Bumbling around Athens


…The Greek Saga Continues…

The Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis site.  Athens supported a lot of theatres.

The Theatre of Dionysus at the Acropolis site. Athens supported a lot of theatres.

The Athens airport contains a sophisticated and very pointed jab at the British, and specifically the Greek arch-nemesis, the nefarious Lord Elgin. This jab takes the form of a human-sized computer screen bearing the message “Should the Parthenon Marbles be Returned to Greece?”. Travellers are then invited to vote yes or no, by means of connecting jigsaw pieces which show how perfectly the missing marbles “fit” atop the Parthenon. I tried to vote ‘no’ merely to be irritating, but the program made this very complicated, and probably impossible (I gave up).

Anyway, the day after we visited the Acropolis Museum we finally paid a visit to the Acropolis site itself, and you can see the Greeks’ point: they’ve politically sorted themselves out now, the country is stable, the site is immaculate, and there are a lot of conspicuous holes all over the Acropolis where the Elgin marbles should be. The Parthenon is effectively stripped bare, and the Acropolis museum is reduced to displaying a series of pointedly passive-aggressive placards grumbling about Elgin. I would point out, however, that the National Archaeological Museum of Greece houses a spectacular Egyptian collection, which has not been returned to Egypt.

The rear of a statue at the Archaeological museum.  Because bottoms are funny.

The rear of a statue at the Archaeological museum. Because bottoms are funny.


Some would argue that it was the Turks, not Elgin, who really ruined the Parthenon. Greece was under Ottoman control from roughly 1457-1829, and at some point the Turkish garrison thoughtfully stored a large casket of gunpowder right in the Parthenon, because apparently nowhere else would do. One day someone shot a cannon by mistake, the gunpowder ignited, and the rest is history. The Greeks were very displeased by this, but they still reserve their most powerful archaeological hate for Elgin.

The Parthenon was also destroyed by the Persians in 479 BC. King Darius was irritated by the Athenians’ support for a rebellion somewhere in Asia minor, so he levelled the entire Acropolis. This was essentially his only victorious battle, however, as the Persians were utterly humiliated everywhere else.

The Acropolis aside, we’ve also seen a number of other superb sites: the Temple of Zeus, the ancient Agora, and Hadrian’s library. Athens is essentially one huge pile of rubble, and it can be very confusing because the various eras of rubble overlap. There’s ancient rubble, dating from the glory days of Athens the city-state in the 4th Century B.C., Roman rubble, dating from 88 B.C., when the Romans took over, and finally there is medieval rubble, from Byzantine/Ottoman rule. In practice this means that ancient libraries and pagan temples were knocked down to make room for Roman versions of the same, and then converted into Byzantine churches when Constantine was in power, and then were not infrequently transformed into mosques. Basically, pre-20th century peoples were very good at recycling: instead of demolishing buildings, they simply rearranged the pieces.

That said, you can tell Greek rubble from Roman rubble quite easily. The Greeks were great at poetry and culture, but their buildings were quite primitive: they simply took stone and mashed them together. Roman buildings are made of actual bricks, with cement that holds firm to this day. Yes. In terms of construction, Rome>Greece. However, in terms of philosophy, drama, and mathematics, it was Rome that firmly looked to Greece. These days we mostly look to these countries for excellent holidays, but that is neither here nor there.

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