Tag Archives: Acropolis

European Capital of Culture 1985 – Athens

My plan was to go first to the Acropolis and the ancient city of Pericles, Socrates and Herodotus and the guidebook advised getting there early to avoid the crowds.

I did as it suggested and got there early (well, reasonably early) and it was swarming, I mean really swarming and there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people ahead of me in the line at the entrance gate. Obviously I wasn’t early enough and I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like when it is really busy. There was no turning back though because I’d only a couple of days in Athens before leaving for the neighbouring city of Piraeus and then sailing for the islands.

Acropolis and Parthenon Greece Athens

Although it was only mid morning it was desperately hot already and climbing the exposed sun-bleached steps to the top of the Acropolis it felt like the anvil to the sun’s hammer and I began to break out into a massive sweat and had to stop several times for a drink of water and a short rest before reaching the site of the Parthenon at the top of the table top mountain.

The top of the Acropolis is huge but there isn’t really a lot to see, no statues, no paintings, no exhibits, but a rather barren archaeological site in the thirtieth year of its restoration with tens of thousands of pieces lying strewn in the dust and long since stripped of its treasures, a stark marble ruin surrounded by ancient brick and concrete, so once a full circuit has been completed, although it felt as though I should stay longer the truth is there is not a lot to stay around for.

Athens Parthenon Acropolis

This doesn’t mean that the visit experience is in any way disappointing or less wonderful just that it seems to me that there are two types of sightseeing, the first is where we go to admire the statues, the paintings and the exhibits and the second where the experience is simply about being there, in a place that has played such a pivotal role in world history and the development of civilisation and for me the Acropolis and the Parthenon is one of the latter.

The Parthenon is an icon of western civilisation and the most architecurally  copied building in the World wherever man wants to demonstrate authority and power through the construction of buildings and monuments.  Of course there might have been more to see if the Parthenon marbles had been in place but we of course know these as the Elgin Marbles and two hundred years ago the English aristocrat hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and sent them back to the London where the fifty-six sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters can now been found at Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury (more about that later).

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After leaving the Acropolis I walked back down the slippery slope of the Parthenon and picked my way between olive trees and day trippers competing for shade from the midday sun and after I had left I had a good long walk around the other principal tourist attractions in the city because in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular muscular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky.

They are all in pretty poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as a Turkish armoury store, looted by Elgin and then damaged by ham-fisted restoration work in the early twentieth century, most of the Agora is pretty much non-existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing.  It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:

Please respect the Antiquity”

Just a little late for that I thought.  What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (yes, really) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain.  But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.

APTOPIX Greece Acropolis Museum

Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road.  The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line.  I wonder who thought that was a good idea?  As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on?  Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored before the building could be completed.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked wonderful, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses).  Only fifteen remain standing now and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852.  As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum.  An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects around the city.

I walked through the Zappeion gardens to the recently restored and renovated International Conference Centre building that had wonderfully colourful internal decoration and then to the original Olympic stadium of the modern games built in 1884, and which was used symbolically once again in 2004.  After that it was a stroll around the official government buildings where I saw the Greek soldiers famous for their lanky legged, goose stepping walk.  They are called the Evzones, which is the name of the elite light infantry of the Greek Army and today refers to the members of the Proedriki Froura, who are the official Greek Presidential Guard, a select ceremonial unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Parliament building and the Greek Presidential Palace.

The basic elements of their uniform are a scarlet garrison cap with a long black tassel, a woollen kilt, a cotton undershirt, white woollen stockings and black-tasselled knee garters and red leather clogs with hob-nailed souls and a black pompon.  The full-dress uniform, which derives from the traditional uniform of south-mainland Greece is only worn on Sundays, on important national holidays and other special occasions. It has a white, bell-sleeved shirt and a white kilt with four hundred pleats, which represents the four hundred years of Turkish Ottoman occupation and an awful lot of work for the poor person who has to do the ironing!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Victory

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The ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’,  regarded as one  of the great surviving masterpieces of sculpture from the Hellenistic period, was unearthed by the French Consul to Turkey in 1883 and promptly shipped back to Paris.

It remains on display at the Louvre Museum.  I was privileged to see it on a visit to the museum in 1990 but I have a couple of questions…

…where should it be?

and with the Louvre bursting at the seams with stolen artefacts,

…why all the fuss about the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Beneath Your Feet

Acropolis Museum Excavations

Outside the museum and also in the cavernous entrance hall there are glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there is a steady incline through a timeline of seven centuries of history and impressive well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provides sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush.

Read the full story…

Elgin Marbles Quiz Answers

Disputed Museum Exhibits

Just to close things off:

One correct answer…

1. Winged Victory, in possession of the French and claimed by the Greeks
2. Rosetta Sonte, in possession of the British and claimed by the Egyptians
3. Samsat Stele, in possession of the British and claimed by the Turks
4. Bust of Nefertiti, in possession of the Germans and claimed by the Egyptians
5. Venus de Milo, in posession of the French and claimed by the Germans

It is a good site, pop across and have a look…

One final piece of trivia; the Samsat Stele is claimed by Turkey, the hole in the middle of it is because sometime in the past someone made alterations to use it as a vine press.  No wonder the British Museum thinks they should continue to look after it!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone But Not Forgotten – The Elgin Marbles (2) and no Quiz

Parthenon Acropolis Athens

The Parthenon in Athens was built about 447-438 BC to house an enormous statue of the goddess Athena.  The temple was the crowning glory of a great programme of architectural renewal masterminded by Pericles, the leader of the Athenian democracy and it is still considered to be one of the most impressive buildings in the world.

Despite being burnt down by invading Goths in 267 A.D., conversion into a Christian church in the early sixth century and Ottoman occupation from the fifteenth century and another conversion, this time into a Mosque, it survived largely intact until 1687.   By 1800 however only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.

And then along came Lord Elgin who helped himself to half of what was left.

This makes him the villainous tomb raider in the eyes of modern Greeks but what the Acropolis Museum  fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Athenians themselves were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself, were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar.  There was no preservation, there was no cultural value attached to the sculptures and certainly no question of restoration.

It is all very well getting irritable about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.

In justification of the non-return policy the British Museum rather provocatively points out that the statues are in fact relics of an Athenian civilisation rather than the modern Greek state so modern Greece has no greater legitimate claim to ownership.

I think this raises an interesting point because we really have to be careful not to apply modern political boundaries to the ancient world.  It is important to put things into historical context.  Two hundred years ago there was no UNESCO (and if there had been Elgin would probably  have been on the Board of Directors).

The classical Cambridge Scholar Professor M I Finley pointed out that “…Neither then, or at any time in the Ancient World was there a nation, a single national territory under one sovereign rule, called Greece”.  If we accept this then it begins to construct a counter argument against the modern Greek claims.  Even if they are a product of an ancient civilisation that happened to live in Athens they have no relevance to modern Greece.

The travel writer Lawrence Durrell considered this argument and although seemingly accepting it came to the conclusion: “Myself, I think I should have given them back and keep copies in plaster for the British Museum.  For us they are a mere possession of great historic interest.  For the Greeks they are a symbol, inexplicably bound up with the national struggle as an image of themselves as descendants of foreign tribes”.

I really enjoyed the Museum but what I did not like was the unbalanced narrative and the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary  provocative and belligerent anti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary.  I found this to be slightly offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel uncomfortable and a little unwelcome and I am certain that is not what the museum really wants.

The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the USA who were encouraged to gasp in outrage and awe that an Englishmen could have done such terrible things.  I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that there is also bits of it in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum in Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seems to have been conveniently overlooked.

Let’s also not forget that there are other Ancient Greek sculptures which have been removed and are exhibited elsewhere – for example the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’,  regarded as one  of the great surviving masterpieces of sculpture from the Hellenistic period, which was unearthed by the French Consul to Turkey in 1883 and promptly shipped back to Paris.  It remains on display at the Louvre Museum as does the ‘Venus de Milo’ discovered on the Greek island of Milos in 1820 and also spirited away to Paris in double-quick time.  Should these also be returned, perhaps there is a much wider debate to be had?

There are many factors to take into consideration.  We do not know for sure if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, permission to work on the Acropolis and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past.

In my opinion the sculptures should be returned to Athens but let’s please acknowledge Elgin’s possible contribution in having saved these precious artefacts for posterity and for the World.  A hostile approach may just be counter-productive and harden a British commitment to retain the sculptures in London and that won’t be very helpful because that would be the wrong thing to do!

Have you visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens?  I would be interested in your views.

Acropolis and Parthenon Greece Athens

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone But Not Forgotten – The Elgin Marbles (1) and a Quiz

 Parthenon Acropolis Athens Greece

‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see                                                                             Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed                                                     By British hands, which it had best behoved                                                                      To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.                                                                     Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,                                                       And once again thy hapless bosom gored,                                                                         And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!‘                            Lord Byron

The Elgin Marbles debate/controversy reared its ugly head again when it was reported that the British Museum is going to loan a piece to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia.  Howls of anguish and cries of foul have broken out in Athens who say this action is the equivalent of poking  the Greeks in the eye with a very sharp stick!

In 1817 the British Museum took possession of the Elgin Marbles but the Greeks have built a museum especially for them.  Unlike any other museum in the world the Acropolis Museum in Athens is one has been designed to exhibit something it does not own and cannot yet exhibit but hopes that it will be the catalyst for the permanent return of the disputed artefacts.  The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.

The gloves are off and the battle is now on between the new state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum and the more traditional British Museum for the right to exhibit them.

The Museum was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way have meant that it did not finally open to the expectant public until June 2009.

After four years of visiting Athens on the way to the Greek islands I finally managed to see the new Acropolis Museum in September 2009.  I purchased tickets on line a week or so before for just €1 (prices rose to €5 in 2010, so it was a bargain) and arrived at my allotted time of ten o’clock.  I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise effortlessly past the ticket desks and into the museum.

I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I have visited the old inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis a couple of times before in 2000 and 2006 and I have been genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement.  I have to say that anticipation was mixed with trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures, depending on your point of view) I genuinely wondered how I was going to feel.

The British Museum argues that London is a better place to make them available to the public because with 6.7 million visitors in 2013 it is the second most visited museum in the World after the Louvre in Paris.  This is a powerful argument and one they can probably rely on for many years to come because in the same year the Acropolis Museum attracted only 1.4 million visitors which puts it way down the most visited list at about sixtieth.

Outside the museum and also in the cavernous entrance hall there are glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there is a steady incline through a timeline of seven centuries of  ancient history and impressive well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provides sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush.

Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery having skilfully avoided the café terrace and the inevitable shop on the way.

Parthenon Sculptures

After an hour passing through centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures (or the Elgin Marbles, depending on your point of view) but for the time being has only about half of the originals and the rest are plaster casts made from the remaining treasures currently remaining in London.

It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up dramatically outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience.

Today, not only the Greek Government but most of the Greek people as well would rather like the sculptures back but have consistently turned down a British Museum offer to give the Marbles to the Acropolis Museum on a loan basis for just three months on a similar basis as the arrangement with the Hermitage.

The Culture Minister explained that: “The Government, as any other Greek Government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer.  This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up two hundred years ago.”

After due consideration I am inclined to agree with this and believe that the place for the sculptures are in Athens and not London but this is a very complex debate for archaeological scholars to resolve that cannot be rushed for the sake of wounded national pride and a few more years sorting it out is hardly going to matter.

To be continued…

Quiz Time:

Similar Elgin Marbles disputes over ownership of museum exhibits…

Disputed Museum Exhibits

In each case, What are they, Where are they and Who wants them back?

Have a go, it’s just a bit of armless fun!

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Relic

Acropolis Parthenon Athens

“We climbed up the hill to the theatre whence we overlooked the splintered treasures of the gods, the ruined temples, the fallen columns, trying vainly to recreate the splendour of this ancient site.”                                                                Henry Miller

Read the full story…