Acropolis destructions

With the recently completed restoration of several columns in the Propylaia and a section of its finely coffered ceiling as well as the ongoing reconstructions of the Parthenon?s north colonnade and the Temple of Athena Nike, the Athenian Acropolis now looks more like it did in Pericles? day than it has in many centuries. But to reveal the Acropolis? 5th-century BC monuments and former landscape, modern authorities and restorers beginning in the 19th century have had to remove nearly all architectural traces of the hill?s subsequent, fascinating history of occupation, alteration, neglect and abuse.

In contrast to the relative calm in building activity that immediately followed the Acropolis? extensive Classical embellishment, during which the Rock?s celebrated structures remained largely unchanged for nearly 1,000 years, subsequent centuries ? between the Christian remodeling of the Parthenon in the 6th century AD and the start of modern restorations in the 1830s ? were characterized by reuse, destruction and overbuilding. By the time the Greek Republic was formally established in 1832 and the idea of resurrecting the Acropolis as a national symbol began to be implemented, the natural outcrop had become a cluttered mass of ancient ruins, medieval and Ottoman Turkish fortifications and as many as 200 red-tile-roofed houses ? many with tiny, walled courtyards ? accessed through a maze of narrow alleyways. All of this material had to be picked through, targeted for preservation or demolished and removed. Through this final chapter of destruction, which continued into the early decades of the 20th century, the Acropolis was at last cleared, while the marble structures of its 5th-century BC phase were exposed as stark reminders of the great cultural and sociopolitical achievements of Classical Athens.

Greek archaeology has both gained and lost from the long record of destructions revealed on the Acropolis. Knowledge of Greece?s past has come to light ? with some destructive events actually having preserved important evidence for religious practices, artistic trends and political developments ? while other information or artistic and architectural works were obliterated or marred forever. The first great calamity to strike the Acropolis was perhaps the Persian invasion of 480 BC, when King Xerxes penetrated right to the hill?s foot, installing his base camp on the Areopagus. During the siege that followed, Persian archers fired flaming arrows onto the Acropolis. Athenian defenders in turn rolled stones down the western slopes but disastrously ignored the opposite eastern cliffs. Herodotus, the 5th-century BC historian, describes how the Persians took advantage of this Athenian oversight and finally entered the Acropolis:

?In front of the Acropolis but behind the gates and the common ascent ? where no watch was kept and no one would have thought it possible that any foot of man could climb ? a few soldiers mounted from the Sanctuary of Aglauros… As soon as the the Athenians saw them upon the summit, some threw themselves headlong from the wall and so perished, while others fled for refuge to the inner part of the temple. The Persians rushed to the gates and opened them, after which they massacred the suppliants. When all were slain, they plundered the temple and fired every part of the Acropolis.?

Archaeologist Jeffrey Hurwit continues the story in ?The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles.? ?The Persians missed almost nothing. They demolished the citadel walls and burned shrines and temples. They smashed vases and terracotta dedications. They pushed over reliefs and inscriptions and mutilated and toppled marble statues. They carted off bronze ones to be melted down for their valuable metal or to show off as trophies back in Persia.? The Persian invasion was plainly a disaster but ultimately it led to the preservation of many unique, invaluable examples of Greek Archaic and early Classical sculpture, which were thrown down by the Persians and later buried as the Athenians tidied up.

Another wartime conflagration in AD 267, at the hands of the Heruli, led to the wooden roof and marble tiles of the Periclean Parthenon having to be replaced. Later, the Parthenon underwent more extensive changes in the 6th century, when it was converted into a Christian church. The eastern entrance was closed and the sculptured frieze above damaged with the installation of an apse; three windows were cut through the frieze on the north and south sides; and many of the pagan images on the exterior metopes were defaced.

The Franks in the 13th century added a bell tower to the Parthenon-cathedral?s west porch ? still visible today ? and incorporated the Propylaia into a multistory castle that served as a residence and fortified entrance to the Acropolis. When the Ottoman Turks seized Athens in 1456, the Acropolis became the lofty seat of the Turkish officials and garrison. The Parthenon was transformed into a mosque and its bell tower into a tall minaret. The Erechtheion, also a church since the 7th century, now accommodated a harem.

Events in the 1600s proved particularly destructive for the ancient Acropolis. Gunpowder stored by the Turks in the Propylaia castle was ignited by a lightning strike in 1640, destroying part of the Classical gateway. In September 1687, an intense Venetian bombardment (see below) once again damaged the Propylaia and blew apart the Parthenon ? both of which were employed as powder stores. A metal fragment of a Venetian bomb, picked up from the Parthenon?s ruins by a British traveler in the 19th century and eventually deposited with Eton College, can now be seen in the British Museum. It rests alongside the more celebrated sculptural souvenirs of Lord Elgin and other antiquarians that took advantage of Ottoman neglect and disregard for Greece?s antiquities in the centuries preceding the Greek Revolution.

The rich story of the Acropolis in post-Classical and more recent times would make a fascinating addition to the Acropolis Museum, where, aside from a video presentation, little mention can be found of the Rock?s later colorful history.

Works of art shed light on history

The Museum of the City of Athens has many paintings and sketches by early travelers who visited Athens in the medieval and early modern eras. Of particular interest is a large painting measuring 2.60×5.20 meters and attributed to Jacques Carrey, of Athens and the Acropolis in 1674, prior to the Venetians? devastating 1687 bombardment. A smaller penned sketch of the 1687 Venetian attack itself shows mortars being fired from a low hill northwest of the Acropolis ? possibly the Kolonos Agoraios near the Temple of Hephaistos. This drawing by Venetian artillery officer Giacomo Verneda offers graphic testimony strangely at odds with existing archaeological evidence, since star-shaped impact wounds inflicted on the Parthenon?s marble structure by the Venetian bombs of 1687 indicate that they were shot from the Hill of the Muses or the adjacent Pnyx ? not from the Agoraios Kolonos. According to other Venetian witnesses, however, artillery batteries were not limited to the western side of the Acropolis. The besieged fortress was actually surrounded and some misguided bombs are reported to have sailed completely over the Acropolis, killing members of the besiegers? own forces on the opposite side. Verneda?s sketch may be inaccurate or show only one of several artillery positions employed during the intense bombardment.

Museum of the City of Athens (5-7 I. Paparrigopoulou,, tel 210.323.1397). Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.