Travels in Greece
The Temple of Athena Nike glimpsed through
the fragmented columns of the Propylaea

The Acropolis and the Parthenon

The final steps in the path up to the Acropolis are a series of slate and marble ramps that zig-zag upwards between the massive doric columns of the Propylaea. The Propylaea is currently under restoration, with extensive scaffolding enveloping the left side of the temple. Off to the left there is also a massive square pedestal, whose apex sported a charioteer in Roman times.

Columns of the Propylaea As you look to the right you can see several intact columns with a near complete wall behind them, and from that you can extrapolate an idea of what things might have looked like.

Further to the right is the Temple of Athena Nike (Victory), built during the Peloponnesian War. It is a small temple, and once housed a winged statue of the goddess Athena. The residents of Athens somehow got the idea that if victory had wings, it might fly away to some other city. Their solution was to clip the statue's wings, creating the 'Temple of Wingless Victory.' The temple you see was actually reconstructed over the last two centuries. The original was demolished by the Turkish army in 1687, who thought it's location would be a nice spot for an artillery piece.

As I passed through the Propylaea, I felt partly as if I was walking partly through a forest of columns, and partly through one of scaffolding. As I stepped through the last doorway and out into the open, I was struck with several strong impressions at once. The first thing you see is the Parthenon, sitting above you and to the right. The next thing that makes an impression is the incredible jumble of white marble -- fragments of columns, of walls, of altars, of pedestals -- scattered everywhere. The third thing -- and this was emphasized by the bright, sunny weather -- is the overwhelming impress ion of brightness and space. The contributors to this were the white marble, the white clouds, and the deep, blue sky. The only other temple left standing on the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, which sits to the left, along the north face.

Panoramic view of the Parthenon

As I approached the Parthenon, I realized that it had even more restoration scaffolding than the Propylaea. As I came yet closer, somewhere I felt that I understood for the first time the overused phrase 'ravages of time'. Every flute of every column showed evidence of the age of this building, and the wave after wave of violence heaped upon it by war, time, and the environment.The right side of the temple, facing the south edge of the Acropolis, has suffered the most, with several columns shortened or missing near the middle of the wall.

The word Parthenon means, essentially, 'Temple of the Virgin', and was dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, and patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon was designed by the scuptor Phidias, who also created the giant, 40 foot tall statue of Athena that stood inside. This statue was made of carved wood covered with gold and ivory, and cost more to contruct than the entire Parthenon. There was another statue of Athena, which stood between the Parthenon and Propylaea, in the guise of Athena Promachos, (The Defender). This statue was of bronze, and was also created by Phidias.

Front view of the Parthenon

The Parthenon was built in nine years, under the direction of Ictinus and Callicrates, and completed in 438 BC. It is a large building, seemingly even larger because of it's commanding position at the crest of the plateau. It was also a highly decorated building in ancient times. In addition to Phidias' statue of Athena, there were statues telling the legends of Athena filling the front and back pediments. There was also a 524 foot-long carved freize, showing the annual procession of the Panathenaic festival, and a collection of 92 carved tablets or metopes running around the exterior of the temple. These metopes, sometimes refered to as the 'Elgin Marbles' (after the British Lord Elgin, who absconded with several of these and other pieces of the Acropolis to the British Museum), showed scenes of the Trojan War, the mythical battle of men against the Centaurs, and the legend of King Erechtheus, among others.

As I walked around the Parthenon I was amazed by how much of the building had been stripped away over time, from the marble metopes to the inner walls, to the lintels that supported the roof. The very marble itself has taken on a mellowed hue over time, due to small amounts of iron native to the stone. There are other discolorations, due to fires set by the Persians, and Turks, and Venetians over the centuries, and still more effects of the local air pollution, with fumes drifting up from the traffic below, and the oil refineries along the coast.

For all that, however, it is still a beautiful thing to see. Along the northern face of the Parthenon I got a fairly good look at how extensive the restoration work was. Scaffolding extended for most of the length of the temple. Inside was an enormous crane, used to lift and reseat fragments of marble. I suspect Phidias and his builders would have given a lot for such a machine. Perhaps the greatest novelty, when you think about it, is that the crane had to be assembled, piece by piece, within the temple.

©1997 Stephen L. Spanoudis; All Rights Reserved

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