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Vandalising the Parthenon and plundering its treasures

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Architecture, Famous landmarks, War on Monday, 31 October 2011

This edited article about Ancient Greece originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 852 published on 13 May 1978.

The Parthenon, picture, image, illustration

The Parthenon as it might have looked in the age of Pericles by Harry Green

Cities and buildings have always been at risk in time of war. In the past, besieged castles tended to have their walls knocked down, and victorious troops took it for granted that they would be allowed to loot and wreck the most prized possessions of a defeated enemy.

Nevertheless a special place must be reserved in history for the Swedish Field Marshal, Count Konigsmarck, who cold-bloodedly bombarded the Parthenon, the most perfect building of the ancient world.

One may excuse Attila the Hun for much of the damage he caused on the grounds of ignorance. But Count Konigsmarck was a student of Greek culture when, in 1687, he allowed himself to be hired as a military expert by the Venetians, who were currently engaged in an attempt to free Athens from the occupying Turks.

On learning that the defenders were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine, Konigsmarck opened fire on it with mortars. One round dropped through the temple roof which, in those days, was still intact. It was not to remain so for much longer. There was an explosion which shattered 28 columns, brought down the beams, much of the sculpted decorations and spread the roof over the nearby countryside amid loud cheers from the warlike Venetians.

A terrible fire raged in the Parthenon for two days and the Turks finally surrendered.

Not satisfied with having committed one of the greatest acts of vandalism in history, Count Konigsmarck was also determined to steal the magnificent group of stone horses from the west pediment. He succeeded in pulling them loose with ropes, but the tackle slipped and the horses smashed to pieces.

The Parthenon, or the Temple to the Goddess Athena, was built in the 5th century B.C. to commemorate Greece’s victory over Persia, although the world has come to look upon it more as a memorial to Greece’s golden age. The centre of Greek culture was Athens, governed for 30 years by Pericles, not only a political genius but a soldier and orator as well.

Pericles’ Athens was really two cities, one made up of the great market place called the Agora and nearby Pnyx Hill, where shops, schools, law courts and government offices were situated. The other Athens was set on top of a rocky hill known as the Acropolis, and it was devoted to temples, some of which could be counted among the finest buildings in the world.

The site of the Parthenon was that of an old temple to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, and Pericles put the work into the hands of two architects, Ictinus and Callicrates, with the famous sculptor Pheidias as general supervisor.

Judging by the success of their finished work, these three brilliant men probably enjoyed working together and stimulated each other. This was just as well, as their task was to take nine years to complete.

They were allowed virtually a free hand with regard to costs, and so chose to use only the very finest building material, the snow-white marble quarried on the slopes of Mount Pentelicus, ten miles north-east of Athens.

To move some 20,000 tonnes of marble from quarry to building site was a major task in itself. The rough-hewn blocks had first to be brought down the hillside on sleds and then loaded on to specially-made wagons for their journey across the plain.

Really large blocks were fitted with wheels of their own, but even so work could only be undertaken during the summer, as in wet weather the collosal weight of the marble made it sink into the muddy roads.

Formidable as the task was, the builders triumphed in the end and the three men presented their city with what is generally acknowledged as the finest example of the Doric style of architecture.

The finished temple had eight fluted columns at each end and 17 on each side, but nowhere in the building is there a straight line of any length.

The columns bulge in the centre, taper at the top and lean slightly inwards, flutings diminish as they rise and horizontal lines curve in the middle. These are all optical tricks designed to create a harmonius whole. Over the years, the Pentelic marble was to weather to a beautiful golden colour, due to traces of iron in the stone.

The sculpted decorations on the outside of the building commemorated the history of the goddess Athena and included 44 statues and a frieze no less than 159 metres long, originally all brightly coloured.

Inside the building there were two rooms. In one was kept the temple treasure, and in the other stood Pheidias’s gigantic statue of the goddess herself. This incredible work was removed to Constantinople in AD 400 and afterwards disappeared.

A miniature copy survives, and from this, and descriptions of the original, it is possible to form a good idea of what Pheidias’s masterpiece was like.

The statue stood more than 12 metres high, and was built round a huge vertical beam of wood that rose from the floor. An iron bar was inserted through this beam at the point of balance to support the goddess’s arms. The body of the statue was built up from carved wooden blocks held to the central beam by internal struts.

Ivory was used to represent the flesh tones of Athena’s face, hands and feet, and the rest of her was covered in a sheath of more than 1,000 kilos of solid gold. The gold was attached in the form of plates, removable for inspection.

Pheidias’s great statue cost as much as the rest of the building put together, and caused its creator considerable trouble. Accusations were made on all sides that Pheidias had stolen much of the gold. Although he proved his innocence by removing each plate for weighing, feelings were running so high that he had to leave Athens for Olympia, never to return.

In spite of the huge statue of Athena, the Parthenon was used more as a storehouse for the nation’s treasures than as a place of worship, and its subsequent use changed with the fortunes of Greece. Soon after the statue was removed, the building became a church. When, in 1456, Athens was captured by the Turks, it changed again, this time to a mosque. In 1801 an Englishman, Lord Elgin, managed to get permission to remove much of the sculptured ornamentation, which was carried off to England in 1816.

Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles has been much criticised. Although it is hard to think of any moral justification for his act, from a strictly practical point of view it may still have been a good thing. Twentieth century air pollution creates havoc with marble, and the marbles that may be seen today in the carefully controlled conditions of the British Museum are in a far better state of preservation than the ones his lordship left behind.

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