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.

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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 multifarious past.


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