The summation of classical symmetry and harmony, majestic in its artful simplicity, the Parthenon is not only one of the most widely admired buildings in the history of architecture but also occupies an iconic place in the history of western civilization. The elegant white marble of this at once massive yet gloriously austere structure that so brilliantly reflects the Attic light was the product of a first flowering of democracy in fifth-century Athens; it survives as an enduring monument to human freedom, unfettered imagination and joyous aspiration.
And survive it certainly has. Built as a temple to the goddess Athena, favourite daughter of Zeus, father of the gods, it commemorated the victory of her namesake city of Athens in the Persian Wars. Inside the temple was kept an exquisitely beautiful gold and ivory statute of the goddess which survives as a Roman copy in the spectacular New Acropolis Museum which opened in 2009. When Christianity replaced the old beliefs in the gods, the temple became a church and Mary conveniently replaced Athena in the internal decoration of the Parthenon, a name that derives from the Greek word for a young maiden. Occupying a commanding place on the dramatic site of the Acropolis, the Parthenon could not escape successive waves of invasion and consequent destruction as the city was by turns attacked by Arab raiders or crusaders, ever a hapless victim of its strategic situation at the crossroads of competing rival powers. By the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Turks had turned the Parthenon into a mosque only for it to be destroyed in 1687 when a besieging Venetian shell hit a powder magazine causing a massive explosion. By the end of the following century, just a generation before Greece won back its independence, the Parthenon was being systematically looted by the French and the British, notably by Lord Elgin who carried away whole sections of marble statuary from the temple, selling them to the British Museum in London.
Much remains, of course: the New Acropolis Museum, a stunning piece of architecture in its own right, the work of New York-based architect Bernard Tschumi, displays some four thousand objects from the Acropolis in its exquisitely-lit galleries, statues that depict scenes from Greek mythology. But it is the familiar profile of the Parthenon that stays in the memory. Its architects left nothing to chance: aesthetic perfection is achieved by precise mathematical calculation and a profound understanding of the underlying principles of architecture that has yet to be surpassed. It is the obvious point of departure for any cruise through the Hellenistic world.
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