Ancient History & Civilisation



In 1175, or thereabouts, Michael Choniates, a scholarly priest with an influential desk-job in Constantinople, left home to become Archbishop of Athens. Greece was then an unpromising backwater of the Byzantine empire, the Christian descendant of the Roman empire in the eastern Mediterranean. And Athens itself was little more than a large village of just a few thousand inhabitants (most of them living on or near the Acropolis), and no match for its neighbours, Thebes and Corinth, both of which had found a lucrative opening in producing silk for the grandees of the imperial capital at Constantinople. Athens was left trading instead on the allure of its distinguished classical past. This was an increasingly difficult act to sustain, but from time to time the old magic still worked – as it did, to start with at least, for Michael Choniates.

We still have the text of the inaugural sermon he preached to his flock in his new cathedral. It was a brilliant piece of would-be classical rhetoric. Learned allusions to ancient literature jostled with pointed references to Pericles and the victorious warriors of the battle of Marathon, as Michael piled on the compliments about Athens’ historic greatness. ‘She was the queen of cities,’ he proclaimed, ‘nurse of reason and virtue … exalted in fame not just for the monuments, but for virtue and wisdom of every description.’ The Athenians of his own day were, he argued, of exactly the same mettle, but with a crucial advantage: they were Christians and worshipped the one true God. No longer did that false virgin Athena, the mother of Erichthonios, captivate the city – but the one and only, eternal Virgin Mary. The sermon must have lasted a good hour, if he delivered the whole of the text that we now have. In his final rhetorical flourish he pumped up the emotion even further, casting Athens as the peak of heaven itself, the new Mount Horeb (‘though I must be careful not to think I’m Moses’, he joked with the congregation). Such was the power of Christian truth and classical culture combined.

The sermon was not the success he had hoped. Michael had crafted a speech that might well have charmed a select audience in the fifth century BC, and would almost certainly have gone down well in clerical circles in his own Constantinople. But the backwoods congregation of twelfth-century Athens did not relish all those smart allusions to ancient literature and the more remote corners of classical myth and history (how many of them, can we imagine, would have ever heard of Erichthonios?). It all went way over their heads. In a sermon delivered shortly after, he accused his benighted flock of simply not understanding him: ‘My inaugural address was perfectly plain and straightforward, but what I was saying was apparently unintelligible; I might as well have been speaking Persian or Scythian.’ On other occasions, he complained of the Athenians’ utter ignorance of their own heroic past, their horrible dialect and the way they chattered and shuffled their feet in church – not to mention their nasty wine (‘pressed from resinous pines rather than clusters of grapes’) and hopeless backwardness (not a metal-worker or a wheelwright amongst them). We should not take all of this literally, and imagine an utterly poverty-stricken community. The notion that the ‘modern’ Athenians were not a patch on their classical predecessors is itself a cliché that goes back at least to the third century BC. And, no matter what he thought of their cultural attainments, Michael proved a sturdy defender of the interests of his flock – particularly in the face of pressing tax-collectors and the high-handed demands of the imperial governor. All the same, the town turned out to be a far cry from the heaven he had imagined in his first sermon.

The one thing in Athens that did not disappoint him was his wonderful cathedral, where he preached that first sermon. He praised it repeatedly – it was light and airy, quite simply ‘lovely’; and he referred enthusiastically to some of its renowned adornments. There was, for example, a miraculous lamp that burned continuously, its oil never failing. And he singled out as a highlight the golden dove, with a golden crown, that hung down over the altar, circling continuously around the cross – a symbol of the Holy Spirit. His cathedral was, of course, what we would call the Parthenon, now adapted to Christian use and dedicated to the Virgin (Mary), Our Lady of Athens. It is an uncomfortable truth for devotees of classical culture that the only ceremony ever to have taken place in the monument that we can document in any detail is no spectacular ritual from the glory days of the Athenian empire in the fifth century BC; it is this inauguration of a Byzantine archbishop, centuries into the Middle Ages.


Classical temples made good churches on a grand scale. They were relatively easy, and cheap, for the early Christians to adapt; and there must have been a certain satisfaction in converting pagan monuments to the glory of the ‘true God’. Archaeologists see these adaptations as a godsend in a quite different sense; for it is Christian re-use that has regularly guaranteed the preservation of the original structure. Left unoccupied, ancient temples fall down – aided, as often as not, by later builders scavenging for materials. As a rule of thumb, temples that still stand to their full height, roof and all, owe their survival to the early Christians. You can walk inside the ancient Pantheon in Rome, even now, thanks to those who consecrated it to St Mary of the Martyrs in AD 608; and, only a short walk from the Acropolis, the so-called Theseum in Athens (in fact, not a temple of Theseus at all, but of the god Hephaistos) escaped destruction in the guise of a church of St George. Had it not been for the catastrophic explosion of 1687, there is a strong chance that the Parthenon too would have survived largely complete, under the protection of its new name and function.

We do not know the exact date at which the Parthenon ceased to be a pagan temple, or (for it was not necessarily a seamless transition) when it became a church. A whole series of decrees outlawing pagan worship were issued by Roman, then Byzantine, emperors from the fourth century AD on. But the traditional religion of the Greek world held out much more valiantly than most Christian writers cared to admit. Currently the best guess for the date of the temple’s conversion to Christian use is sometime in the sixth century. Not many structural changes to the building were needed; though its orientation did have to be reversed (Figure 4). The classical temple had its main entrance at the east, under the sculpture in the pediment that depicted the birth of the goddess herself. It was at this end that the Christians wanted their altar. So they blocked up the east doorway with an apse, expertly recycled (or opportunistically thrown together, depending on your point of view) from fragments of nearby classical monuments – some of which were conveniently circular in shape. From now on, the building was to be entered in standard Christian fashion from the west. They did not, however, use the large existing west door of the pagan temple, but made a small entrance to the right of it. Or so, at least, archaeologists have ingeniously concluded – pointing not only to the pattern of wear on the floor but also to the fact that more early Christian graffiti are found on the columns leading up to this side door than anywhere else on the building (graffiti being a sure sign of human traffic). This reversal of the orientation was to cause endless confusion among the first antiquarians to visit the site, Pausanias in hand. They did not realise that their ancient guide had entered the temple from the east, rather than – as they did – the west; and so they were condemned to matching up his description to what remained of the building ‘back to front’.


Figure 4. The Parthenon as a church.

Inside, there was even less work for the Christian builders to do. They did not have to face the awkward task of clearing away Pheidias’ vast showpiece statue of Athena. That must have been long destroyed – if not before, then in a terrible fire which struck the Parthenon in the third century AD. There was almost certainly a less grand replacement, or a whole series of them – the last of which would have fallen victim to the new religion. A charmingly unreliable anecdote told in the biography of Proclus, a fifth-century neo-Platonist, has the goddess deciding to move in with the philosopher when her statue was ‘taken away by those people who move things which should not be moved’ (that is, the Christians). Eviction had not lessened Athena’s capacity to command: appearing to Proclus in a dream, she ordered him to be quick about making his house ready. Where once she had stood in the temple, they made the nave of the new church, complete with pulpit, screen and bishop’s throne. This throne was, in fact, a splendid remnant from the classical past, a marble chair (which still survives) covered in sculpture and featuring a dramatic winged figure that might just have passed for a rather menacing breed of angel. Three new doors gave access to what had been the back room of the temple, but which now became the church foyer (or narthex), with a baptistery and font in one corner. To bring in more light, a row of windows was added high up on each side, cutting in several places right through the sculpted frieze, while the outer colonnade was effectively turned into a screening wall by infilling the spaces between the columns to roughly half their height.

All that remained was to do something about the pagan sculpture. At the sacred east end, the scene of the birth of Athena would hardly have suited the new church and was promptly removed from the pediment. The old metope panels presented a trickier problem. It would have required major demolition to take them down, so along most of three sides of the building they were systematically defaced, hacked away until their subjects were unrecognisable. It is not entirely clear why the rest of the sculpture escaped this treatment. The frieze was probably not visible enough to trouble them, and in any case depicted a relatively anodyne (or, at least, not demonstratively pagan) procession. One metope, at the north-west corner, is generally thought to have avoided the Christian chisel because its bona fide classical scene looked for all the world like the Annunciation (Illustration 5). Maybe the west pediment escaped for similar reasons, its contest between Athena and Poseidon given a suitably biblical interpretation. Christians are known to have been commendably inventive in dreaming up such iconographic parallels. One priceless Roman cameo, for example, showing the emperor lording it over a heap of vanquished barbarians was for centuries identified as Joseph at the court of the Egyptian pharaoh. So who knows what might have been perceived in these two rival deities? But most mysterious of all is the survival of the metopes which ran along the south side of the building. Why deface all the other panels, barring the single ‘Annunciation’, and not bother with these? It is hard to read any obvious Christian message in the mythical Battle of Greeks and Centaurs that forms the major theme here – a band of plucky fighters locked in combat with monstrous, drunken crossbreeds, half-human, half-horse. Yet it is equally hard to believe that the south side avoided the Christians’ sanitising treatment simply because it was not visible from the main thoroughfare across the Acropolis. Whatever the reasoning, the fact that any group of metopes survives from the Parthenon at all (including some of the most dramatic marble sculpture to have decorated the building (Illustration 18)) is down to the choices and decisions of some Christian Athenians of the sixth century AD, whose motives are almost entirely lost to us.


5. The early Christians saw the Annunciation in the scene on this metope – and so spared it from their chisel. In fact, it was almost certainly the goddesses Athena (on the right) and Hera (left) masquerading as the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel.

When, more than half a millennium later, Michael Choniates came to take his seat on the marble bishop’s throne in the cathedral of Our Lady of Athens, the building had recently been given an even grander makeover (Illustration 6). It was most likely under his immediate predecessor that the small apse at the east end was demolished to make way for a much more substantial version, extending out so far that it now abutted the ancient columns and required the complete removal of the central slab of the frieze. This slab (it depicts the famous ‘peplos scene’; see below, Chapter 5) is now in the British Museum and was found by Elgin’s workmen built into the Acropolis fortifications. Michael himself may have sponsored a lavish new scheme of interior decoration in the church, featuring a painting of the Last Judgement on the wall of the entrance porch, scenes from the Passion in the narthex, as well as a whole gallery of saints and bishops. Almost nothing of this is now visible, beyond a few decidedly uninspiring daubs of colour. But much more survived up to the 1880s, albeit – as the then Marquess of Bute complained – ‘in a lamentable state of decay’. Lamentable or not, there was certainly enough still preserved for him to commission a series of watercolours documenting the Christian paintings in the Parthenon, and it is mainly from these that we can deduce the subject matter and hazard a reasonable guess at a date, somewhere in the late twelfth century. At around the same time, a mosaic was installed in the ceiling of the apse. This has long since fallen to pieces, but in the Parthenon collection in the British Museum is a group of 188 tesserae, mostly glass, some gilded, some in red or emerald-green stone, ‘from the Ceiling of the Parthenon’, as their original label said, ‘when a Greek Church’. They were discovered in the 1830s when debris around the apse was cleared, and acquired in 1848 from a Briton resident in Athens. Well into the nineteenth century it was a favourite Sunday afternoon occupation for the schoolchildren of the city to go up to the Acropolis to hunt for tesserae. The gold ones must have been the most prized.


6. The Christian church of Our Lady of Athens neatly adapted and reorientated the classical temple. What had been the main eastern entrance of the Parthenon is now the Christian sanctuary with it distinctive apse (shown here after its twelfth-century enlargement). The sculpted frieze survives, except for the central slab; the outer colonnade of the temple acts as a screening wall around the church.

Twelfth-century Athens may have been down-at-heel, but it certainly had, or could attract, enough money to make something very special of its cathedral. No wonder Michael admired it so keenly, as did others, before and after him. In 1018 the Byzantine emperor Basil II (‘the Bulgar Slayer’, as he was later called) had come to the city especially to visit Our Lady of Athens. Basil is now best known for his victory over the Bulgarian empire (hence his title) and, in popular legend at least, for a notorious atrocity: he is said to have blinded almost 15,000 of the opposing army, sparing the sight of just one man in a hundred so that they could lead the others home. True or not, he showed a less thuggish side at Athens, where he turned some of his booty into gifts for the cathedral – including, it would seem, that famous golden dove.

More than two centuries later, the cathedral was one of the sacred sites described by an Italian traveller, Niccolò da Martoni, in his Pilgrimage Book, which survives as a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Niccolò passed through Athens on 24 and 25 February 1395 and the account of his visit (written in rather lumpish Latin) includes the first systematic description of the Parthenon and its contents to survive since Pausanias. It is a striking combination of gushing enthusiasm for the architecture and decoration with a pilgrim’s focus on holy relics and, in the words of one recent writer, ‘Christian bric-à-brac’. Niccolò is amazed at the size of it all, at the marble carving, and the sheer number of columns (he managed to get to 60; in fact there were 58). ‘It seems impossible for the mind of man to conceive’, he muses, ‘how such a vast building could have been constructed.’ Inside, he picks out the magnificent ciborium, or baldachino, around the altar – a canopy supported on four columns of jasper. And he tells a magnificent yarn about the cathedral doors, which had once, he claims, been the gates of the famous city of Troy, brought to Athens when it finally fell to the Greeks. Who had spun him this preposterous story, we do not know – church cleaner, cleric or pilgrim guide. But at least it served to keep alive the links between the medieval monument and the traditions of the classical past.

For Niccolò, however, the cathedral’s renown comes no less from its specifically Christian history and associations. This is not just the predictable selection of anatomical relics, though it can certainly boast some cherished bones, skulls and fingers from a respectable group of saints. Nor is it only a question of that other medieval favourite, an icon of the Virgin Mary, painted by the very hand of Saint Luke himself, though there is a beautiful example of just that, inlaid with pearls and precious stones and kept under lock and key in a chapel near the altar. A more unusual treasure, and, according to Niccolò, a particularly prized possession of the cathedral, is a copy of the gospels, transcribed in Greek on gilded vellum by St Helena, the pious mother of Constantine, the first Roman emperor officially to convert to Christianity. And one revered graffito took the Christian message right back into the history of the pagan temple. Pilgrims like Niccolò were obviously shown the sign of the cross said to have been scratched onto one of the cathedral columns by Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. This Dionysius has a walk-on part in the Acts of the Apostles, where he is converted by Saint Paul on his visit to Athens (hence ‘Areopagite’, after the Areopagus Hill where Paul preached), and he is now most widely known for lending his name to the road that runs round the south of the Acropolis in the modern city. But a Christian tradition grew up, fanciful as it almost certainly was, that Dionysius had been at the Parthenon on the day when Jesus was crucified and had witnessed from its colonnade the earthquake that marked the occasion. Understanding something of its significance (‘either the structure of the cosmos is about to collapse or the Son of God to undergo something terrible’), he inscribed a cross on the column by which he was standing. It is a neat story that both recognises the pagan past of the building and conscripts it into a Christian narrative.


By the time of Niccolò’s visit, the Byzantine empire had lost its hold on Athens. Although the Fourth Crusade had originally set its sights on Jerusalem, it soon found that Byzantine territories offered easier pickings. Michael Choniates made a shrewd assessment of the military strength that confronted the town and surrendered Athens to the Crusaders in 1204 before they had a chance to sack it. The worst casualty seems to have been the archbishop’s carefully assembled library, ransacked and plundered from the cupboards in the cathedral where it had been stored. Michael himself beat a sensible retreat and spent the rest of his life on an island near by, looking across the water at Athens (and, over 16 years, daring only one brief visit to his old home). Meanwhile a rich Burgundian warlord, Othon de la Roche, took control and a French archbishop was installed in the cathedral. The Parthenon’s official title became, for a short while at least, ‘Notre Dame d’Athènes’.

Over the next 250 years or so, a series of mercenary invasions, military coups and diplomatic trade-offs passed control of Athens from the Franks to the Catalans and, finally, to a well-known family of Florentine bankers, the Acciaiuoli, with the Venetian and Ottoman Turks constantly hovering in the background. For most of their rule, in fact, the Acciaiuoli paid protection money, more politely known as ‘tribute’, to the Turkish sultan – until 1456, when Mehmed II, ‘the Conqueror’, took advantage of their family quarrels and annexed the duchy (though some of the Acciaiuoli held out on the Acropolis for two more years). Throughout this period, Athens witnessed a strange cultural mix, as various western traditions of chivalry, troubadours, tournaments and courtly love made different accommodations with the town’s classical past and its contemporary Greek inhabitants. King Pedro IV of Aragon, for example, one of the powers behind the Catalan mercenaries who lorded it over Athens in the early fourteenth century, enthused about the ancient Parthenon, calling it ‘the most precious jewel that exists in the world, and such that all the Kings of Christendom could in vain imitate’; his wife, on the other hand, was more interested in getting her hands on some of the precious Christian relics lodged in the cathedral. The Acciaiuoli too straddled different cultures. Under their rule, starting in 1387, Greek was reintroduced as the official language (after almost two centuries of French and Spanish), and they protected the Greek Orthodox church. But on the Acropolis itself, they converted the ancient gateway, or Propylaia (once, we assume, the residence of Michael Choniates and other archbishops), into a magnificent Renaissance fortified palazzo. It would have looked perfectly at home in quattrocento Florence.

None of this affected the cathedral very much. Its title kept pace with the changing nationalities in control of the town (Seu de Santa Maria de Cetinas, Sta Maria di Atene); archbishops, from different countries and from different wings of the Christian faith came and went; its furniture and internal layout presumably adjusted to the shifts between Latin and Orthodox liturgy. It celebrated a number of royal weddings and funerals, and on one occasion (20 May 1380, to be precise) it hosted a special meeting of the Catalan junta at which they drafted a plea for military protection to Pedro IV. But there was very little structural change. The Acciaiuoli proved to be lavish benefactors. The will of the first of them, Nerio, provided for inlaying the cathedral doors with silver, and he even bequeathed the town itself to the church. It was as if, henceforth, the Parthenon was to own Athens, though the practical significance of this gesture is far from clear.

The most lasting addition of this whole period, probably built soon after the arrival of the Crusaders, was a tower in the right-hand corner of the entrance porch; it was partly constructed, as archaeologists have recently deduced, from blocks cannibalised from the back of the tomb of a Roman grandee, the so-called Monument of Philopappus (whose façade – or what is left of it – still dominates the skyline of the Hill of the Muses, half a kilometre or so from the Acropolis). Its original purpose was probably to act as a bell-tower for the cathedral, but it also had the effect of blocking off the small door that had for centuries provided the main access to the narthex; the central west doorway of the old Parthenon must at this point have come back into regular use, soon to be embellished by Nerio’s bequest of silver. The tower, with its internal spiral staircase, still survives up to the roofline. It has proved remarkably adaptable: the Turks made it into a minaret in their new Parthenon mosque and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it offered generations of antiquarians and archaeologists convenient access to the sculptures of the frieze and pediment still in place at the temple’s west end.

It was during the rule of the Acciaiuoli that the first surviving drawing of the Parthenon was produced, the work of the Italian businessman-cum-papal diplomat whose glowing description of the ‘marvellous temple of Pallas Athena’ we noted in Chapter 1. Cyriaco de’ Pizzicolli – or Cyriac of Ancona, as he is now commonly known – visited Athens twice, in 1436 and 1444. He may well have lodged on the Acropolis itself and, on the second occasion certainly, he went to pay his respects to the Acciaiuoli in their splendid palazzo in the Propylaia. On both visits he made reams of detailed notes and drawings. Many of these were destroyed in 1514, in a terrible fire in the library in Pesaro where they were kept, but reworkings and copies of various sections, a few made by Cyriac himself, the rest by quite other hands, have survived. The drawing of the Parthenon shown in Illustration 7 is more likely than most to be Cyriac’s own. It is accurate in several crucial essentials: eight columns in the right (Doric) order; the position of the metope panels (epistilia) appropriately marked; the presence of the frieze (listae parietum) correctly noted, with a section drawn out. The building has, however, become strangely elongated; and the sculptures in the pediment hardly show a convincing struggle between Athena and Poseidon, but something more like a fifteenth-century lady (Athena?) dealing with a pair of troublesome horses, backed up by a chorus of little Renaissance putti.


7. The earliest drawing of the Parthenon to have survived, by Cyriac of Ancona (or a close copy of his work), who visited in the mid-fifteenth century. The notes in Latin above the drawing give a brief description of the temple and call it ‘a divine work by Pheidias’.

All the same, Cyriac has become a founding hero of modern archaeological studies and is credited as ‘the first traveller since antiquity to describe the Parthenon’ (which is, of course, to draw a discreet veil over Niccolò da Martoni). In modern scholarly terms he does seem to have a lot to recommend him. He gets the vital statistics broadly correct (he adds up the number of columns to an exact 58, as against Niccolò’s 60); he rightly deduces that the best-preserved metope panels show the battles of Greeks and Centaurs; and he provides the first ever surviving written reference to the sculpted frieze (which, he guesses, ‘represented the victories of Athens in the time of Pericles’). But his fame is no less dependent on what he decides to leave out of his description. For he makes no mention whatsoever of the cathedral of the Virgin; unlike Niccolò, Cyriac sees straight through the Christian layout and lavish medieval decoration to the fabric of the ancient temple lying just below the surface. For all the strange proportions and the unsettling Renaissance tinge given to the sculpture in the pediment, his drawing has been hailed as a brilliant archaeological attempt to unthink the later ‘accretions’ so as to reveal the classical structure beneath.

And so it is. It is at the same time, of course, a wilful refusal to acknowledge the appearance of the building in his own day or to see more in it than a relic of classical antiquity. In fact, by the time the new Turkish rulers converted the Parthenon into a mosque in the early 1460s, it had been a Christian church for just about as long as it had ever been a pagan temple. But most modern scholars (and tourist guides) have followed Cyriac in turning a blind eye to the glories of the Parthenon in its guise of Our Lady of Athens.


An even blinder eye has been turned to the mosque that was the next metamorphosis of the Parthenon. The plain fact is that less attention has been devoted to the monuments of Turkish Greece than to any other period of the country’s archaeology. It is one legacy of that curious combination of civil war, amateur freedom-fighting and professional atrocity (on both sides), now heroically cast as the Greek War of Independence, that Turkish rule has been almost universally painted as destructive and oppressive; a very nasty blot on the Greek landscape and, for the most part, better ignored if not decried. Vested interests are still so strong that even now it is impossible to reach any reasonable judgement on the merits and failings of the turkokratia (as the period of Turkish rule is called in Greek). It would be hopelessly naïve just to turn the usual prejudice on its head and suggest that the Ottoman rulers were all enlightened and benevolent. They were not. But, over its 375 years, their rule was certainly more varied than is generally assumed, and not always so very different from what had gone before, under Florentines, Catalans, Franks – or, for that matter, under the Byzantine administration (which, in Michael Choniates’ day at least, had squeezed the Greeks hard). So far as the Parthenon itself is concerned, it has been easy to paint the Turks as the agents of its destruction (they after all put their powder there, even if the Venetians fired the cannonballs). But, as we shall see, the building’s life as a Turkish mosque is notable for its continuity with its Christian and pagan past.

Mehmed II, Athens’ first sultan, was a classic blend of cultivated connoisseur and ruthless conqueror. By the end of his reign in 1481 he had taken Constantinople (and turned it into his new capital), driven Ottoman rule into Greece and the Balkans and set his sights on Rhodes and southern Italy; he had also poured vast amounts of money into science and the arts, sponsored universities, assembled libraries and commissioned work from top-flight Italian artists (his son reputedly asked Michelangelo to design a Bosphorus bridge – but pressure of work on the Sistine Chapel put paid to the idea). As soon as the Acciaiuoli had finally surrendered in 1458, the new ruler paid a four-day royal visit to Athens. According to his Greek biography (another of the sultan’s commissions – and not noted for its critical tone), Mehmed was ‘absolutely passionate’ about the town and its famous sights, having already heard tell of all the amazing achievements of the ancient Athenians. Unlike Michael, he was not disappointed, and it was the Acropolis in particular that impressed him – as he managed ‘to work out from the surviving remains how it had been long ago’. Indeed, as his biographer crows, out of respect for their ancestors he gave the Athenians everything they wanted.

Not quite everything, presumably. For the Acropolis was in fact turned into the Turkish garrison base. The disdar or garrison commander, took up residence in the Florentines’ palazzo. And, with a wry sense of humour (or as a gross insult to local sensibilities, depending on how you see it), the Turks converted the small temple known as the Erechtheion, which had also had a long history as a church, into a harem: the famous porch, with its line-up of columns in the shape of women (caryatids) now doing duty as an advertisement for the delights that lay inside. Before long the whole hill seems to have been effectively closed to outsiders, and travellers’ tales in the Turkish period feature anecdotes about whom you had to bribe, and how much, to gain access to the Acropolis. In 1675 Dr Jacob Spon of Lyon and his English friend, George Wheler Esq., resorted to coffee to persuade a reluctant disdar, or ‘Governour’, to grant them entry: ‘an old Souldier of the Castle’, Wheler wrote, ‘his Friend and Confident, for three Oka’s of Coffee, two to the Governour, and one to himself, perswaded him at last to give way’. The church in the Parthenon was meanwhile converted into what Wheler was to call ‘the finest Mosque in the world’: all it required was a minaret (easily adapted from the bell-tower), the removal of some of the Christian furniture (what happened to the holy relics is anyone’s guess) and a quick coat of whitewash over the most obvious Christian decoration.

A combination of factors took Athens and the Acropolis off the map of most western travellers for many years at the beginning of Turkish rule: it was not only a question of the obstacles imposed by the Turkish garrison on any exploration of Athenian antiquities; equally off-putting were the periodic bouts of war between the Venetians and Turks through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which made travel to the eastern Mediterranean even less safe than it had been before. Some visitors who did make it to Athens almost certainly failed in their attempts to get up to the Acropolis. One French traveller, for example, writing in 1632, notes that the Parthenon was now a mosque and records the local myth that it had actually been the ‘Temple of the Unknown God’ in which St Paul had preached; he also assures his readers that the building ‘is oval in shape’. We can only imagine that he saw it from a considerable distance away. Others, who did not venture a visit, seem to have despaired of Athens entirely. In 1575 a professor at the University of Tübingen wrote to some of his friends in Greece to inquire whether the town had been entirely destroyed. Replies assured him that it had not. One even referred to the Parthenon, though in a strangely off-key way: the letter talked of the Athenian ‘Pantheon’ (like the famous monument in Rome) and attributed its sculpture not to Pheidias, but to the fourth-century artist Praxiteles.

By far the most interesting description of the Parthenon in this period (arguably in any period) comes from the hand of a Turkish traveller, Evliya Celebi; western Europeans were not, we should remember, the only tourists in the world. Evliya was born in 1611, the son of the sultan’s chief jeweller, and – thanks to an ample legacy and some convenient diplomatic assignments – managed to devote his whole life to travel throughout and beyond the Ottoman empire, from Syria to Denmark. The account of this extraordinaryWanderlust made up a Book of Travels that was published in 10 volumes. Despite its obvious charisma, Evliya’s work is not well known, or highly rated, in the West. Its Arabic Turkish is far out of the reach of the vast majority of us and has been translated into most European languages only in selections (sadly Sir Elmer Bole, the student and translator of Evliya in A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, is pure fiction). Besides, its curious and often flagrantly unbelievable anecdotes, combined with a good number of outright errors, have not endeared the Book of Travels to those who value accuracy beyond all else.

Evliya’s description of Athens, which he visited more than once in the 1630s and 40s, has suffered on both counts. It has never been fully translated into English and it includes some truly wondrous myths (or atrocious howlers). At one point, for example, Evliya claims that Athens was founded by Solomon – a reflection, at best, of some inventive local tradition attempting to tie the town into the grand sweep of biblical history, but more likely an implausible fantasy; unless perhaps, as some commentators have tried to rationalise it, in talking to his local informants Evliya misheard ‘Solomon’ for ‘Solon’, the great Athenian law-giver and founding father. But, mistakes and all, Evliya offers a vivid and often carefully observed account of the mosque on the Acropolis. Instead of our usual view of the Turks as the Acropolis’s burly gatekeepers (the only question being whether you could bribe them or not), we have for once a Turkish view of the building; and one that gives us a glimpse of the Parthenon’s popular fame and heady mythology in the mid-seventeeth century.

Evliya makes it very clear indeed that the conversion into a mosque had had little effect on the inside of the building. The baldachino over the altar that had so struck Niccolò still held pride of place, even though the altar itself had been removed. Its four columns of red marble shone so brightly that you could see the colour of your face reflected in them; they were just like ‘the philosopher’s stone’ and each one, Evliya guesses, was worth a whole country’s tax revenue – a characteristically Ottoman calculation. To judge from this and other accounts, Niccolò had been wrong to call the material of these columns jasper. He had presumably mis-remembered, or mixed up his notes, for there were, according to Evliya, four columns ‘of emerald green … carved with amazing flowers’ near the ‘minber’ (pulpit), which in the cathedral had formed the division between the sanctuary and the body of the church; and pieces of both green and red marble have, in fact, been found in the debris on site. But even the plain white marble was something special. The marble floor was made of slabs 10 feet square, and brilliantly polished; each of the blocks in the walls were ‘as big as an elephant’ and so expertly fitted together that you could not detect the joins (‘you would think the wall was made from a single block’); and there were wall panels at the east end so sheer that they let the sunlight shine through. Other writers too were overcome by this miraculous translucence; and Messrs Spon and Wheler offered a learned classical explanation, suggesting that the stone was none other than ‘Phengytes’, a transparent marble mentioned in Pliny’s great encyclopaedia as a favourite of the emperor Nero.

Of course, not everything survived from the Parthenon’s days as a cathedral. ‘In the time of the infidel’ (that is the Christians), Evliya explains, the great doors had been decorated ‘with solid gold and diamonds’; but all this had been removed, although its settings were still clearly visible. Evliya is probably on the right lines here, even if wrong in detail: it was presumably Nerio Acciaiuoli’s silver inlay that had been taken off by the Turks. But as for the ancient sculpture and Christian paintings, the coating of whitewash that various writers refer to must have been selectively, or at least thinly, applied. For Evliya could see them well enough to give a remarkably upbeat description. The sculptures he attributes to an artist called Aristos (as this is Greek for ‘excellent’, the most likely guess is that somewhere along the line ‘an excellent craftsman’ had turned into a proper name), and he sees their subject ‘as all the creatures fashioned by the Creator of the Universe, from Adam to the Second Coming’. He devotes most of his attention, though, to an elaborate painting of the Last Judgement whose faint traces archaeologists have detected in the cathedral porch, ‘drinking and dancing in the gardens of Paradise’ on the one side, ‘fire and demons’ on the other. In a suitably breathless paragraph he lists an extraordinary range of figures, pagan, Christian and Moslem intermingled: ‘demons, satans and wild beasts and devils and enchantresses and angels and dragons and antichrists and one eyed monsters and those with a hundred shapes and crocodiles and elephants and rhinoceroses … and what is more Cherubim, Gabriel, Seraphim, Asra-el, Michael, the ninth heaven with the throne of God, the bridge of a hair’s breadth, the scales of judgement …’, and so on. It is all so moving, he says, that when anyone looks at these paintings of hell, ‘they are taken aback, overcome with fear, struck dumb and lose their breath’.

One puzzle is that Evliya has nothing to say of the mosaic whose gold and coloured glass tesserae once scattered the site. But other writers of the period, Spon and Wheler included, were not so reticent. They talk of an image of (predictably enough) the Holy Virgin, covering the apse behind what had been the altar. And they tell the old chestnut of a story about a Turk who once upon a time took a potshot at it, only to find soon after that his hand withered away. From that moment on, they claim, the Turks decided to inflict no further damage on the image. Be that as it may, the impression we get from all the writers of the Ottoman period is that the Turks were not the uncompromising iconoclasts they are often assumed to be. They may perhaps have continued the defacement of the metope panels (destruction of this sort is always hard to date). But, by and large, they did considerably less harm to the fabric of the building or its existing decoration than the Christians had in converting the pagan temple into a cathedral a millennium earlier. For most of its history as a mosque, barring the occasional splash of whitewash, Moslem worship took place in the Parthenon under the watchful eye of the Christian paintings and the mosaic of the Virgin Mary.

But just as important as his description of the present state of the mosque are Evliya’s often far-fetched anecdotes about its history. These were presumably picked up from the local residents on one of his visits, perhaps even on a guided tour round the sights of the Acropolis. As such, they take us directly back to the popular traditions that clustered around the Parthenon in the mid-seventeenth century, and to the kind of stories that locals, whether Greek or Turk, would tell to a high-ranking and curious Turkish tourist. At one point, for example, Evliya stops to notice a huge basin in the mosque’s porch – a feature remarked on by other travellers (and, in fact, parts of it still survive). It gives Evliya a rare opportunity for some moralising. It was big enough ‘to hold five men at the same time, and in those far-off days the temple’s founder filled it up for his workmen to drink’ – not with water, but ‘shameless wine’. It is easy enough to imagine a seventeenth-century guide making this a highlight of a Parthenon tour. But most striking of all is the starring role that Evliya gives to the ‘divine’ philosopher Plato (Ephlatoun in Turkish). For not only was Plato supposed to be responsible for those miraculous translucent panels in the east wall, but it was from the splendid marble throne in the apse that he used to ‘teach and advise the people’. In Evliya’s account – and no doubt much more widely in the common talk of his time – the Parthenon had become mythologised as ‘Plato’s Academy’. And maybe the artist Aristos was really meant to be Aristotle.


The luckiest chapter in the whole history of modern studies of the Parthenon came in 1674, three decades or so after Evliya’s visit. From the 1660s on (aided in due course by a temporary lull in hostilities between Turks and Venetians) Athens became a more popular destination for visitors from the west. In fact the whole genre of travellers’ tales, recounting the adventures of their journey to Greece, combined with learned (or sometimes less learned) disquisitions on the classical remains, became so popular that it generated its own forgeries. One of the best-selling accounts of such a visit, by a certain André-Georges Guillet de la Guilletière, was eventually unmasked as the armchair work of a man who had never set foot in Greece (though, significantly perhaps, his book included almost as many correct observations and interpretations of the remains as it did blunders). At the same time, maverick enthusiasts for dangerous travel in far-flung classical lands were increasingly joined by the mainstream of the European aristocracy. One such aristocrat was the French ambassador to the Ottoman court, the Marquis de Nointel, who visited Athens in 1674 with a princely retinue, including the obligatory artist. This artist, often referred to as Jacques Carrey (though his identity is quite uncertain), produced for his patron a set of drawings of more than half the surviving ancient sculpture of the Parthenon (Illustration 8). These are no less an aesthetic product of their time than the Renaissance version of Cyriac of Ancona. But they match modern standards of archaeological accuracy much more closely, and – if, as is almost certain, they were drawn from the ground without the aid of scaffolding – are an absolute triumph of observation. If it were not for these, we would have very little idea of the character of much of the original sculpture (including most of the west pediment). It was a lucky chapter indeed, because, just 13 years later, on 28 September 1687, a huge amount was utterly lost in a vast explosion and its aftermath.

The Turks had, on the most generous interpretation, very bad luck with their gunpowder stores. In 1645, the stores in the Propylaia were struck by lightning, killing the disdar’s family as well as seriously damaging the building. When Athens was again under attack in 1687, this time from Venetian forces of a Holy League formed against the Ottoman empire, they chose to put their ammunition (together with their women and children) in the Parthenon instead. Perhaps, as one Venetian historian suggested, they trusted the ‘thickness of the walls and arches’; or maybe they thought the opposing Christian forces would not seek to destroy a building that had been for so long a famous church. Either way, they were badly mistaken. The Venetian army was under the local control of a Swedish general, Count Koenigsmark, who bombarded the building. Surviving marks on the west front alone show where around 700 cannonballs hit their target, and several of the murderous missiles themselves have been discovered on the site. In the end, the inevitable happened and the ammunition store ignited in a vast explosion, killing as many as 300 people (usually forgotten in the story of archaeological tragedy) and blowing out the centre of the building, smashing 28 columns, parts of the frieze and the internal rooms that had served for church and mosque (Illustration 9). The west pediment survived the bombardment itself more or less intact, but when General Morosini, the overall Venetian commander, arrived on the scene to enjoy the victory, he decided he would take the central figures back to Venice. They did not make it. The machinery he was using to lower them from their setting broke and they crashed to the ground. Only a few fragments were taken off to Italy by Morosini’s opportunistic subordinates (one of which, a rather battered head, is now in the Louvre). The other sorry remains were left on site to be found by Lord Elgin’s agents and later archaeologists. From this point on, the history of the Parthenon is the history of a ruin.



8. These seventeenth-century drawings of the west pediment have offered the crucial key to its original arrangement. The central group shows Athena in contest with the god Poseidon for control of Athens and its territory. Behind the battling deities come their chariot teams (Poseidon’s horses had already disappeared by the date of the drawing); and in the angles other gods, goddesses and local legendary heroes assist or look on. The happy couple on the extreme left are the pair that many early travellers (wrongly) identified as the Roman emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina (p. 140).


9. A Venetian view of the explosion of 1687. The gunpowder sends the roof of the mosque flying into the air, though the minaret appears so far unharmed. Around the Parthenon the houses of the garrison village are just visible above the fortifications. On the right a flag waves from the top of the Frankish Tower, which had been built by the Acciaiuoli before the Turkish conquest and remained a well-known landmark until its controversial demolition in 1875 (pp. 108–9).

For once, we have an eye-witness account from a woman. Several letters from Anna Åkerhjelm, a lady-in-waiting to Countess Koenigsmark, have survived, describing to her brother the events as she saw them. ‘How it dismayed His Excellency,’ she wrote, ‘to destroy the beautiful temple that has existed three thousand years and is called the Temple of Minerva! In vain however: the bombs did their work so effectively that never in this world can the temple be replaced.’ Åkerhjelm did, however, find a memento of the building and its destruction. When she was wandering round the site of the Parthenon shortly after the final Turkish surrender, she picked up a precious Arabic manuscript that had somehow survived the explosion in the mosque. It was later given by Åkerhjelm’s brother to the library of Uppsala (‘a rare manuscript from Greece’, as the letter of thanks from the librarian describes it), one of the most unexpected fragments of the diaspora of the Parthenon, and its contents, across western Europe.

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