The almost 2,500-year-old Parthenon inspires and bewitches. Who could remain unaffected by its pediments and columns, its reverential view over the city of Athens and its magnificently rich heritage that consists of stony resistance in the face of unending challenges? But perhaps there is still more to learn about the Parthenon in the entrails of history. Here are ten facts (plus one) about the imposing monument of Parthenon that we hope will interest and inspire you.
Kicking their steeds’ flanks with the red apples
Of their heels, right where the bulging vein
Forks and ramifies, and the sweat dripples
In rivulets down to the hooves from the belly,
Driving them with palms slapped on the withers
Where the hair is parted so the mane
Falls on either side like swan feathers,
And crowned themselves with hats or wreaths, they urge
Them on— Heat splits the earth— The cicada's throb
In the olives heralds airy victory—
Here comes the procession, the ceremonial robe;
And then with a fair and following breeze, they surge
Past, abounding wave of horses, dancing—
Galloping, cantering or prancing . . .
Frieze, by Angelos Sikelianos
Parthenon Marbles displayed in the British Museum - credits: bram_souffreau/flickr.com
Created to adorn the upper part of the Parthenon temple, the frieze described in the above poem by Angelos Sikelianos, one of Greece’s greatest poets, is a beautiful piece of artwork. Some 80% of the original frieze, sculpted between 443 – 438 BC, remains intact, but much of it resides outside of Greece. This forms a large part of the famous Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, taken from Athens by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1801.
The Parthenon - credits: Anastasios71/Shutterstock.com
The name Parthenon (or Parthenonas in Modern Greek) translates to ‘an unmarried women’s apartments’, and relates therefore to the name of the goddess to whom the temple is dedicated, Athena Parthenos. 'Parthenos' in Greek means virgin, and the name 'Parthenon' used to describe specifically the inner chamber of the temple, a private space for the virgin Athena, while later, the whole temple became known as the Parthenon. If you want to discover more about the origins of the Parthenon, join one of our Athens tours, such as the Mythology Walking Tour of Athens.
Aerial view of the Acropolis - credits: Aerial motion/Shutterstock.com
The Parthenon as we know it now replaced an earlier temple, also dedicated to goddess Athena, which was built in the 6th century BC. It was destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480 BC by the army of Xerxes as his troops ravaged the city of Athens. After the defeat and expulsion of the Persians following the Battles of Salamis and Plataea, a new temple for Athena was built on the Acropolis. This new stone monument was finished in 432 BC under the guidance of the Athenian statesman Pericles.
Parthenon & the Theotokos - credits: www.johnsanidopoulos.com
The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church at the end of the 6th century AD, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, thus becoming the Church of the Theotokos. At that point, the orientation of the building was changed to the east, as per the custom in the Eastern Church, with the main entrance now facing west. The altar and iconostasis were installed at the eastern end, with icons painted on the walls and inscriptions added to the columns. The Church of the Theotokos/Parthenon became the fourth most important place of pilgrimage in the Eastern Roman Empire. During the period of the Latin Occupation (1204-1261) and beyond – meaning the period of occupation of former Byzantine territories by the forces of the Fourth Crusade – the Parthenon was turned into a Roman Catholic church. Unveil even more unknown details regarding the Acropolis by coming along with us on our Acropolis Tour!
The Parthenon has led a fascinating religious life. In 1458, after two years of besieging a Florentine army defending the Acropolis, Ottoman forces triumphed over Athens and converted the Parthenon into a mosque. A minaret and minbar were installed, the altar and the iconostasis were taken down, while the paintings of Christian saints and other imagery decorating the walls was painted over.
Mosque in the Parthenon - credits: www.triposo.com
The greatest catastrophe to ever befall the Parthenon, however, came in 1687. A besieging Venetian force fired a mortar towards the temple – now used as a gunpowder magazine by the Ottomans – and the whole place went up in a blaze of smoke and fire. A significant portion of the building was destroyed. The roof ceased to exist, columns collapsed, and 60% of the sculptures attached to the frieze fell crashing to the ground. A year later, when the Ottomans recaptured the Acropolis from the Venetians, a smaller mosque was built within the heavily damaged shell of the Parthenon.
The Acropolis museum - credits: serkan senturk/Shutterstock.com
Numerous fascinating depictions of Greek mythological figures are cast on the metopes of the Parthenon. A metope is a rectangular element found between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze, and the Parthenon has – or had – 92. You can find out all about metopes and triglyphs by going on our Acropolis and Acropolis Museum Tour. In the Acropolis Museum, you’ll also find out about things like the legendary battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, inscribed on the architecture of the Parthenon. The Centaurs had been invited to the wedding of the Lapith Pirithous, but got over-excited after drinking a bit too much wine. The Centaur Eurytion attacked the bride and all hell broke loose. Later on, when Greek mythology began to morph into philosophy, the battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths would stand as a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil.
Sunset in the Acropolis - credits: LMspence/Shutterstock.com
The Parthenon is considered the high point of the Doric ancient Greek architecture. It is also the most significant temple to combine both Ionic and Doric forms. The columns, for example, are Doric, while the continuous frieze running around the cella and across the lintels of the inner columns is Ionic. The Doric form is more simple, with the Ionic style being more elaborate. Doric architecture, synonymous with mainland Greece, represents masculinity, with large, plain, solid forms. The Ionic style, in contrast, is more closely associated with the Greek islands and is more delicate in nature, while its femininity is manifested in its slender, intricate columns.
Statue of Athena in her former glory - credits: Sadia Brimm/prezi.com
The Parthenon has served mainly as a temple over the course of its lifetime but was more versatile than many might imagine. It doubled up, in many ways, as an art gallery and even as a treasury. The most precious commodity to be found inside the building was the colossal statue of Athena, made partly out of the melted gold of coins. This gold weighed just over a tonne and was considered by Pericles – who commissioned the building of the Parthenon – as a vital reserve in case of emergency. Indeed, in 296 BC the tyrant Lachares removed the gold from the statue of Athena to pay for his army. All that remained of the goddess of wisdom, courage, and warfare was her ivory and wood embellishments.
Parthenon Frieze, the only one in situ - credits: http://www.travellinghistorian.com
Inscribed into the frieze running above the Doric pillars is a depiction of the Battle of Marathon – and a homage to the 192 Greek soldiers who died repelling the Persian attack there, or at least that's what some historians believe. Unfortunately, the meaning and symbolism of the figures on the frieze are not unambiguous, however, the cavalrymen, chariot passengers, grooms, and marshals carved out of the stone do happen to equal the number of dead from Marathon though, as related by the great Greek historian Herodotus.
Finally, the marbles for the Parthenon came from Mount Pentelicus, some 16 kilometers away from the archaeological site. The ancient quarry of Mount Pentelicus is today protected by law and used for the restoration work being done to the Parthenon, along with other ancient structures on the Acropolis.
As you have probably already figured out, the Parthenon hides more than meets the eye, which makes it the number one destination for your trip to Athens. Embark on an adventure through time, history, mythology, take our advice by reading our Athens travel guide, and you'll be rewarded with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of memories!