Alas, Alack Helas, And Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Once upon a time, suspicious of the tales of the Parthenon’s perfections, all those trompe d’oeil engineering feats about lines converging in outer space to form perfect pyramids, columns bulging or not bulging to create the illusion of straight lines, the marble blocks fitted so precisely together that you couldn’t pry a dime between them, I tried an experiment of my own. I had read that the steps leading up to the western porch were ever so delicately canted, like a road that allows rainwater to run off into the gutters on either side. Therefore, my source said, if you knelt on the steps and put your eye at the level of the marble, you would not be able to see the far side because of the curving surface. Yet, standing at the foot of the staircase, the lines would appear perfectly straight and level. This is engineering on a scale the human eye cannot fathom but the Greek inventor can. Must have had a precise slide rule.

The report was true: I could not see the far end and neither could my camera. Now that I have a better camera and so many megapixels to spare, I was eager to try the experiment a second time. But, alas, the restoration of the site has reached such a pitch that the steps are gone, temporarily removed to make room for the machinery of restoration. The porch is roped off so that you won’t be tempted to climb up and play on the railroad tracks–railroad tracks!–along which trundles the immense crane with its tons upon tons of counterweights to counterbalance the tons of stone soon to be lifted up to the western pediment to reconstitute the triangular shape of the roofline.

During my former visit, the restoration work focused on the long north side. Original stones scattered along the Acropolis were numbered, repaired, and lined up for elevation. Notable gaps were being filled with freshly quarried stone, much whiter in hue. The crane was, as I recall, somewhat less ponderous and elephantine. I don’t think it ran on rails. Now the surrounds of the temple are a quarry’s warehouse. New stones, cut and numbered, look factory made. The happy chaos of strewn stone has been replaced by a fastidious orderliness. Once, one admired the creativity of the archeologists who, as it were, turned over every stone, measured it, noted its color and hue, computerized its shape and volume, catalogued the result so that a future find might turn up its twin, its mate, its brother-fragment. Now, there’s a kind of Costco symmetry to the rows of pre-fabbed stone. And the railroad tracks know just where to go next.

You’ll tell me I was cranky because it was just hot as the blazes, and I’ll demur, further noting that in its current state of disarray the Parthenon is substantially ugly. Is there a greater crime in the architectural world? You may judge for yourself in the pictures I’ve attached.

So I paid my respects for some hours and then wandered down the long hill past the Areopagus where Orestes himself was tried for the murder of his mother. Here, Apollo defended and Athena judged the case. Throughout the testimony, the twelve good citizens (who voted six to six) could have looked down on what, in later years, would have been the Agora and the wonderful temple to Hephaestus.  Or they could have looked over their shoulders and dreamed of a future time when the 40 foot ivory and gold statue of their presiding judge would stand in a grand temple that would, in its own full time, become a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, a target for the Venetian navy, an icon for modern democracies, and perhaps the most recognizable building in the history of the world. No wonder that poor jury couldn’t reach a decision and had to let Athena decide for herself. Lucky for Orestes and for his pursuing Furies who, by the way, lived in a cave beneath that very hill. And you can add further to that demonic spirituality: Paul preached on the Areopagus and began rescuing Athenians from their unwitting barbaric ways.

Right: I was wandering down the hill. I meant to visit the Agora which, once, was free but now comes with a ticket fee. The sign says it closes at eight but economic times being what they are, it was sealed up before I arrived at 2:45. So off I went through the very pleasant restaurant, hotel, and park area that rises to the Hill of the Nymphs. The hill seems very distant when you observe it from the Acropolis, but I really did walk that far—with a Latte Freddo along  the way. This hill is residential where it is not parkland. The park houses the old Assembly area where Demosthenes and the other great orators held forth in the years before the Parthenon was built. An ancient water system and the western fortification wall, all nestled in a semi-forest of olive and fir trees, all perfumed by a sweet forest breeze, makes Nymphs’ Hill a welcome compensation for the poor sullied holy rock. Maybe all will be well in 50 years.

(Apologies: it seems uploading photographs is not possible just now. Just when you wanted proof of the photographic pudding. Sorry, it will come when it can.)

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