THE PARTHENON REPORT: Birth of a Philhellene

2021 06 GCT Acrop

That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.

- IONIAN, Constantine Cavafy

When I was eight years old, I graduated from dinosaurs and straightaway latched on to Greek mythology, which involved equally fantastic beasts but offered more roles for me to play. I cycled through the standard repertoire: Theseus, Jason, Perseus and Achilles - with a long stint as Heracles - before taking on the more complex, historical role of Pericles, with an equally complex challenge: building the Parthenon.

My first Parthenon, built out of clay and sticks on top of a tall mound of dirt at the edge of the woods behind our house, was quickly razed by the Persians (played with convincing ferocity by a large St. Bernard puppy). Returning to the drawing board and the town’s public library, I soon filled a sketchbook with plans for Parthenon #2. Bits of the old temple were recycled to fortify the top of the dirt pile, along with bricks taken from the borders of my mother’s flower beds. The kitchen became a workshop for the production of sturdy clay columns which were then baked in the oven, while a model train set was cannibalized for other structural components. Trestle bridges for the two pediment gables at either end and pieces of track and other odds and ends all found their way into the structure. The stationmaster’s house at one of the crossings became the little temple of Athena Nike at  the edge of the Acropolis, while the stationmaster himself, holding out a lantern, played Poseidon on the East pediment. I remember anguishing for days over the casting of Athena and finally found in my collection of cereal-box figures the Indian-princess Pocahontas, whose headdress and spear made her a natural for the part. One of my sister’s dolls was recruited as Phidias’ “monumental” ivory and gold statue of the goddess inside the temple, wrapped in gold and silver foil from a box of chocolates.

Finally, a week of rainy weather was given over to painting the column capitals (and the kitchen table) in garish hues of red, blue and gold. When the weather finally cleared, the puppy was exiled to his kennel, and I procured a pail of cement to create a smooth and stable base for the temple at the top of the now fortified dirt mound. I loaded my red wagon with all the pieces of the new Parthenon - along with an assortment of tools, cookies, glue and paint - and headed out to “the Acropolis” to begin the final phase of assembly and construction. Some eight hours later, covered in dirt and hands crusty with clay and glue, I stepped back from my life’s first and only real masterpiece with a feeling of unimaginable pride. Parthenon #2 was a bit lopsided, but it was glorious. Guarding the base of the mound were dinosaurs from my previous career, while all the statues and plastic figurines which had not made it into the pediment scenes were placed around the temple on small pedestals made of Playdoh. Darkness and dinnertime finally put an end to my work on Parthenon #2 and its Acropolis, but my obsession with the temple did not stop there.

In the years to follow, continued reading and a long visit to Greece with my grandmother sealed my fate. We ran barefoot at ancient Olympia, made olive wreaths at Delphi, and our favorite picnic spot in Athens was a marble bench under an olive tree on Philopappos Hill southwest of the Acropolis looking directly across at the Parthenon over a small sea of olive trees buzzing with cicadas. Our picnics were long, conversation-filled affairs, with ample discussion of ancient heroes, Persian warships and the utter awfulness of General Francesco Morosini, whose siege and bombardment of the Acropolis in 1687 turned the Parthenon from an intact and functioning building into a roofless ruin.  And even though Morosini never entered battle without his cat beside him (and, therefore, should have been a good person) I still hated him with a fierce passion and placed him at the very top of the list of people I wished had never been born, a position he retained for almost a year – until my grandmother and I visited the Duveen Gallery at the British Museum, and I saw what had been taken from my favorite building by Lord Elgin, who had neither cat nor military excuses to redeem him.

A decade later, in the Spring of 1974, I found myself in Athens once again as a student of classical art, archaeology and philosophy. Oblivious of the dramatic events taking place in Athens and Cyprus at the time, I had spent months trekking alone through Greece. In addition to a small tent, I carried a heavy roll of topographical maps; the 2-volume Loeb edition of Pausanias; Kazantzakis’ “Report to Greco” translated by my teacher, friend and mentor Peter Bien; and Vincent Scully’s “The Earth, the Temple and the Gods – Greek sacred architecture”, which was liberally seeded with quotes from the tragic poets - good company to recite while walking through the wild Greek landscape en route to one ancient site or another. Wrapped in a towel, this great, fat volume served as a fine pillow, but wielded as a weapon, it was a match for any dog, snake or scorpion. Many years later, these books still sit on my desk, full of notes, pressed leaves and flowers – and, in the case of Scully – tooth marks from a skirmish with a shepherd dog high in the White Mountains of Crete.

Back in Athens, I found a pension that would allow me to sleep on the roof under the stars, since after all this time outdoors, a bed, four walls and a ceiling felt like a stifling prison cell. The tension in the streets of Athens was palpable, and people spoke in hushed whispers in the cafes and tavernas.  Eugene Vanderpool, professor and photographer at the American School of Classical Studies, whose library I was using to write up my final papers, took me to lunch one day, and we discussed the pros and cons of returning to the US for graduation or staying on in Athens to witness the historic events that were unfolding. For a hot-blooded youth with more passion than prudence, this was really no choice at all. I mailed my reports back to the Classics Department at Dartmouth with a note to the Dean hoping that they might hold on to my diploma for me.  June in the city was hot, and there was talk of fresh student uprisings.

I spent my days, now free from academic papers and footnotes, reestablishing personal relations with the monuments of Athens – especially the Parthenon, which I would sketch at sundown from my favorite bench on Philopappos Hill or the nearby observatory, from which perspective the Acropolis seemed to float on a sea of green, cradled by Lycabettos Hill and the mountains Parnitha, Pendeli and Hymettus. I don’t know how the idea first came to me – to sleep under the stars inside the Parthenon – but I had been sitting on the steps of the vema (speaker’s platform) of the Hill of Pnyx. It was too dark to read, and I had finished the bottle of “Blood of Hercules” wine from the valley of Nemea, so I headed for the entrance to the Acropolis along the magical path created by Dimitris Pikionis – an intricate marble puzzle gleaming in the moonlight.

The approach from the West up to the Propylea was far too well lit for my purposes, and two guards sat at the entrance chatting and smoking, so I continued to the left around the foot of the Acropolis to the caves on the Northeast slope, just beyond the settlement of tiny houses called “Anafiotika clinging to the foot of the cliff. There I found a rather easy line of cracks and handholds leading up the face of the rock, with wide, rough joints in the blocks of stone near the top – which reminded me of the crude brick reinforcements around the top of my own Parthenon #2 back home some 15 or 16 years earlier.

With the “Blood of Hercules” coursing through my veins, the climb itself seemed quite easy, and once over the top I huddled in the shadows behind the old museum building and spent nearly an hour catching my breath, listening to the sounds of the night and watching for guards. Then, creeping from shadow to shadow, I slowly made my way to the temple itself, still without having seen or heard anything beyond the hum of traffic from the city below and the hooting of Athena’s own little owls, Athene noctua. Running the last few yards to the temple, I climbed up several steps, crossed the threshold and entered the Parthenon at last, hardly breathing from a mixture of fear and awe, and settled into a dark corner of the cella to watch the stars of Attica move across the night sky. There was no sleep that night, and my senses remained fantastically alert. The ancient marble slowly exhaled the warmth of the day along with a subtle mineral scent, while a parade of images, memories and bits of poetry jostled for attention.  And when the sky began to brighten in the East, I stood up, stretched my legs and carefully retraced my steps across the rocky plateau and over the parapet.

Climbing down, however, without the help of wine and with feet rather than hands leading the way, proved more difficult than climbing up the rock face earlier in the night. Hugging tight to the rough rock and feeling with my feet, first to the left and then to the right, I eventually found a better route for descent – and tried to move like the small lizards that skittered up and down the taverna walls and hid behind the framed photos and icons.

Finally, legs shaking with relief, fatigue and exhilaration, I stepped once again onto the broad pathway around the Acropolis and walked down the cascading steps into Plaka where the bakeries were starting to open their doors, and early workmen were quietly drinking their coffees in groups of two or three.

All together, I spent a total of seven nights in the Parthenon during June and early July of 1974 – some of the longest and most vivid nights of my life. Then came the invasion of Cyprus; the Junta collapsed; Karamanlis returned from Paris, and Democracy was restored. Music came back to Athens as well; the cafes were once more bursting with talk, and in August I returned home to the US. Now, almost half a century later, Athens is home, and  I am still wrestling with this miraculous building, like Jacob wrestling with an angel all night until dawn.

NEXT WEEK'S COLUMN: “What role does our Parthenon play in this new era, as a monument and as a symbol?”

“Two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Polybius urged us to refrain from turning other nations’ misfortunes into embellishments for our own countries...  Today when all peoples are acknowledged to be equal in dignity, I am convinced that international solidarity can, on the contrary, contribute practically to the general happiness of mankind. The return of a work of art or record to the country which created it enables a people to recover part of its memory and identity, and proves that the long dialogue between civilizations which shapes the history of the world is still continuing in an atmosphere of mutual respect between nations.”

- By Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, Director General of UNESCO  from his 1978 Plea for the Return of Irreplaceable Cultural Heritage

In this bicentennial year since the birth of the modern Greek State, of both pandemic and celebration, Greek City Times is proud to introduce readers to a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture concerning the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon Sculptures back to Athens.

Classicist, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with an international team of colleagues to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate the Parthenon Sculptures.

Click here to read all editions of The Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen


Introducing The Parthenon Report

Feature Image : Copyright Nick Bourdaniotis | Bourdo Photography