Saturday, September 25, 2010

Early Greek Impressions

I arrived in Athens to a couple of funny experiences, plenty of English-speaking locals (thank goodness), and a view of the Parthenon from my hotel room.

On Aegean Air there were only eight seats in Business Class, and only one occupant – your fortunate correspondent. The flight from Brussels was only 3.5 hours; arrival was a ‘remote park’: buses to the terminal. I was first down the stairs and on to the bus – whereupon the doors closed and we took off. Apparently it was a ‘Business Class Only’ bus. Not only did this feel ridiculous, it also meant I couldn’t follow the crowds inside the terminal – you know how you never know where baggage reclaim is and just follow everyone else off your flight? Still, I should hardly complain about such a chauffeur service! The only other time I have ever come across such a thing was off an Aeroflot domestic flight in Russia, and there were at least two of us in Business.

The Athenian taxi driver was friendly – I could have been in Marrickville – and even made an effort at a little tourist information: ‘Atheens’, he said, waving his arm to the right as the huge white city came into view in the valley. When I asked him if he took credit cards, he looked astounded, and burst out laughing. ‘Een thees car?’ he said, waving his arm again, and bursting into laughter. ‘The credit card machine would cost more than thees car!’

And so he delivered me (for cash) to The Hotel Grande Bretagne, which somewhat bizarrely lives up to its  name. It seems to be an island of the British Empire smack in the middle of Athens. Its logo is a lion and a unicorn, the decor is all plush Victoriana (very nice, I must say), and it has discreet curtaining, a cigar lounge and staff in uniforms straight from Mayfair. It is across the road from the Greek Parliament, for heaven’s sake. In its lobby lounge (‘The Winter Garden’) they offer eight varieties of tea (and coffee ‘on request’). But upstairs on the eighth floor, there is a spectacular view of the Parthenon – see previous post for pictures. Just outside the front door are ‘Constitution Square’ (Syntagma) and the streets of Plaka, the old area of Athens.

Having just finished reading Mary Beard’s book ‘The Parthenon’, I am feeling full of atmospheric information about the iconic site, and very ready to get out and take a closer look for myself. I was attracted to the book because the front cover blurb describes it as ‘Intelligently short and sharply witty...’, and indeed I agree. I must confess to a woeful state of ignorance about the Parthenon before reading the book.  I vaguely thought it had always been some kind of open-sided temple, from which Lord Elgin striped all the statues. But of course, being 2,500 years old, a lot more has happened to it.

Fascinatingly, it dates from around the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, being built in the 5th century BC by Pericles, a successful general in the Athenian democracy. [Construction was begun in 447/6 BC and ended in 433/2 BC. Socrates was executed in 399 BC. Plato was a student of Socrates, and Aristotle a student of Plato. Do you have the hang of that counting-backwards thing?]

There are pre-Classical foundations on the site, which appears always to have been a site sacred to Athena, the goddess of... well, obviously, Athens. The mighty and beautiful Parthenon was raised as part of a huge building program initiated by Pericles, partly to celebrate the ascendency of the Athenian Empire.

The Nashville Parthenon
Originally it had walls, doors, a tower, rooms, storehouses – and an enormous statue of Athena which was covered in ivory and gold. The statue is long since lost, but from all reports was rather ugly (some guy in Nashville has built a recreation – which is housed in a concrete recreation of the Parthenon itself. Full size. You gotta love the US of A). The building itself, however, is lauded as a model of precision and proportion, even without its covering of relief sculpture and statuary. Oh, and it seems that the original version was probably covered in colourful paint.

There is one snippet of information about the statue which I’ll share with you: around its huge pedestal was decorative sculpture depicting the creation of – guess who? – Pandora. In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first mortal woman. She was said to be a treacherous gift of the gods given to mankind as a punishment; which is to say, she was the origin of all human trouble.

The book takes the reader through the many reincarnations of the Parthenon over 2,500 years: it became a Roman temple (to Minerva, the Roman equivalent to Athena); was converted to a Christian church (they hacked off a lot of the ‘pagan’ sculptures) under the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Franks, and (oddly) the Catalans. Early in the 12th century AD a Turkish dynasty from Pergamum embellished it; and in the 1380s a rich merchant family from Florence turned the great gate house of the Acropolis, the Propylaia, into a Renaissance palazzo. Then came the Turkish occupation of Greece, which lasted nearly 400 years, and the Parthenon had a minaret added and became ‘the most beautiful mosque in the world’ (as one early visitor described it).

The Parthenon in the 19th Century
But from being a working ‘temple’ of various hues for many centuries, the Parthenon became a ruin after being bombed to bits by the Venetians (led by a Scandinavian), who were fighting the Turks, in 1687. The Turks had stored their ammunition (and their women and children) in the building, and the Venetian cannonballs set it alight. The Parthenon has remained a ruin ever since.

In the 1820s Greece fought her ‘Wars of Independence’ and ousted the Turks; and then installed Otto of Bavaria as her king (really, I’m not making this up. You gotta love Europeans). There was a plan to turn the whole of the Acropolis – the hill on which the Parthenon stands – into a Bavarian palace, but instead there began an era of ‘preservation’ of the site. In the early 20th century this took the form of stripping everything post-5th century BC from the site, even taking the ground back to the bedrock that is there today (which would not have been what the 5th century BC Athenians walked upon). Some misconceived ‘reconstruction’ was attempted, and the Parthenon became somewhat less of a ruin. In particular, since the 1687 fire, few of the columns had been left standing, and the two ends of the building were barely connected. A small mosque had been built in the middle. The 1920s reconstruction is more or less what we see today.

The Acropolis & Parthenon this evening
But a more modern and careful ‘rebuilding’ has been going on since 1986. Apparently the building itself has been off-limits since it began, and it is not expected to be finished before 2020 - or longer. The whole building only took not much more than 10 years to build back in the 5th century BC.

But in a lucky break for me, one of the smaller temples on the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike, was unshrouded from its scaffolding after ten years - just two weeks ago. Yay!

So there’s your history lesson for today. Expect more to follow while I’m in Greece – I find this stuff endlessly fascinating.

Part of the Parthenon frieze

But as you probably know, there is a big side-story to the Parthenon: the ding-dong battle over ‘the Elgin marbles’, or ‘the Parthenon marbles’ as the Greeks always refer to them. The Parthenon was originally covered with exquisite carvings – in particular a huge frieze that ran all around the outside of the building; other carved relief panels called the metope panels; and other sculptures, all made of a beautiful translucent marble. The depredations of the years had seen much of these damaged (particularly in the big fire in 1687). By the time Lord Elgin got to them – he was a diplomat to Constantinople when the Turks still controlled Athens – the Turkish soldiers had a garrison built on the Acropolis with village houses butting up against it; bits of the ruin had been used for building, and the marble was being ground down for lime. The Turks were also doing quite a trade in selling off bits to roving European souvenir hunters. Lord Elgin became the chief amongst these, and – with permission from the Turks – he shipped about half of all the carvings back to England between 1801 and 1811. Later, on the verge of bankruptcy, he sold them to the British Museum, where they remain today.

If what Lord Elgin did was indeed wrong - and there are many sides to the story - he continues to pay dearly. This site defines 'elganism' as 'an act of cultural vandalism'.

Even from the beginning, the whole operation was a bit dodgy, and the poet Byron in particular took many a vicious swipe at Lord Elgin (whom he never met):
                Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
                Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they lov’d;
                Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
   Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d
   By British hands...
   [Lord Bryon, 'Childe Harold']

This started a bit of a trend in early Victorian Britain for weeping over the Elgin marbles. Keats wrote a sonnet entitled ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.’  But the question of whether they should have been removed from Greece has remained an inflamed debate for over 200 years. The Greeks, having very recently completed their new Acropolis Museum (it opened in June 2009) now claim that they have the very place for the marbles, and that they should be ‘repatriated’ to Greece. All those that were left in the Parthenon – roughly 50% - have been removed by the Greeks (bad air and acid rain was wreaking havoc) and placed in the new museum; with stark white copies of the bits that the British have filling in the gaps. The British show no sign of being shamed into returning the marbles. They talk of being ‘heirs to the classical tradition’ too, and of ‘the diffusion of classical ideas, values and physical relics and monuments over two millennia’.
Mary beard sums up the state of hostilities:

In the recent rounds of the controversy there have certainly been some dishonourable incidents. The heat-of-the-moment claim by one director of the British Museum that anyone who wanted to return the marbles to Greece was a ‘cultural fascist’...must mark, by some wide margin, the lowest point. But the self-righteousness of some of the British left (who have found a comfortable armchair-radical cause in this particular brand of philhellenism) can be pretty hard to stomach too. Not to mention the vulgar nationalism of some of the Greek arguments, with their optimistic assurance that the inhabitants of modern Greece are spiritual, if not literal, heirs of Pericles and his friends.

 As she puts it: Inevitably, then, the Parthenon and its sculpture have come to stand for deracination, dismemberment, desire and loss.

Check out the video on this site to see the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum:

In light of all this, I have set my alarm for an early hour, in order to set out for the Acropolis before the hoards. I am anxious to see the building up close; and to visit the new Acropolis Museum. But of course for the other 50% of the marbles, I’ll have to wait until I am back in my own ‘hood – the British Museum is in Bloomsbury, with Birkbeck College right behind it.

The British Museum - somewhat Parthenon-esque itself.

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