22 March 2010

1668: The Parthenon as Monster Manual

George Wheler's Athens, 1676 (via Surprised by Time)

How did people experience archaeological sites in the age before archaeology? We like to think that sites we know well have 'obvious' meanings, but it's not always so. Take the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi, who found first himself at Athens - then barely a village - in the hot summer of 1668.
When Evliya saw the Parthenon, he saw a mosque with a minaret, surrounded by 46 columns, and for most of the way around, the space between the columns and the walls was open to the sky, not lidded over. He saw sculptured scenes on the metopes between the tops of the columns, and more scenes around the top of the cella. Our interpretations are dominated by archaeologists, but Evliya was under no such handicap. The sculptures he saw contained fairies, angels, dragons, elephants, rhinoceri, giraffes, scorpions, crocodiles, thousands of mice, cats, ghouls, cherubs, and many many other kinds of creatures from this world and others in processions: one of the saved in Paradise, the other of those petrified in Hell.
This reconstruction of his experience, from Diana Gilliland Wright's wonderful blog on Greece in the 15th century, exposes how modern is our understanding of the mysterious place-time called 'Classical Greece'.

More fantastic than it looks.

I love this vision of the Parthenon as a fantastic bestiary, a Monster Manual if you will. You could tell stories about it without being an 'expert' or a trained tour guide, and find ways of fitting the building organically into your life experience. To me, it's a little sad that the Parthenon - and other monuments like it - have become places whose meaning is controlled by academic research. People make culture by telling each other stories about places. When you take away their right to tell stories - take away the element of fantasy - you strip away their ability to engage with the environment. If you take away the fantasy, it becomes really boring to visit archaeological sites.

The Parthenon metopes, as seen by Evliya.

There's a lot of talk in archaeology about "multivocality", or including non-experts in storytelling about the past. Of course, almost no one actually does it.

The rest of Evliya's stories about the Parthenon and Athens are fascinating. He reports that Athens was founded by Solomon, and describes the ceiling built for the Byzantine cathedral of the early middle ages:
The ceiling Evliya saw was made of cypress, gilded and painted. This was not the lid of marble coffers constructedby Iktinos and Kallikrates. At some time in the unwritten history of Athens between about 250 and 550 -- Evliya said it was on the night of the birth of Mohammed -- there was a catastrophic fire in the cella. The gold and ivory Athena was consumed, and the marble lid came crashing down, bringing down most of the interior structure with the double levels of columns... The Christians took over a shell, not Pericles' Parthenon.
In a sense, there was no such thing as the Parthenon until the 17th or 18th century: it was the church of the Virgin of Athens, then the Friday Mosque after the Ottomans took over the city. The concept of the "Parthenon" had no relationship to the experience of the users of the building, and had to be constructed over centuries. With, needless to say, mixed results.

Read the rest of the post over at Surprised by Time, it's great. It gives you a real sense of the history we lost in the mad rush to purge modern Greece of its Byzantine and Ottoman heritage.


  1. Can someone write a monster manual for these sites? Totally fantastical? Would be so fun.... Post-Post-Doc, ok, Dan?

  2. I am not so sure the school of bestowed meaning-ology is quite dead.

    Ever listen to Coast to Coast with George Noory or the 700 Club with Pat-by-God-Robertson? Ancient iconography has been waiting millennia for us to develop the sophistication to impose technofied Judeo-Christian-New Age interpretations on them.

    I still reminisce about an adolescence spent trembling over the atom bombs and supercomputers as foretold in the Book of Revelations, and the cognitive dissonance I felt when I learned that what the Book of Revelations was really talking about was gun control and universal healthcare.

  3. As someone with a fierce affection for personal re-interpretations/fan versions of just about anything, I love the idea of the explain-it-yourself Parthenon (or whatevs). But as someone who always wants to know the answers at the back of the math book, I can't stand the idea of not doing the historical research (while recognizing the idea that, no matter how objective it sets out to be, historical research is just as much of a story as any other).

    What I mean is: I love me some bonkers Marco Polo stories about eagles and meat producing diamonds, but I also want to know the (admittedly much more boring but also important) actual facts about diamond production. How do you square a desire to know The Answer, by some kind of scientific process, with the desire to keep things open and undetermined enough to allow people to tell their own stories?