Tuesday 26 November 2013

Athens: Classical Monuments and Christianity

Athens in the early years of Christianity was proving a hard nut to crack.  The tradition of its philosophical schools, its history, and its resident intelligentsia all made it easier for free thinking and a spirit of classical Hellenism to prevail and thrive long after Christianity had become a protected religion. In 438 the Emperor Theodosius 11 put paid to that. He published a Law Code that would make pagan practice a crime punishable by death and Christianity the sole religion of the empire.  His policy towards pagan monuments was specific:  In the countryside pagan temples should be torn down and removed and purified by the erection of the sign of the venerable Christian religion.  In the same edict he stated that temples in cities or towns, once stripped of their pagan trappings, should be vindicated to public use.

 It took a while. Old habits die hard, but Emperor Justinian’s edict closing its Philosophical schools in 529 ended paganism’s long run in Athens and profoundly changed the face of the classical city. Christian Churches were erected on razed or ruined classical monuments and many of the ones still standing became churches including  the Parthenon,  the Theseion, the Erectheion, the Tower of the Winds, the monument of Thrasyllos, even the tiny rotunda  of the  Lysikrates monument.   Ironically it preserved them all to be returned to their classical glory in the modern era.
Of the vicissitudes of the Parthenon,   something is known…

The Parthenon

Athena’s 900 year hold on the building ended and the next 900 belonged to Mary, Queen of Heaven. Renamed Panagia Atheniotissa, it became the city’s main cathedral sometime in the 6th century, replacing the 5th century purpose built Megali Panagia whose ruins still cover the open courtyard of Hadrian’s library.  Given the Parthenon’s architecture, it was not a difficult task. The building was already basilica - shaped, the rectangular design chosen for early Christian cathedrals, and the existing columns inside easily made it a three aisled basilica with no changes required. Two fair sized blocks of the Parthenon frieze were punched out on the south and north sides of the building to allow in light (1); the rest of the frieze was left alone.  Even the orientation was right – not serendipity exactly since many historians believe that the west to eastern orientation of Christian churches was adapted from pagan temples.  Remember that pagan altars, although outside, were outside to the east and placed so that the deity’s statue could watch the sacrifices from inside the building. The large eastern opening from which Athena gazed was made into an apse by the expedient of enclosing it in the required apse shape. The western room of the ancient temple became the narthex and a central door from it led to the nave and the altar in front of the apse. The existing western doors would have been used for worshippers to enter the new cathedral. It is not often noted but, surely one of the most startling innovations of Christianity was that the worshippers moved indoors.  Pagan temples housed a god or goddess and only priests were allowed to enter the sanctuary. In Christianity believers actually entered the church and by taking the Eucharist shared an intimate communion with their God.  That must have been an amazing shift in perspective.

The Parthenon as Panagia Atheniotissa became a prime tourist attraction for visiting dignitaries and pilgrims alike. The Byzantine Emperor Basil 11 celebrated his victory over the Bulgarians (2 ) in a magnificent service here in 1018 at which time it is written that he gave the church many rich gifts.   And so it remained until 1205 when the Franks took over Athens and the Parthenon was rededicated as their cathedral and to the Roman Catholic rite; this would have required no significant alteration. In 1458, just after Athens had fallen once more, this time to the to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet 11. Quite an admirer of ancient Greece, the Sultan himself toured the acropolis to see its antique marvels and, some say, to boot out the Catholics and reinstate Panagia Atheniotissa as an Orthodox cathedral once more.  It didn’t last. Whether it was him or his successor who turned it into a mosque is unclear, but a mosque it remained until Greek Independence.

There is no description of the Parthenon as an Orthodox church but, luckily for posterity, Evliya Chelebi (3), a seventeenth century traveler with a lot of curiosity and a skewed understanding of  history, visited in 1667, twenty years before a great deal of it was blown up by Morosini.  Chelebi described what he saw in enthusiastic detail and clearly Christian elements remained although a mihrab had been placed in the south east corner facing Mecca and the bell tower was turned into a mineret. The Christian apse was not seen as a problem; it was not dismantled until the 1800s. The bishop’s throne, now in the Acropolis museum, also remained; Chelebi thought that it was Plato’s throne.  
Not likely Plato's but certainly some ancient worthy's 

 I suspect that the baptismal font was also in place although he believed it was a container meant to be filled with wine for the builders. He also describes the gilded cypress beams which held up the roof – and was fascinated by the  roof  tiles –  he claimed that they were flat and so thin that they allowed a diffused light to permeate the building.  (Now according to professor Bouras, the Parthenon got a new roof when it was made into a church because the original was burned during a Barbarian raid so this comment is a puzzler as it is highly unlikely a replacement roof would have been made of thin slabs of marble as was the original.  In sketches it is depicted as a tile roof.)  
Be that as it may, Chelebi goes on to make  a gloriously erroneous assumption. Both Orthodox and Moslem churches by his time had had domes for so long that he believed the Parthenon must have had one and then lost it to be replaced by the roof he saw!  He mentions with satisfaction that it must have collapsed in the same way as the dome of Ag. Sophia in Constantinople, presaging, according to a popular belief held by Moslems, the birth of Mohammed. (4)

At some point in its Orthodox history, the spaces of the peristyle were joined together by plastered brick walls forming a rather narrow ambulatory (walkway) around the entire building, and here and there were still wall paintings from the Christian era in place during his visit. Although the eyes had been gouged out according to the Moslem prohibition of human figures, at least not all of them were whitewashed over. Of course he praises the ancient marble frieze  but the following description of what he sees depicted on “the outer walls of this “mosque” can in no stretch of the imagination refer to anything but Christian wall paintings:

The painter painted every form of monster and ghastly temptation, demons, devils, wild beasts,… angels and dragons…the scales of  judgment, Paradise, hell.

It could  be a depiction of  The Last Judgment, and a very elaborate one at that, all destroyed either twenty years later when the Parthenon blew up or later and when a small mosque was built to fit  inside the ancient cella –  no need for the partitions between the columns then. They were entirely dismantled. 
 (1).These things still matter.  When the new Acropolis museum commissioned a short film on the Parthenon’s history, the Greek Church objected strongly to the segment dealing with the removal of sections of the frieze and other alterations. They stayed in, but only after quite a strong debate.
 (2)  Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving 150 one-eyed men to lead them back to their ruler. He was henceforth known as the Bulgar Slayer. It was meant as a compliment.

(3) Evliya Chelebi  (or Tchelebi) was a Turkish gentleman who dubbed himself “world traveller and boon companion”.  And he was both, one of those travel writers whom you would really want to meet, a later version of Pausanias with the same bent for the bizarre.  His books are still in print and well worth reading. His lengthy description of the Parthenon is from Kevin Andrews’ Athens Alive, a wonderful gloss on the city. 
(4) Ag Sophia’s dome collapsed in 558. Mohammed was born in 570.

The Rest…

The Theseion: From Saint George to Saint George the Lazy ( Άη Γιώργης ο Ακαμάτης)

At what date the Theseion became a church is a subject of debate. Some say as early as the 7th century. Believe it or not, it was on the outskirts of town then and not much is known about it until it came into prominence during the Turkish period when rumours of it being turned into a mosque had galvanized the Greek leaders to petition the Sultan to allow it to remain in Christian hands.  He agreed but with the caveat that it could only be used for a liturgy on the name day of the saint (April 23). At that point the church got its nickname, George the Loafer, since it had a liturgy only one day a year!  True?  There are other possible explanations, but this one fits and I like it best.  Then, as now, The Theseion area is a great spot for a picnic it is surprising more local visitors to the Agora do not consider this, so Lazy George was a favourite gathering spot of Athens’ Albanian population for a feast they called the Rousalia that occurred in spring and involved a picnic and a lot of roses thrown about. Folklorists will tell you it was a throwback to ancient fertility rites and it was certainly a great way of celebrating spring and asking it to return, just as Greeks make wreaths on May first and hang them on their doorposts. Apparently the Greeks and Turks joined in and enjoyed this festival too.
In the early 19th century St George, or rather the ground under its marble floor, was used as the Protestant cemetery and then, after Independence, it had a brief moment as Athens' Episcopal Cathedral because the Panagia Gorgoepikoos was just not big enough  for the pomp and ceremony of receiving Otto the new King and his Bavarian troops when they arrived in Athens on  December 1st 1834. There are several drawings extant of this grand event. (Google King Otto’s Arrival in Athens)  After providing the backdrop for the ceremony declaring Athens the capital of Greece in 1834, it was stripped to its marble bones by archaeologists and then used as Athens’ first archaeological museum.

The Tower of the Winds

In the sixth century AD, its circular form made it a natural as an early Christian Bapistry, handy to an early Christian basilica now obliterated by the impressive and still standing Fethiye  (Victory) Mosque, itself built as a monument in 1458 to commemorate the visit of Sultan Mehmet 11 to Athens.  Another source claims it was used as a bell tower for a nearby church during the Byzantine era, not  likely since separate bell towers were a Frankish innovation in Greece although that would work if the Franks converted it to the Catholic rite. It was made a Catholic church fleetingly in 1667-8 when Morosini and his Italian troops thought his siege of the acropolis was going to succeed.  The Turks, who had no use for baptistries or bell towers made it a tekke for the Sufi Brotherhood where every Friday prayers were said and whirling dervishes would do their stuff. 

 The Tower of the Winds was a classical building whose function stumped the medieval population. It was rumoured to have had a large mirror on top to detect marauders from afar, to be the tomb of Philip of Macedon, and even Plato’s tent, not to mention its famous ability to cast spells against the plague, centipedes, flies, and snakes.   The tent and spells bits were recorded by Evliya Chelebi who wasn’t sure he believed a word of the latter but did point out that he had never seen a snake in Athens. No one thought clock.
 The monument of Thrasyllos  

On the south side of the Acropolis, directly above the ancient theatre is the ancient choragic monument of Thrasyllos dedicated to Dionysos around 270 BC. It fronts a cave that was converted into a chapel called Panagia Spiliotissa (Our Lady of the Cave) complete with a small iconostasis and sanctuary immediately to the right of the entrance and then stairs up to a platform at the back of the cave.  During the Turkish era mothers would bring sick children to the cave, asking Mary for help. The custom was to leave behind a burning candle the exact height of the child. The classical monument is currently being restored, but the Acropolis museum has promised a room that will duplicate the cave as it was during its time as a chapel. No one built a church on the ancient theatre because it was still under tons of dirt and stones, waiting to be rediscovered.

 The Lysicrates Monument

The Lysicrates monument was put up in 334 BC by the winning producer (chorigos) of a play. This became a Church, but very briefly indeed. It was an adjunct to a Capuchin monastery, founded in 1669, an institution which thrived during the Turkish occupation.  A certain Friar Simon injured Orthodox sensibilities when he turned the monument into a Roman Catholic chapel.  A local Greek resident brought a court case against him citing the law that ancient monuments could not be owned by foreigners. Since, under the millet system, the court in question consisted of the Greek metropolitan and elders, the friar lost his case although he was, in fact, a naturalized citizen. The Capuchins did get to keep it providing it was not used as a church and that access was not denied. The good friars then turned it into a two story library - one of its marble panels had been removed thus attaching the entire monument to the now missing monastery building. Byron made good use of it when he was writing Childe Harold. The sandy area you see to the south of the monument was Athens’ Roman Catholic cemetery.  The closest this monastery ever came to the sublime, in Greek eyes anyway, was for its introduction into Greece of the tomato.

The Columns of Olympian Zeus

Still referred to as the Styles (Στύλες, the columns) by Athenians, the temple was a ruin even in ancient times and, until after Independence it was a big open space outside of the city walls, a magnet for writers of graffiti and Athens riffraff. At some point a hermit did the stylites hermits one better and built a monastic cell on top of one of the columns. (Google Temple of Olympian Zeus, lithographs)  In Turkish times it served as a mosque for Ethiopian slaves and stories abounded about dark figures jumping from column to column on dark nights. Chelebi, with the over zealousness of all guide writers made the connection between the Ethiopians and the once grand temple and claimed it must have been the palace of Balkis which Solomon the prophet (peace be unto him) built.

Ottomans, and no doubt Greek citizens as well, would come to the Styles to pray for rain. They needed a large space because apparently the custom was to bring ewes with their young, separate them so they cried pathetically, and amid the general lamentation, said their prayers. If the drought was especially bad, the Ottoman Voivode would order these prayers to be made. This open spot (not the Philopappou Hill as it is today) hard by the city walls was the place to come to celebrate Clean Monday (Shrove Monday) and the beginning of Lent. Crowds would gather to burn the effigy of King Carnival.  It is still a big empty spot but this time a closed archaeological site, seldom visited by anyone at all.


 Today these monuments have been returned as much as possible to their pristine classical form.  This was not too painful for the Greeks because the buildings were either Mosques or Ottoman public buildings after 1456.  As a result, a visitor today has very little feeling for this long era when the hill was dedicated to God.  There is a bronze plaque attached to the Areopagos rock  with Paul’s speech to the Athenians in 51 AD (Acts 17, 22-31) and the Acropolis is still bound on two sides by Christian reminders, - Ag. Paulos Street on the west side and Dionysios Areopagitou on the south, both now lovely pedestrian walkways.   Dionysios the Areopagite, as a member of the council, heard Paul’s speech that day, was converted, and later martyred. Tradition has him as the first Bishop of Athens; he is now one of Athens’ patron saints.

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