Over the next three days (October 11th-14th), visitors to Athens will enjoy several cultural events centred on the theme of fire.
I decided to join in, by adding my own story of fire. This story took place more than three centuries ago and marked my city forever.
I am talking of course about the destruction of the Parthenon by a Venetian bomb, in 1687.
First of all, let us bring up the historic background, in which our story will unfold. In the 17th century, Greece was not an independent state. It was under occupation, a small part of the vast Ottoman Empire. Another great power of the time, the Republic of Venice, was competing with the Empire for control of the trade routes of the Eastern Mediterranean. The enmity between the two powers lasted no less than three centuries and involved several wars, fought out between 1422 and 1718, all of them on Greek soil, as Greece had the misfortune of being right in the middle of those lucrative trade routes whose control was so bitterly disputed.
By the time of our story, both powers showed signs of decline. The Venetians were feeling the impact of the discovery of new trade routes with the East and the rise of Portugal, while the reputation of the Ottomans as invincible was tarnished after their defeat in the Battle of Vienna.
A Holy League formed with the aim of forcing the Ottomans away from central Europe. Venice, one of its members, was hoping to regain some of its former colonies in Southeastern Europe. The war began in 1684 in Hungary and Greece and lasted until 1699. The Venetian forces were augmented by a large number of mercenaries and a few Greek volunteers, fighting to free themselves from the Ottoman occupation. By the end of August 1687, the Ottomans had lost most of the castles they held in the south and west of Greece. However, the Venetians needed control of a few more key castles furhter north in order to safeguard the conquered lands.
On September 21, 1687, the Venetian fleet arrived in Piraeus under the orders of General Francesco Morosini (Venetian Commander-in-Chief) and Count Otto Wilhelm von Königsmarck (Swedish commander of the mercenary forces). The multilingual army camped around Athens, a town of about 10 thousand inhabitants. The Christian residents had begun negotiations with the Venetians, while some of the Muslim ones had already fled. The rest barricaded themselves in the Acropolis, the town’s fortress.
Centuries of turbulent history had brought about significant changes on the Holy Rock of Ancient Athens. After centuries as a Christian church, the Parthenon was now a mosque. The second largest temple, the Erechtheum, was converted into a residence for the city’s Ottoman administrator and his harem. The Propylaia had become part of the heavy fortifications of the accessible western side of the fort, while the temple of Athena Nike was demolished and its parts incorporated in the fortifications. The space between the ancient monuments and the walls was packed with small houses connected by narrow, winding alleys.
The fearsome Venetian artillery took up posts around the town and began the shelling of the fortifications. To the west, it consisted of several canons on the slopes of Pnyx and an array of mortars on the Hill of Mars. After a few initial volleys, another two mortars were placed to the east of the Acropolis.
Shelling began in earnest after the 23rd of September. Based on the marks left on the monuments, it is estimated that more than two thousand shells fell on the Acropolis, most of which struck the western side of the Parthenon.
The Ottoman Turks thought the Parthenon was the safest place to store the most dangerous thing in the fort, gunpowder. It was a fatal error. On the night of the 26th to the 27th of September 1687, two mortar shells went through the roof and ignited the explosives stored under it. The result was a deafening explosion that shook the entire town. Within seconds, the ancient temple was cut in two. The parts of the entire middle section –roof, walls and columns– were hurled in all directions, killing several. What remained of the gutted temple caught fire, which soon spread to the adjacent houses. The Acropolis burned all through the night and the following day.
Two days later, the Turkish guard surrendered and Venice added Athens to its list of recent possessions. The Republic commended General Morosini and issued medallions depicting the event.
However, the disaster had led to a victory of little strategic value. Within a few months, the Venetian occupation forces decided to abandon the destroyed fort and retreat to their possessions further south. The town’s Christian inhabitants fled with them, fearing reprisals from the returning Muslim conquerors (under whose occupation the town would remain until the early 19th century).
Results for the monuments
After the explosion, the Parthenon’s structural integrity was destroyed forever. The temple, which had withstood two millennia of earthquakes and warfare nearly intact, was now but a shell of its former self. Its entire midsection was gone and the architraves (huge marble blocks above the colonnade, which tied the columns together ensuring the temple’s stability), along with several sculptures, were now just piles of cumbersome debris that had to be moved out of the way.
For as long as the Parthenon was intact, it had been holy ground. Initially a temple of Athena, it had been converted into a Christian church and, later, a mosque, without ever ceasing to be respected as a place of worship. Now, suddenly, the Venetian bombardment had transformed it into nothing less than a pile of ruins of no value to the city’s Muslim rulers. They did build a new, smaller mosque, in the middle of the temple, to replace the old one, but the remains of the old monument were no longer respected as belonging to a holy structure. Rather they had become mere ruins, whose sheer volume was the only thing that prevented their removal. Their vague connection to a past long forgotten ensured some respect from the city’s Christian populace, but it was much weaker than the one they would have commanded as parts of a church. The building now lay open to exploitation and plunder.
The first to have a go were the Venetians, who tried to remove the best preserved statues of the western pediment. Finding the trouble of carrying masts from the galleys to build a scaffold and cranes too much, they failed in their attempt to remove the colossal statues, which fell to the ground and shattered. The Venetians and their motley mercenary army had to console themselves with what they could carry off easily enough, namely the famous lion of Piraeus and a few other assorted fragments found today in museums all over Europe.
Other looters (or art lovers, if you prefer) passed through Athens in the following years, the most infamous of them being Lord Elgin, whose name is an anathema to all Greeks today. The Scottish diplomat hired local crews to hack off the best preserved sculptures still on the Parthenon and carted them off. The fruits of Lord Elgin’s labours are now on display at the British Museum in London, although Greeks would love to have them back.
The story of the Parthenon’s destruction has been retold a thousand times and there are several versions of how the fateful shot managed to blow up the heart of the Acropolis. Most of them are inaccurate, not taking into account what the artillery of the time could and could not do. If you want to know how it all happened, please, read my next post.