"For all the mutilated blocks of art” - The Destruction of Athens' Acropolis in 1687

26 September 1687, During the siege of Turkish-occupied Athens, a shell from a Venetian mortar hit the powder magazine in the Parthenon on the Acropolis. The following explosion almost destroyed the ancient temple of Athena.

“Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue / The shade of fame through regions of virtù / Waste useless thousands on their Phidian freaks, / Misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques; / And make their grand saloons a general mart / For all the mutilated blocks of art” (Lord Byron)

Edward Dodwell’s "View of the Parthenon from the Propylea" from his “Views in Greece”, 1821, a year before the Greeks captured their future capital from The Ottomans for good.

Built from the rather ill-gotten funds that Pericles’ Delian League corporation yielded mid-5th century BCE, Athens’ new acropolis and its centrepiece, the Parthenon, was part of the massive redevelopment the city underwent after the widespread destruction it suffered during the Persian occupation in 480 BCE. The construction was supervised by the famous sculptor and architect Phidias himself who made the new Acropolis with the use all available resources during an astonishingly short building period into a beacon of Western civilisation and an emblem of Hellenic culture. The temple remained the most important shrine of Athena throughout the following 1,000 years of antiquity and a place of pilgrimage for Roman culturati until, in 392 CE, Emperor Theodosius banned all religions except Christianity in the empire and the Parthenon became a church consecrated to the Virgin Mary, stripped of many valuables that were brought to Constantinople over the next couple of hundred years of Byzantine rule until the Ottomans captured Athens in 1456. Then, a minaret was added to the Parthenon and the temple of Athena became a mosque.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends" (1868)

The Parthenon was still largely intact by the end of the 17th century and Turkish as well as Western European travellers stood awed by its marvels, when Athens, once again, was caught in the crossfire of the Venetian struggle with the Ottoman Turks for dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Morean War (1684 – 1699). The Venetian siege of Athens under the command of the later Doge Francesco Morosini began on 21 September 1687. The Turks had evacuated the city and fortified the Acropolis. The small Temple of Athena Nike was torn down to make room for an artillery emplacement and the Parthenon became the powder magazine for the Turkish artillery. Morosini immediately ordered the bombardment of the Turkish positions and five days later, in the evening of September 26th, what was described by him as a lucky shot hit the temple and blew up the magazine. The roof and most of the inner walls with their famous friezes collapsed and many columns on the northern and southern side were blown away. More than 200 of the Turkish defenders died and the falling debris ignited several fires in the city. Nonetheless, the Turkish garrison held for two more days and did not surrender until the news of the relief army from Thebes reached them. They were allowed to withdraw to Smyrna.

Pierre Peytier’s (1793–1864) 1830s rendition of The Ottoman mosque built in the ruins of the Parthenon after 1715

The Parthenon lay in ruins after a history of more than 2,000 years and when the Turks went, they noticed how interested the Westerners were in the old Greek remains that lay strewn across the architectonic cadavers on the hill. Morosini already took quite a few to Venice and when the Turks recaptured Athens six months later, they rigged up a going concern of antiquities with the West. The infamous climax was reached in 1801, when the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, had the remaining sculptures and friezes from the Parthenon removed and shipped back home to England, to be admired as the “Elgin Marbles” in the British Museum to this day.

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