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Parthenon, Athens

The Parthenon dominates the ancient Acropolis. Photo © Strychnine. View all images in our Parthenon Photo Gallery.
The timeless Parthenon, with moonrise. Photo © Martin Gray.
The Parthenon illuminated at night. Photo © Mahmood Al-Yousif.
The Parthenon's graceful columns at sunset.
West side of the Parthenon. Photo © Viton Vitanis.
West metopes of the Parthenon. Photo © Thermos.
Frieze of Zeus and Hera that once decorated the east pediment of the Parthenon; it is now in the British Museum, London.
Detail of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles: a jug for liquid offerings.
Columns and pediment of the Parthenon. Photo © Anna Bialkowska.
The Parthenon by night. Photo © Robert Wallace.

The Parthenon (Greek: Παρθενων) in Athens is the most famous surviving building of Ancient Greece and one of the most famous buildings in the world.

The Parthenon has stood atop the Acropolis of Athens for nearly 2,500 years and was built to give thanks to Athena, the city's patron goddess, for the salvation of Athens and Greece in the Persian Wars. The building was officially called the Temple of Athena the Virgin; "Parthenon" comes from the Greek word parthenos, "virgin."

Throughout its long life, the Parthenon has functioned most importantly as a Greek temple, but has also been a treasury, a fortress, a church, and a mosque. Today, it is one of the most recognizable icons and popular tourist attractions in the world.

History

Replacing an older temple destroyed by the Persians, the Parthenon was constructed at the initiative of Pericles, the leading Athenian politician of the 5th century BC. It was built under the general supervision of the sculptor Phidias, who also had charge of the sculptural decoration. The architects were Iktinos and Kallikrates. The purpose of the building was to house a 40-foot-high statue of Athena Parthenos sculpted by Pheidias.

Construction began in 447 BC and the building was substantially completed by 438 BC, but work on the decorations continued until at least 433 BC. Some of the financial accounts for the Parthenon survive, and show that the largest single expense was transporting the stone from Mount Pentelicus, about 16km from Athens.

In 454 BC, the Delian League's treasury was moved from the Panhellenic sanctuary at Delos to the Acropolis. The Parthenon served as the most important templeof ancient Greek religion for nearly a thousand years.

The temple was still intact in the 4th century AD, but by that time Athens was no more than a provincial city of the Roman Empire with a glorious past. Sometime in the 5th century the great statue of Athena was looted by one of the Emperors, and taken to Constantinople, where it was later destroyed, possibly during the sack of the city during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Shortly after this the Parthenon was converted to a Christian church dedicated to the Theotokos (Virgin Mary). The conversion of the temple to a church involved removing the internal columns and some of the walls of the cella, and the creation of an apse at the eastern end. This inevitably led to the removal and dispersal of some of the sculptures. Those that depicted pagan gods were probably removed deliberately, and may have been destroyed.

In 1456 Athens fell to the Ottomans, and the Parthenon was converted again, into a mosque. Contrary to subsequent mythology, the Ottomans were generally respectful of ancient monuments in their territories, and did not wilfully destroy the antiquities of Athens, though they had no actual program to protect them. In times of war they were willing to demolish them to provide materials for walls and fortifications. A minaret was added to the Parthenon, but otherwise it was not damaged further. European visitors in the 17th century testified that the building was largely intact.

In 1687 the Parthenon suffered its greatest blow when the Venetians attacked Athens, and the Ottomans fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a powder magazine. On September 26 a Venetian shell exploded the magazine and the building was partly destroyed. The internal structures were demolished, whatever was left of the roof collapsed, and some of the pillars, particularly on the southern side, were decapitated. The sculptures suffered heavily. Many fell to the ground and their pieces were later made souvenirs. After this the building fell into disuse.

By the late 18th century many more Europeans were visiting Athens, and the picturesque ruins of the Parthenon were much drawn and painted, helping to arouse sympathy in Britain and France for Greek independence. In 1801 the British ambassador at Constantinople, the Earl of Elgin, obtained a permit from the Sultan to make casts and drawings of the antiquities on the Acropolis, to demolish recent buildings if this was necessary to view the antiquities, and to remove sculptures from them. He took this as permission to collect all the sculptures he could find. Some he prised from the building itself, others he collected from the ground, still others he bought from local people.

Today these sculptures are in the British Museum, where they are known as the Elgin Marbles. Other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre in Paris and in Copenhagen. Most of the remainder are in the Acropolis Museum which stands a few meters southeast of the Parthenon. A few can still be seen on the building itself. The Greek government has been campaigning for many years, so far unsuccessfully, for the British Museum sculptures (which it calls the Parthenon Marbles) to be returned to Greece.

When independent Greece gained control of Athens in 1832, the minaret was removed from the Parthenon and all the medieval and modern buildings on the Acropolis removed. The area became a historical precinct controlled by the Greek government. Today, the Parthenon attracts millions of tourists every year, who troop up the path at the western end of the Acropolis, through the restored Propylaea, and up the Panathenaic Way to the Parthenon, which is surrounded by a low fence to prevent damage.

What to See

Although the nearby Temple of Hephaestus is the most complete surviving example of a Doric order temple, the Parthenon, in its day, was regarded as the finest. The temple, wrote John Julius Norwich, "enjoys the reputation of being the most perfect Doric temple ever built. Even in antiquity, its architectural refinements were legendary, especially the subtle correspondence between the curvature of the stylobate, the taper of the naos walls and the entasis of the columns."

The stylobate is the platform on which the columns stand. It curves upwards slightly for optical reasons. Entasis refers to the slight swelling of the columns as they rise, to counter the optical effect of looking up the temple. The effect of these subtle curves is to make the temple look even more symmetrical than it actually is.

Measured at the top step, the dimensions of the base of the Parthenon are 30.9 metres by 69.5 metres. The cella was 29.8 metres long by 19.2 metres wide, with internal Doric colonnades in two tiers, structurally necessary to support the roof. On the exterior, the Doric columns measure 1.9 metres in diameter and are 10.4 metres high. The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter. The stylobate has an upward curvature towards its centre of 60 millimetres on the east and west ends, and of 110 millimetres on the sides.

The Parthenon was elaborately decorated with marble sculptures both internally and externally. These survive only in part, but there are good descriptions of most of those parts that have been lost. On the eastern pediment (the triangular area above the columns on the "front" and "back" of the temple) was a depiction of the birth of Athena.


The western pediment showed Athena's battle with Poseidon for possession of the land of Attica. Friezes ran along all four sides of the temple, above the lines of columns. These showed, on the southern side the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, on the east the battle of the gods and the giants, and on the west the battle of the Greeks and the Amazons. It is not known what was depicted on the northern side: it may have been scenes from the Trojan War.

Internally, the cella was lined on three sides with a frieze showing the great procession of the Panathenaia, the main annual festival honouring Athena. On the fourth, eastern side was a frieze showing all the gods of the Greek pantheon.

Although the pure white marble of surviving Ancient Greek temples appeals to the modern aesthetic, the Parthenon, like all ancient buildings, was at least partly painted, though scholars dispute the extent and the colour scheme. It is known that the internal ceilings were painted a deep blue, and that the statuary groups on the pediments were painted in bright colours. Some scholars believe that the upper parts of the Parthenon were painted bright red and blue, so that the sculptures would stand out in greater relief when seen from below.

Festivals and Events

The Acropolis Sound and Light show is held in English every night from April to October. Tickets from Athens Festival Box Office.

Quick Facts on the Parthenon

Site Information
Names:Parthenon; Parthenon, Athens; Temple of Athena Parthenos
City:Athens
Country:Greece
Categories:Temples
Faiths:Ancient Greek
Styles:Doric
Dates:447-433 BCE
Status:ruins
Visitor and Contact Information
Location:Athens, Greece
Coordinates:37.971504° N, 23.726671° E  (view on Google Maps)
Lodging:View hotels near this location
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

Map of the Parthenon

Below is a location map and aerial view of the Parthenon. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.

References

  1. "Parthenon" at Wikipedia - text used under GFDL
  2. The Acropolis of Athens - Hellenic Ministry of Culture (official site)
  3. Acropolis, Athens - UNESCO World Heritage
  4. The Parthenon - Great Buildings
  5. The Parthenon - Reed College Humanities 110
  6. The Acropolis - Frommer's Attraction Review
  7. Acropolis - Fodor's Online Travel Guide
  8. Acropolis, Greece - National Geographic Traveler
  9. The Acropolis - Greece 101
  10. Akrópoli - AAA Europe Travel Book
  11. The Elgin Marbles: Parthenon Frieze - Hammerwood Park
  12. A summer day on the ancient Acropolis - Canoe Travel

More Information

Article Info

Title:Parthenon, Athens
Author:Holly Hayes
Last updated:07/30/2010
Permalink:www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/athens-parthenon/greece/athens-parthenon
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