The Secret History of the Parthenon

The front facade of the Parthenon, in Athens.

The Parthenon, in Athens, must be one of the most widely recognised buildings in the world. From its position atop the city’s acropolis it has watched over 2,400 years of history go by, and yet when you visit the site itself, that fact can easily escape your mind. Having been scrupulously returned to its pristine, ancient state (minus the Elgin Marbles, of course), the Parthenon is presented almost as if the time between its original construction and today never happened. Somehow, its ‘perfect’ proportions have stood outside of history.

These graceful columns have become an icon of the West's Classical heritage.

Just about the only acknowledgement of this gap in history by the Museum of the Acropolis is a rather peevish retelling of the events of 1687–when the Venetians ignited the gunpowder stored inside–and a thorough condemnation of Lord Elgin’s activities on the site. (With the permission of the Ottomans, he removed many of its remaining sculpted pieces back to Britain in the 19th century, where they remain.)

These official oversights neglect the very diverse functions the building has performed throughout its life, and disregard the way in which the fate of the Parthenon illustrates, in microcosm, wider patterns in Mediterranean history.

Its transformations begin with the rise of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, which saw both the desecration of the Parthenon’s idols and its eventual conversion into a Church. This happened to many buildings at the time, most famously to the Pantheon in Rome. The effects of such a conversion can be seen also in the ruined city of Aphrodisias, in western Turkey.

The temple at Aphrodisias, dedicated to Aphrodite erected atop a pre-Classical religious site.

At Aphrodisias, the temple to Aphrodite was converted into a Byzantine Church, and its remains help us to imagine the type of embellishments which may have been used to Christianise the Parthenon. These included great slabs of Byzantine carving, like those below,

Byzantine-era decorative stonework, Aphrodisias.

but also more informal expressions of piety, like the Christian graffiti at the entrance to the temple.

Crosses inscribed into the marble, at Aphrodisias.

While the Parthenon remained a place of worship, however, Athens declined in importance as the centres of power moved away from Greece. The country remained on the periphery of Byzantium for many centuries, until Crusaders, Italian merchant-adventurers, and increasing pressures from the Balkans fragmented imperial control.

In 1456 with the seizure of Athens by the Ottomans, the Parthenon, which had served as first an Orthodox and then a Latin Christian Church for nearly 1,000 years, was converted into a mosque. A minaret and prayer-niche were added, as happened to many other churches, although its basic fabric remained intact. It was during this phase of its history that one of its most adoring admirers recorded its appearance for posterity.

Evliya Celebi, an Ottoman Gentleman, visited Athens during his extensive travels throughout the Mediterranean in the 17th century. In his memoirs, he displays an extensive, if eclectic, appreciation for both the history of Athens and the Parthenon. To him, Athens had benefited from the attentions of King Solomon and Emperor Constantine, and housed many great thinkers, including ‘Plato the Divine’. Its largely legendary history, in his mind, added to the marvels of its construction, which he described at length.

Stonework at the Acropolis.

When he comes to describe the part of the building now preserved in the British Museum, he waxes lyrical, proclaiming: “Above the columns, which are sheltered by eaves, and above the walls are a remarkable and varied assembly of voluminous statues, made of white marble. If I were to describe these one by one, it would require an entire volume and would hinder the course of our travels. The human mind cannot indeed comprehend these images–they are white magic, beyond human capacity. One with the intellect of Aristotle would be dumbfounded at the sight of these statues and proclaim them a miracle, because to a discerning eye they seem to be alive.” (p.285).

His profound respect for, and complicated relationship with, the Classical past as preserved in the mediaeval Parthenon, adds dimension to our sense of its journey through history. Although now claimed as an icon of the rational, secular, neo-Classical era of modernity in the West, it formed a part of mediaeval Christian and Muslim narratives as well, connecting the Byzantines and Ottomans to the figures of the past (whether genuinely or not.) Its a side of the Parthenon the Museum of the Acropolis would do well to recognise.

The Parthenon, seen through the columns of the temple to Hephaistos, in the Athenian Agora.

Learn More:

Evliya’s travelogue is so extensive that it has yet to be translated into English in its entirety. The passage above, and many other interesting episodes, have, however, become available in

Robert Dankhoff and Sooyong Kim (ed. and trans.) An Ottoman traveller : selections from the book of travels of Evliya Çelebi, (London, 2010.)

6 thoughts on “The Secret History of the Parthenon

  1. Great post! I was looking at those marbles just the other day and thinking what a bizarre idea it is to us today that the Parthenon spent such a lot of its history as a church.

    • Thanks! It is pretty disorienting at first, and isn’t a part of the usual Parthenon story. It’s so interesting, though, to see the building through such a different lens, though. I have to admit, though, that despite visiting the British Museum twice, the marbles didn’t make much of an impression–I think I made a beeline for the Sutton Hoo treasures.

  2. Very informative post again, thanks Marissa. I’m feeling rather wistful that this was once a church, and before that, a temple….and we never got to see it in its original state. What a chequered history.

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