Acropolis Now

The world's most famous ruin has been getting a facelift

It has cast its shadow over a city for 25 centuries. It has been a monument of faith — pagan, Christian and Muslim — and to civilisation. It has witnessed the birth of democracy, the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of the Nazis. Plato wrote about it, Turner painted it and more than two million people visit it every year. But, since 1975, the Acropolis has been behind a veil of scaffolding. In an ambitious restoration project (the biggest in modern history), which is now nearing completion, the world’s most famous ruin has been getting a facelift.

The overhaul is far from merely cosmetic. An earlier restoration misguidedly used iron clamps to strengthen the marble on the edifices. These are rusting at a rate of knots and being replaced with titanium rods, all of which are removable, in case future generations want to fiddle further. Chunks of broken marble are being shored up with new stone and columns rebuilt. It is also a cataloguing project: every stone has been noted and listed.

Work on the Temple of Athena Nike was completed in 2010, while the Propylaea at the entrance now has a magnificent marble roof complete with gold and blue inserts. But the Parthenon itself remains under a swathe of green industrial netting and the sound of building work reverberates around Athens. The classic joke, on ascending the summit, is to ask why this ancient monument still isn’t finished.

The project has not been without controversy, not least because it has now taken more than a quarter of a century, and cost the Greek government and the EU many millions of pounds. Some see the entire endeavour as a continuation of Greece’s aggressive attempts to have the Parthenon marbles returned by the British Museum. Certainly, the 2009 Acropolis Museum is as much a shrine to determination as to classical antiquity: its eerily empty top floor was designed specifically to house the Elgin marbles. It currently has a reproduction and the odd original donated from such pro-Greece countries as Germany. Critics also claim that the Greek obsession with reliving past glory is what dragged them into their current economic mess in the first place.

But my heart cannot help but go out to the restoration. This past summer we saw the wanton destruction of an internationally significant piece of cultural heritage at Palmyra (see page 28). In the light of this atrocity, any attempt to preserve the ancient masterpieces is both bold and noble. May the shadow of the Acropolis fall on Athens for many millennia to come.

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