Near perfection: The Greek Parthenon
The Parthenon is one of the most famous and identifiable landmarks in Greece, and arguably even the world. It was constructed in the 5th century BCE on the Acropolis of Athens and has been through quite a lot during its nearly 2,500-year history.
It went from being a temple to being a church, and later a mosque. At one point the Parthenon was even used as a gunpowder store, although it didn’t serve that particular function for long, on account of gunpowder being a remarkably explosive substance.
Despite facing countless disasters, both natural and human-caused, a substantial portion of the original structure can still be seen in Athens today.
Construction on the Parthenon began in 447 BCE at the behest of Pericles, the leader of Athens at that time. Pericles was a vehement proponent of art, literature, and democracy, and rose to power during the so-called “Golden Age” of Athens, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
It took just under a decade for the building to be completed, a blazing fast pace for such a project, and it cost an absolute fortune. The result was a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena, housing a statue of her that was reportedly almost 40 feet high.
The temple was designed by Greek architects Ictinus and Callicrates and was under the artistic direction of the sculptor Phidias. It used 22,000 tons of marble, more than any temple ever had at that time, and many of its dimensions incorporated mathematical ratios that were particularly meaningful to the Greeks.
For example, the width of the pillars versus the distance between them is a 9:4 ratio, and the ratio between the length, width, and height of the outer temple versus the inner temple is a 3:2 ratio, also known as the “golden ratio.”
It also combined architectural elements from both the Doric and Ionic orders of architecture.
As the University of Edinburgh Greek History professor Dr. Mirko Canevaro explains, “The Doric column is the simplest to construct, with a capital made of a circle topped by a square — like a squashed pillow.”
“Its shaft is plain with twenty flutes,” he continues. “The columns don’t have a base, and Doric friezes (sections above the pillars) have simple patterns, metopes, and triglyphs. The Ionic order is taller and its columns slender, with a base, and the friezes have no triglyphs or metopes. The capital is more decorative and looks like a scroll. The Parthenon is Doric from the outside, although the columns are a bit more slender than normal with Doric buildings, but has a famous continuous Ionic frieze circling the core of the building and four Ionic columns in the adyton, behind the building.”
Ahead of the curve
Dr. Mairi Gkikaki, a research fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick University, also explains that “There are no straight lines in the Parthenon, not one line or part of the Parthenon is straight.”
The Greeks often employed a technique known as entasis when constructing buildings such as the Parthenon. Entasis involves subtly curving what would otherwise be straight lines in a structure, and is often used to counteract the illusion where a building made entirely of straight lines can actually appear slightly warped and curved, particularly when viewed from farther away and from below.
Gkikaki also comments on the fact that each of the pillars is angled, and if you extended a line from the pillars upwards, they would eventually cross paths in the space above the Parthenon.
Because so much care was taken in the construction of the Parthenon, using the best materials available at the time, and the fact that its foundations were laid in the rock upon which it was built, it lasted through some pretty strenuous ordeals.
In 426 BCE, not long after the Parthenon had been built, it survived an earthquake that hit Athens with minimal damage.
It survived another quake in 373 BCE, and again in 226 BCE. So far it has shown to be remarkably resistant to seismic activity, with its most recent test being a 5.9-Richter earthquake in 1999 that didn’t cause any major damage to the structure.
Its resistance to earthquakes is so intriguing that a group of Japanese scientists was sent specifically to study its seismic-resistant properties in 2008.
Unfortunately, its anti-earthquake properties don’t translate to anti-explosion properties. On Sept. 26, 1687, the Parthenon experienced the most destructive event in its two-and-a-half millennium history.
At that time Athens, and therefore the Parthenon, was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks were using the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine, a place where gunpowder is stored, as well as a shelter for local Turks.
Athens was being attacked by a Venetian force led by Captain-General Francesco Morosini. On the day in question, Morosini fired a series of mortar rounds towards The Acropolis, one of which scored a direct hit on the gunpowder magazine.
The resulting explosion blew out a number of columns and caused the inner chamber to collapse entirely, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Morosini and his army had done more damage to the Parthenon in a few seconds than had befallen it in the previous 2,000 years combined.
In the decades and centuries that followed, many people visited the site in order to pillage what they could, believing the whole area would soon be razed to the ground due to its now precarious nature.
Possibly the most notable instance of pillaging occurred in the first few years of the 19th century. Scottish Nobleman Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, claimed he was granted permission to remove as much of the stone as he wanted.
A huge collection of pieces from the Parthenon, known as “Elgin’s Marbles,” was therefore packed up and shipped to England in 1803.
They were acquired by, and are currently held at the British Museum, but their claim to the stones is still a hotly debated question.
A full restoration
Nowadays, the Parthenon is undergoing a series of massive restoration projects that were kicked off by the Greek government in 1975.
“Enough of the building has survived that we can confidently reconstruct the rest. The temple, like most Greek temples, is rigorously symmetrical, and its overall arrangement is clearly predictable from what we have,” says Canevaro.
There is even a full-scale replica of the Parthenon that is open to visitors in, of all places, Nashville Tennessee.
Canevaro believes that, even though the Parthenon was built to last, a lot of why it’s still so intact today comes down to luck. He notes that while these are both Greek temples, they’re now both located in parts of Italy:
“The Parthenon was clearly built to live on, with the best materials and the best architectural techniques available at the time. It was damaged by a fire in the third century CE but was repaired in the fourth century. As with many Greek temples, survival was a matter of history and chance.”
“The Parthenon ceased activity as a pagan temple at some point in the fifth century CE, and became a Christian church in the sixth, before being turned into a Mosque at the end of the fifteenth. This continued occupation meant that there was always a roof and the building was maintained, rather than pillaged for building materials like many others, although it also meant that at various points modifications were made to it. This helped its preservation. Note, however, that we do have better-preserved temples, some of which are even older. Two examples: the Doric temple at Paestum, in southern Italy, and the Doric ‘Temple E’ at Selinunte, in Sicily.”