Sunday, December 24, 2006

3 May 56

Dear Folks

Yesterday I made my pilgrimage to Athens. Aside from being deceptively expensive, it was also very enjoyable. Went through 300 drachmas faster than Grant went through Richmond.

The Acropolis lived up to all my expectations—I was awed by the Parthenon. Now follows a short history of the Acropolis:

The earliest town was built on top of the Acropolis—an excellent location; a sheer drop of about two hundred feet on three sides, & an almost uninterrupted view of the entire countryside.
Soon, Nature being what it is, the population grew & spilled out onto the plains around the Acropolis. When the city beneath the Acropolis became larger than the one on top, the people decided to dedicate the city to one of the gods. Athena & Poseidon both wanted it, & it was decided to give the city to whichever god presented the greater gift to the people. Poseidon, god of the sea, struck a rock with his trident & brought forth either a spring of salt water, or the horse (accounts vary—the latter is more accepted. Besides, I can’t see what earthly good a spring of salt water could do anyone). Athena then produced the olive tree. The people chose the olive tree as the better gift, & the city was named Athens.

Atop the Acropolis was then constructed the magnificent Parthenon, in honor of Athena.
Parthenon means "Temple of the Virgin," which Athena supposedly was. It is one of the seven wonders of the world, & the most perfect building in the world. The name of the architect escapes me, unfortunately—Epidus or Epirus or something like that. For one thing, there is not a straight line on the building—the base of the temple is 20" higher in the center than at either end—this is not noticeable, but only adds to the light, graceful look of the building. He also set the style for all temples constructed thereafter; if a temple has six columns on either end, it must have twice that number plus one on either side—the Parthenon has eight on each facet & therefore 17 on each side. The temple faces the east (actually, since it is exactly the same on both ends, it faces east & west). On the west facet, the frieze—that part of the temple between the tops of the columns & the roof—depicted in bas-relief the contest between Athena & Poseidon. Thanks to an English gentleman named Lord Elgin, there is almost none of the original frieze left—he had it all removed & carted back to Britain, where it was placed in the British Museum & called "The Elgin Marbles."

Opening into the inner temple from the west facet was a huge stone door, which could be swung closed in emergencies. There are still deep ruts in the floor from the swinging of the door. Inside the temple, which is the size of a football field—no, about half that—the stones remaining are beautifully smooth. To the right, just after entering through the west door, was a small room wherein were kept all the treasures of the city.

The most remarkable thing about the entire structure is that it did not decay with the passage of time. With the coming of Christianity, the Parthenon became the Church of St. Sophia—some of the murals can still be made out on the walls. Greece, & Athens, fell into Turkish hands sometime around the 10th or 12th century, & was used by them as a mosque. They whitewashed the walls & tried to destroy all vestiges of the Christian works. Through all this the Parthenon stood, unchanged.

And then came the Greek war of Independence, in 1646. The Turks used the Acropolis as a fortress, & the Parthenon as an ammunition dump. A stray cannonball entered the temple through the columns of the north side & set the munitions afire. The Parthenon, which had stood for 2,000 years, was almost completely destroyed.

If only you could see the magnificence of it, even in ruins, & imagine it to be whole & complete….
Inside the temple, facing to the east & the main entrance, stood the fabulous statute of Athena.
The statue, who was seated, was 40 feet high; its dress of solid gold, & its arms & face of ivory!
Being so huge, it was hollow, & a sort of ramrod ran through the center as a support—it is the only spot in the building floor which is not of marble—the hole for the support is still there. The goddess remained, facing the east, until the Romans came along.

Rome & Romans had a terrific case of kleptomania—they never borrowed, they took. Athena, being one of the many gods the Romans took as their own, became Minerva, & her statue in the Parthenon, being gold & ivory, was removed (for sentimental purposes, of course). The ship carrying the statue to Rome was sunk in a storm, & no one has ever found any trace of it.

The frieze of the east facet, under the triangle of the roof showed Athena’s birth. One day Zeus had a splitting headache & asked Hephaestus (Vulcan) to hit him in the head with a thunderbolt. This the obliging Hephaestus did, & from Zeus’ head, fully grown & clad in battle dress, came Athena.

Alexander the Great, conqueror of Asia Minor, gave to the Parthenon large shells of solid gold—these were placed in the frieze (must have been very large, for they had to make holes to support them, which are still visible). Everything went along fine until our friends the Romans stormed into the picture. At the time, they had an emperor who fancied himself a poet of great talent. He had Alexander’s shells removed & covered the frieze with his own poems, in huge gold letters.

When Christianity came into its own & the Parthenon became a church, the poems were hastily removed; Nero had not been ardently admired by the Christians.

People today wonder why the steps surrounding the Parthenon are so high off the ground. The answer is very simple—nobody ever used them—all the festivals & great pilgrimages to the Parthenon took place on the outside; nobody went in.

The picture enclosed of Lloyd & I will give you some idea of what I’ve been talking about. This is the west facet.

Oh, yes—one more thing—the roof was of transparent marble, to allow light to enter! And it was built 2,500 years ago..

And so we have had out guided tour of the Acropolis for today. More (with revisions & corrections) Saturday, when I get back from the tour.

Well, mail closes out at 0500, so I’d best close.



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