They Blew the Parthenon Up!

With all the recent talk of the Elgin Marbles going back to Greece, this is a good time to talk about the Parthenon – that amazing piece of Greek history and architecture.

Personally, I think the Marbles, which were (are) important parts of the Parthenon, should go back to their birthplace – and so should lots of other pieces of history torn from their homeland, including other pieces of the Parthenon held around the world.

Elgin Marbles, British Museum.

Elgin Marbles, British Museum.

Bearing this in mind, the worst thing to happen to Parthenon was nothing to do with the British and their dubiously authorised removal – and damage – of the Marbles, but how the Parthenon was used as an ammunition magazine in the 17th century – and then nearly blown to smithereens!

It was 1687, and there was war between the Ottoman Empire, who controlled Greece, and the Republic of Venice. The Morean War, or the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War as it is sometimes called, had already been raging for three years, as part of a wider conflict called the Great Turkish War. The Venetians sent an expedition to attack Athens and capture the Acropolis of Athens, led by Francesco Morosini, the Commander-in-Chief of the army. The Ottomans had fortified the Acropolis and were using the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine.

The sad truth is the Ottomans already knew this was a dangerous situation. In 1656, an explosion nearly destroyed the Propylaea, which was itself being used as a gunpowder magazine, and which had served as the entrance to the Acropolis for over 2000 years.

On the night (evening) of the 26th of September, after three days of continuous shelling of the Acropolis, two mortar shells (not cannon) went through the roof of the Parthenon and ignited the gunpowder magazine. The explosion shook the whole town and as good as a split the Parthenon in two, almost totally destroying the middle section and killing hundreds. What was left then caught fire, which spread to adjacent houses that were crammed into the Acropolis site in that century.

And there you have it.

I won’t go into all the gory detail. Let’s look at a drawing of the bloody mess instead.

The Explosion of the Gunpowder Magazine in the Parthenon.

The Explosion of the Gunpowder Magazine in the Parthenon.

After they had taken the Acropolis, the Venetians tried to remove the best preserved statues from high on the western pediment (one of the gable ends) of the Parthenon but they didn’t have the proper expertise or equipment, causing a stature of Poseidon and Athena’s horses to make an over-rapid journey to the ground and become nothing but rubble. Instead they took away what they could easily carry, including much from other parts of the city. The Piraeus Lion was taken from the harbour of Athens and now sits outside the Venetian Arsenal. Look out for the Viking graffiti on its side. Funny looking lion. It was part of a water feature, apparently.

For the next century and a half, the Parthenon was systematically looted for anything that remained of any value, including the Elgin Marbles, leaving very little of the original building anywhere near the original building. Apart from the disastrous reconstruction attempts of the 1890’s, meticulous and concerted restoration of the Parthenon began in the 1970’s and has been going on ever since. The idea is to bring it back to something like it was in 1687 before the explosion. A defining moment in the history of a building we hold in such high esteem, I would say.

Restoration of the Parthenon in 2010

Restoration of the Parthenon in 2010

I have seen it myself, in 1989. And even though at the time I knew next to nothing of its journey through history, I still felt the magic of its very presence and the amazing position it holds over the city of Athens. One of the best days of my life.

With bits of the Parthenon scattered to the four winds, it makes be wonder where the remains of other great buildings totally destroyed by the present day have landed, even pebble-size pieces.

Could… No, there – absolutely – are pieces of, say, the lost Seven Wonders of the Ancient World scattered all around the places they were built, and far beyond. Have you ever picked up a piece of stone from a tiered garden, or a scrap of brass from a colossal statue, or even a piece of a building we have no record of but was once the centre of an ancient civilisation’s culture?

Most definitely, yes.

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3 Responses to They Blew the Parthenon Up!

  1. Interesting. I think the Greeks are now quite capable of taking care of the marbles, though is wasn’t the case before, as you explain. But are you saying that everything in every museum should go back to the countries of origin? Some countries are really not in a position to take care of their treasures, and in many cases, the world is so lucky that Europeans in the past had shipped artifacts off to museums around the world to preserve and study them.. Look at Iraq and the plundering still going on now by it’s own people and I saw footage of US tanks blasting through ancient walls and squares like bulls in china shops.., and in Iran, it’s mighty ancient past is being destroyed by it’s own government as it’s ancient history predating the Islamic invaders is not recognized by the mullahs…. political unrest, war, poverty, all these factors have to be taken into account before returning ancient museum pieces. However I do think that museums who house these artifacts in Europe and the US making money from them, should compensate the original countries of origin. Museums stuffed with Egyptian mummies, for example should pay something to the Egyptian government, as if renting them, perhaps… the Cairo museum was ransacked in the riots, and European museums could contribute to it’s refurbishment and the recovering the stolen pieces from the revenue they receive from their own tourists seeing the Egyptian artifacts in their museums… just a thought..

    • Correct – about the first part of your comment. I was speaking in terms of countries that are, and should remain politically stable in the future, although history tells us no-one is ultimately stable. I hadn’t thought about compensation, which is a great idea, and shows other countries that the West is not a totally greedy and selfish system, which I guess many think.

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