Sanctuary of the Marbles
For many years, the possibility of building an adequate museum that would house the Parthenon marbles and all the artifacts of Acropolis and the surrounding slopes remained distant as a dream.
Every plan made by the Greek state, was coming to a dead end. Eventually it took a woman’s touch to put things on track. Melina Mercouri had enjoyed a great career in acting and singing. She was loved by Greeks and foreigners alike, so her choice as a Minister of Culture in 1981 was fitting.
Melina as she was and still is fondly referred, was a truly passionate woman about culture, with political sensitivities which had led her to be an active member of the resistance against the Greek dictatorship which took place in the late sixties. Consequently when she assumed her duties as a Minister, one of her priorities was to undo a great injustice that had been committed to Greeks and the most iconic symbol of their civilization. The snatch of the Parthenon Marbles.
The story is more or less known. Lord Elgin, a British ambassador in Turkey had sent various artists to mold and cast copies from several ancient artifacts in Athens. In the beginning the Turks didn’t give access to Acropolis but eventually by bribing and a controversial permit (firman) from the Ottoman empire—Elgin had several metopes sawed off the external frieze of Parthenon, along with a part of the internal frieze, a caryatid from Erecthion which was replaced by a brick column and several pedimental statues. Leaving permanent damage to the building.Eventually the marble pieces where shipped back to England. where they got sold to the British government and put in the archaeological museum of London.
The diva knew that in order to make a strong case for the repatriation of the artifacts, a new museum had to be erected since the old one was evidently too small and inadequate to host the complete collection.Her plan came pretty close to materialization when an international competition was announced in 1989. Unfortunately it proved to be fruitless after the discovery of an ancient settlement under the exact spot where the museum was planned to be raised. It took the Greek state another 12 years to proclaim another architectural competition— invitation only, this time.
In the meantime the great lady had passed away without having the chance to see this marvel of architectural and archaeological significance growing against the Greek sky and becoming an integral part of the Athenian cityscape.
The competition was won by Bernard Tschumi and his associate Michael Photiades. And it is perhaps the only construction work in the modern history of Greece that everything went like planned and it was finished on time.
In order for the ancient settlement to remain intact, the building had to be supported on columns that were carefully arranged between the ruins so as to cause no damage and allow the site to be visible after the excavations were over. Visibility was achieved by using glass floor for a great part of the ground level outside the building and a big opening just before the main entrance through which people can see the settlement underneath.
The contemporary design of the building which is made from glass, metal and concrete has many admirers but it has also has some adversaries who would prefer a more traditional—probably neoclassical building like the National Archaeological Museum. In my opinion a neoclassical design would inevitably compete with Parthenon itself. But how could it rival the most copied building in the world, on its own terms and not end up looking like a mediocre imitation?
Additionally an advantage that the modern design had to offer— was the ground for radical and ingenious solutions regarding the settlement under the building and the manipulation of natural light which makes this museum truly unique.
The building footprint is shaped like a trapezoid. Only the last level which is devoted to Parthenon is a rectangle and tilted in a way that matches the orientation of the temple. The idea behind it was that the marbles of Parthenon would be seen with the same light as when they were on their original position. It also ads a “twist” to the building’s design.
Inside the huge lobby, multiple counters serve people quickly and make the lines move fast. The museum can accommodate up to ten thousand people in a day.
The main exhibition starts with a long sloped gallery which goes upwards. Inside the wall‒integrated showcases are artifacts and everyday objects from the sanctuaries and settlements that existed on the slopes of Acropolis hill. One of those settlements was visible under my feet through the glass as I walked. The hall is bathed in the light that comes through the skylight which is three levels up.
At the end of the gallery I walked up a few stairs to the first level where is the west pediment of Hekatompedon —the temple that stood before Parthenon on the exact same spot.
On the same level are the archaic section that you see on your way up. And the “5th BC to 5th AD” gallery along with the Athena Nike, Erechtheion and the Propylaea galleries that you meet on your way down.
Walking among the sculptures of the archaic period is like walking inside an art forest. Statues and pedestals are scattered in the huge hall. Just marble on marble, no glass case, no rope or ribbon to keep you at a distance. The thought of touching the cold stone crosses your mind but the awe stops you and leaves you staring at the way that the light embraces the draped bodies from every side.
Finally I rode the escalator without stopping on the 2nd floor (restaurant & offices) and proceeded to the centerpiece—the Parthenon Gallery. Thinking what awaited for me up there and how it could still impress me after what I had already seen.
The Parthenon Marbles
The escalators left me in the atrium that acts as a foyer for the gallery which surrounds it. I made a few steps, looked down and realized that I’m walking in the air. Above me the sunlight is entering through the skylight, and through the transparent floor to the rest of the atrium beneath my feet. The glass floor with the black dots is transparent enough to let me see people walking on the ground floor but not so as to provoke a phobia.
I walked out of the atrium and into the gallery. The first thing I saw was Acropolis and the Parthenon in front of me through the huge glass perimeter which surrounds the whole floor. “Stunning,” I thought and I looked around to see the marbles which surprisingly were above my head and behind me—forming a long strip on the wall.
At this point I’d like to explain some architectural terms used to describe parts of an ancient Greek temple like Parthenon.
Pediment: Is the wide trianglular part at the top of the front and rear section of the building. In its recess there are sculptures narrating a scene. the birth of Athena from Zeus’ head on the east side and on the west is the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronship of the city.
Frieze: Is the decorative sculpted band just below the roof. Parthenon had two of them. A Doric frieze on the outside and an inner frieze which was on the upper part of the cella (the wall enclosed hall behind the first row of columns).
Metopes: They are deep relief sculpted panels used on a Doric frieze. They don’t have a constant pattern because they are separated by triglyphs (decorative patterns consisted of three vertical bars with grooves between them)
The gallery itself emulates Parthenon by having eight steel columns on the short sides and fifteen on the long ones—forty six in total. As many as the outer columns of Parthenon and with the same spacing. The atrium at the center is playing the role of the cella.
Apparently the architects wanted to reproduce an experience that would be as close to the one when the marbles were still on the temple as possible. So the marbles have the same arrangement except for the height which is reduced so that the visitors can admire them better.
The two pediments are outside the columns sitting on a long slab, instead of being above the metopes which are higher between the columns placed in pairs. Big statues depict the birth of Athena from Zeus’ head on the east side. On the west side is the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronship of the city.
The inner frieze is where it should be—on the outside walls of the atrium. But instead of being on the same height as the metopes, it is placed much lower on eye level. Making it possible to be seen from far, in contrast to their placement on Parthenon where the frieze was not visible unless someone was almost under the columns. Its theme is the procession of Great Panathenaia—a festival that took place every four years. Numerous horses, chariots and people are on the 160m exhibit which could have a museum on its own.
From the hundred and fifteen blocks that originally consisted the frieze, today ninety four survive. Most of them are in the British Museum and that’s why most of the frieze has a chalky white color and not the aged brown of the original.
The metopes are depicting epic battles. The Trojan War on the North, the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs on the south, Olympian gods versus the giants on the east and humans against amazons on the west. Unfortunately many were destroyed during the Ottoman‒Venetian wars. Of the ninety two metopes sculpted, thirty nine are in Athens and fifteen in the British Museum.
It is a majestic gallery and no matter how many times I have been there, I always discover something new. Even the same exhibit looks different in the morning than in the afternoon or even in the night because the light entering through the panoramic windows changes constantly. It is a shame that not all the artifacts are under the same roof.
I sat for a bit on the marble bench that runs the perimeter of the gallery and watched people’s amazement as they were looking around. Some were whispering but most of them were silent, like they were in the actual temple.
Eventually it was time for me to leave. I went downstairs on the 1st level where the Propylaea, Athena Nike and Erechtheion galleries are. The last one stands out because of the balcony where the Caryatids are standing. The daughters of Karyai—six of them, are the female formed columns that used to support the porch of Erechtheion. They were replaced with copies to be protected and now they are in the museum except for one of their sister who is in the British Museum. Their craftsmanship is impeccable.
And last but not least I went through the “5th century AD to 5th century BC” section with the busts of famous citizens and inscriptions.
I didn’t stay for a coffee at the beautiful terrace that time, but I had already reserved a dinner table for Friday night when the museum’s restaurant stays open till midnight. It was worth it. Excellent cuisine with Acropolis view and live classic or jazz music.
From all the museums I have ever been, I don’t think that any has made a deeper impression than the Acropolis museum did. It’s a unique building that succeeds to highlight the exhibits in an astounding way. I’m sure Melina would have found it wonderful as well.