Acropolis / Athens, Greece / April 2014
On wandering the wildflower-covered ruins of the Acropolis, visualizing history and claims to cultural patrimony.
An acropolis refers to any citadel or complex on a high hill (as a product of the Greek words “akro,” meaning “high” or “edge,” and “polis”, meaning “city”). It is hard to hear the word, though, and think of anything other than the proper noun – the Acropolis – and the corresponding ruins that dominate our conception of Athens as well as Greece. So strong is the pull of the past here, so epic the history, that it feels like a pilgrimage for humanity: a place, like the Taj Mahal, or the Great Pyramids, that you simply must pay homage to at some point in your life. While sitting atop the hill, I watched an elderly couple gingerly pick their way among the rocks that littered the ground. They stopped at a vantage point I had recently vacated and gazed upon the pillars of the Parthenon with awed reverence. After a time the man whispered to his female companion, “I’m so glad we finally made it here.” The universal sentiment contained in those few words moved me to tears.
I wandered around the sites all morning, nose in guidebook, just before the midday sun baked everything. Mostly, I perched among wildflowers like Ferdinand the Bull and contemplated how it is that a building so ancient1could still be standing (at least in part). I was delighted at the number of wildflowers growing everywhere in the cracks between stones and adding pops of color to the earth-toned ruins. Months after my trip to Athens, I had the distinct and pleasurable surprise of finding a few wildflowers in the pages of my guidebook, where I had pressed and forgotten them. Like discovering sand in your shoes after a beach vacation, the flowers were a welcome and tangible reminder that I had actually been there.
In the afternoon, at the Acropolis Museum, I learned that a series of marble statues had once stood on top of the hill and that these statues were painted vibrant colors. This was a revelation: we are so accustomed to encountering white marble in museums and assuming this to be the full work of art. I had never imagined I was staring at a mere blank canvas – the near-perfect survival of the stone belies the total dissolution of the paint that once adorned it.
A visit to the Acropolis is thus perfect for those with an active imagination – it is an extended visualization exercise. While surveying the ruins at the base of the hill, I overheard a man asking a guide where a certain site on the map was. She chuckled and told him, “You’re standing on it.” Like a Master Builder, you must reconstruct for yourself a forum from a few rows of stones. And while the Parthenon is undeniably breathtaking, you are left to conjure up what it must have looked like at the height of its glory, fully adorned with sculptures and housing an imposing solid gold and ivory statue of Athena2 that stood some 40 feet tall.
This exercise continues in the Acropolis Museum, where you are faced with a faithful reconstruction of the friezes and metopes3that once lined the Parthenon. The pieces are fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, but numerous sections gape like knocked-out teeth. In these absences, conspicuous plaques read Metropolitan Museum of Art, or British Museum, or Musée du Louvre, or some other major encyclopedic museum that, wherever it may be, is most definitely not in Athens. The Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Sculptures),4for example, are displayed in the British Museum, but now with an added disclaimer to reflect disputes over how they came to be in Britain. As the Acropolis wields such intangible power, it is not surprising that it has become a site of struggle as parties vie for ownership of its symbolic value. This is all the more poignant as the modern city that surrounds the Acropolis – a relic of the once dominant city-state – wrestles with economic depression. The issue of cultural patrimony is an undeniably knotty one which I have not yet managed to untangle. All I know is that as I stood in the beautiful Acropolis Museum in the shadow of the Parthenon, I remember thinking: what a shame we can’t finish this puzzle and see the full picture.
And . . .