Dr. Eugene N. Borza will be lecturing in Nashville about the history of the Parthenon & the restoration process currently underway on the monument.
Parthenon expert to lecture on Greece’s ‘noble ruin’
BY BILL FRISKICS-WARREN • STAFF WRITER • September 14, 2008
Built on the rocky Athenian Acropolis, the Parthenon has inspired lovers of art, architecture and Greek mythology for 24 centuries. Widely regarded as the finest monument of its type ever built, the Parthenon and its metopes, pediments and famous frieze have come to personify Greece just as the Eiffel Tower has come to symbolize Paris and the Pyramids have come to represent Egypt.
On Tuesday, Dr. Eugene N. Borza, professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University, will be at Nashville’s reproduction of the great temple to lecture on recent efforts to restore and preserve the original. In the following conversation with The Tennessean, he talks about the origins and history of the Parthenon, as well as about the human and natural forces that have contributed to its deterioration.
People might not know that the Parthenon has existed longer as a church than as a temple to the goddess Athena. How did this come about?
Some time shortly after the mid-fifth century A.D., the temple of Athena Parthenos (the Virgin Athena) was converted into the church of the Virgin Mary. It was common practice in that period to make such conversions in order to take advantage of existing impressive religious monuments; often the transfer from particular ancient deities into particular Christian saints was formulaic.
The Parthenon also served as a mosque, and even had a minaret. What were the circumstances that led to that transformation?
As it was the practice of Christians to convert ancient temples into Christian houses of worship, it was not unusual for Muslims to convert churches into mosques. The most famous of these was the conversion of the largest early Christian church, Haghia Sofia, in Constantinople into a mosque following the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453. Thus the conversion of the former Parthenon from a church to a mosque following the capture of Athens by the Turks around the year 1460. The conversion consisted primarily of whitewashing the interior Christian paintings and replacing the bell tower with a minaret. Following the building’s destruction by Venetian cannon fire in 1687, a small Turkish village came into being within the protective walls and columns of the Parthenon. A small mosque was built within the Parthenon to serve the needs of this community.
What sort of restoration and reconstruction is taking place at the Parthenon right now?
The restoration of the Parthenon is a 30-year program, which seeks to do the following: It must halt further deterioration of the building resulting from natural and human causes. Once the building has been stabilized and strengthened, parts of it must be restored, but, according to the principles of the Charter of Venice of 1964, which provide the guidelines for many important monument restorations, the restoration must use only original materials and only insofar as necessary to conserve the building.
While we know the Parthenon well enough to reconstruct it completely, to do so would mean that it would lose its validity as a true historical monument.
For the past 175 years, the Greek state has (insisted) that the Parthenon must exist as a noble ruin, symbolizing the rebirth of Greece in modern times from centuries of foreign oppression and occupation.
How have pollution and other environmental factors been harmful to the structure in recent years?
The air in modern Athens is toxic with sulfur dioxide from vehicular and industrial emissions. Sometimes rain is converted into a weak solution of sulfuric acid, which eats away at the sharp surfaces and edges of architectural blocks, columns and — especially — sculpture. The Parthenon is famous for the quantity and quality of its decorative marble sculptures, and those which have remained on the building in modern times — as opposed to those which have reposed in museums — have developed seriously eroded surfaces. Anyone who sees the Parthenon sculptures which have reposed in the British Museum in London for nearly two centuries, following their removal from Athens to London by Lord Elgin, will notice immediately the difference between those marbles which have been protected in the museum and those which have deteriorated by exposure to the air of modern Athens.