On my first visit to Athens I of course went to the Acropolis. How could you not. This ancient monument is so well known that there was the danger of it not living up to a lifetime of expectations. Fortunately I was more impressed than I thought I would be.
After my Athens visit I then went to London, which presented me with the opportunity to see the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. This itinerary was not by design, but it turned out to be a great way to experience the Acropolis and the saga of the Parthenon Marbles.
Athens was the last stop on my European trip, and my next stop was back to Asia. Obviously it would have made more sense to fly from this easterly point in Europe back to Asia. Instead, the cheapest flight option was to go back via London. While the backtrack was annoying, it gave me the chance to see the Parthenon Marbles again.
Having previously lived in London I’ve been to the British Museum numerous times, so I have seen the Parthenon Marbles. But to see them with the Parthenon visit fresh on my mind added a new perspective to my understanding of this story.
My trip to the Acropolis couldn’t have been planned better. While I didn’t intend to visit Athens and London together, I did organise my trip to Athens to avoid the summer heat. I was there during ideal spring weather, and I’ve since read that the Acropolis briefly closed due to heat this summer.
I saved a lot of time on planning as my friend Dave put together a guide on how to visit the Acropolis. Bookmark the guide if you’re going to go, but the TL;DR is to get the multi-site pass first and then go there early.
On my first full day I got the pass at the Olympieion and then visited the other sites at my leisure. The next day I went to the Acropolis.
On the day of the visit I was there about half an hour before the gates opened and there was already a queue for tickets. I had my ticket so I was first through the gate at 8am. I soon got overtaken, but it was a nice feeling to stride through the gates early in the morning with no one around.
It was strange to finally be standing in front of this iconic landmark. It’s so familiar that it seems like I’ve always known it, kind of like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time.
At 8.30 soldiers arrive for a flag-raising ceremony.
They belt out a fairly hoarse version of the national anthem and then are on their way again.
Even by 8.30 there were not that many people around.
This crooked pillar gave me anxiety.
This misalignment wasn’t a case of sloppy workmanship, but more likely it was disturbed during the bombardment of the Parthenon in 1687.
Here was the first mention of the infamous Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who caused the “most severe damage to the monument”. More about him later.
The hill top is mostly flat, and the side walls built around it give the impression from the ground that it’s a giant platform.
The Acropolis has been undergoing restoration for decades, so there are cranes and scaffolding on the site.
I once had a job that involved working with forklifts, but I can’t say it was as interesting as working at the Acropolis.
The Acropolis is on a hill in the middle of Athens which can be seen from most parts of the city. As I mentioned in my previous Athens post, the city has a height limit on buildings so the view is not blocked.
If you have another spare morning in Athens you should also go for a walk up Mount Lycabettus. From here you get the best view of Athens, because it includes a view of the Acropolis.
For the first hour I was surprised with how manageable the crowd was. It wasn’t until about 9am that big crowds with flag-holding tour guides start arriving.
The ticket includes access to the grounds around the Acropolis, which you should do after you have been to the top. It pales in comparison to what you’ve just seen, but it’s still good to see. On the southern slope is The Sanctuary of Dionysos.
Dionysos, the “god of vegetation, wine, inebriation and ecstatic dance, was the most popular deity in ancient Greece.” This was back in the day when gods were more fun. In the devising of Imaginary Sky Wizards since then, something, somewhere went terribly wrong.
I went by the ticket gate around 11am I was glad to have gone early.
Next to the Acropolis citadel is the Acropolis Museum. For some reason this museum is not counted on the multi-site pass. It feels like it should be together, and that was my only quibble with any of the historical sites of Athens. Despite the disjointed ticket it’s only an extra ten euro, and it’s worth every euro cent.
The museum opened in 2009 and its bright and spacious halls house artefacts from the Acropolis site.
The main attraction is the hall holding the remains of the Parthenon frieze. As you enter the hall there is a large glass wall facing the Acropolis, so you can see the temple while viewing the marbles.
The displayed marbles are set in a rectangular structure that replicates that shape of the Parthenon.
The majority of the panels are in London, so many of the panels are copies, and some panels are empty where no record exists of what the missing piece looked like.
I wanted to find out what the museum had to say about the “Elgin Marbles”, so I was shown to a viewing area which shows a 20 minute video on loop.
The video depicts how Elgin came into possession of the marbles by bribing Ottoman officials. “Elgin’s fervent desire to obtain the original sculptures emerges very soon and results in the uncontrollable plundering of the Acropolis.”
Not related to anything, but “Elgin’s Fervent Desire” would make a great name for an alternative rock band.
The film shows that the back half of the marbles were sawn off in order to reduce their weight for shipment.
Block V of the eastern frieze broke in half while it was being prepared, so I made a note to look for this in London.
Another thing not mentioned by the British is that one of the panels went down in a shipwreck en route to London. Miraculously it was able to be salvaged.
The British Museum and the “Elgin Marbles”
With an afternoon to spare before my evening flight I went to the British Museum and headed straight to the Ancient Greek section. The British Museum is the sort of place that you could lose yourself in all day, so I had to avoid distractions for my limited time.
Like the Acropolis Museum, the Marbles in London are housed in a purpose-built room, the Duveen Gallery (Room 18).
Even now the marbles at the British Museum are often referred to as the Elgin Marbles, as if he had a hand in creating them. The wiki page even redirects you from Parthenon Marbles to Elgin Marbles. This is mainly to distinguish the marbles that are in London from the overall collection, but still, you’ve got to have giant balls (marbles?) to have named these ancient works of art after yourself.
There is less space at the British Museum compared to the Acropolis Museum, so the museum gets around this by having separate wider rooms at each end for the east and west pediments. The fragments of the sculptures are displayed as they would appear in relation to each other if they were completely intact.
In Athens I picked out some panels that were a mix of original and copy. The first one I looked for was Block V of the eastern frieze (the one that broke in half).
Here is the copy that is on display in Athens with only a head, which was mostly likely buried in rubble.
And here is original Block V of the eastern frieze in London with the head in the top left corner missing.
There is no mention of why it is split in two, or the misadventures in got in on the way to London.
This is “A centaur attacking a Lapith”, in Athens. The head of the Lapith is the only original piece left.
[A centaur attacking a Lapith – Athens.]
And here is the original panel in London, showing the parts that were copied in Athens.
[A centaur attacking a Lapith – London.]
The British Museum has information about the acquisition of the marbles, which paints a different story to the one presented by Athens. The information on the leaflet can also be found on the British Museum website.
Far from the “uncontrollable plundering” that Athens portrays Elgin’s action, here in London he is seen as a benevolent gentleman, whose actions helped preserve future damage.
Does this look like a man overcome with a fervent desire? There’s even a letter of permission from an Ottoman saying he could take them.
On the British Museum side I totally get why they would decline to entertain any possibility of returning the marbles. This is one of the highest profile possessions gained during the time of the British Empire (up there with the Koh-i-Noor diamond). If they returned the marbles it would set a precedent for other claimants that would see a queue out the door down to Tottenham Court Road. Their unofficial mission statement would be to defend the collection at all costs.
The plight of artefact repatriation has become more well known in recent years. This theme got mainstream attention in Black Panther, where the subject of artefacts from an African nation at the “Museum of Great Britain” was in one of the early scenes [spoiler alert]). It was a fictional building and institution, but we all know who they were referring to.
The most recent statement from the museum says that the removal of sculptures from the Parthenon was a “creative act”.
Before visiting Athens I never had an opinion on this matter. It was a case of “not my circus, not my monkeys” – I’m Australian, so let the British and Greeks sort this out between themselves.
I like that the British Museum is a place where relics dating back 1.8 million years show the history of humanity all under one roof. And it’s free to visit. Every time I go back I keep telling myself that I need to go back more often.
After visiting the Parthenon though I feel that the marbles belong back in Athens, so I’m on team “return the marbles”.