Friday, September 27, 2013

Construction and Destruction: The Stones of the Acropolis

The Erechtheion is an Ionic building, with its porches going in different directions.
It commemorates the founding of Athens, with the contest between Athena and Poseidon
Glistening white marbles which is seem to grow out of the hill form the picture on my mind of the Athens' Acropolis, from what I've seen in textbooks.  The city's highest hill has been a wonder to the world for 2500 years, and a symbol of Greek civilization since ancient times.

One climbs the hill to get to the Propylaia, monumental gateway to the Acropolis.
 A wide opening in the center allowed horse-drawn chariots
to enter.  This view is from inside the hill.
Although the Parthenon is
Doric, this column on the
ground was Ionic

Yet, at any given time, so much on the Acropolis is in the process of restoration, covered up by scaffolds.  I was there on the first day of June, which, unusually, was not a sunny day.

A view of the Acropolis ruins leads to another hill, capped
Athens Tower
I was surprised to see that there are as many stones on the ground as there are against the skies.  It appears that the archaeologists have carefully arranged, catalogued and labelled the stones with numbers to fit them into a puzzle which could locate and determine their placement in the past.   I must confess to be a lover of ruins who finds them very dramatic and sees great beauty in their fallen state.  Close-up views reveal the artfulness that goes into creating fine decorative designs.

Of course, the Parthenon is the best known, most beautiful and most perfectly proportioned of all Greek temples.  Most of the building's west end was hidden from view, while I was there.  From a few angles it's possible to see a good deal of its former glory.
East end of the Parthenon from inside of the Acropolis

The pediment on the left side of the east end, the heads of
 horses pulling the chariot of the sun and a reclining god
are visible.  These plaster casts replace the Elgin marbles. 
Unfortunately, the center of the Parthenon blew up and was lost for good in 1685, when the Ottoman Turks were using it as an arsenal and a Venetian cannon hit it.  In 1804, Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, took most of its marble architectural sculpture and brought it to his home in Scotland.  When he financial problems, he sold these originals, called the Elgin Marbles, to the British Museum, where they remain today.  In some accounts, the marbles were being damaged and at risk of more damage under the Ottoman rule of the time.

However, there are plaster casts on the building, including sculpted horses and a reclining god (Dionysos or Heracles) on left side of the east pediment.  These  gives a great impression of how the the sculptures fit in under the roof.  Replicas of the rest of the sculpture are on display at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, completed in 2009.  The museum's display reveals fairly well how the large sculptural program related to the architecture. 
Above a triglyph is a horse's head on 
the opposite side of the pediment

I was surprised to find out that a few of the
original square relief sculptures, called metopes, are actually in the Acropolis Museum.

One of these reliefs is particularly beautiful: Hebe and Hera, mother and daughter who sat among the gods and goddesses deciding the outcome of the Trojan War.  Despite all the damage, the panel was recently restored.  The drapery of the seated goddess, Hera, is so beautiful that we can sense the distinct folds of an undergarment as well as the outer clothing.  Experts think that the Parthenon's chief sculptor, Phidias, did this panel. 
The Metope of goddesses Hebe and Hera
are among 4 metopes still in Athens

There's so much more history of construction and destruction.  The classical building of 442-432 is actually a replacement for the earlier temple to Athena which was burned by the Persians in 480 BC. Many fine statues of young women (kore, called korai, plural) and young men (kouros, called kouroi, plural), which were buried after the Persian pillage, are on display at the museum.  Besides the elegant Peplos Kore, there are many other less famous votive statues of women from the Archaic period.  Despite the archaic stiffness of many of these sculptures, they are extremely beautiful.  I also appreciated the beauty of the relief statues of Nike (victory) figures from the balustrade which had surrounded the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, built after the Parthenon.

 The modern, recently-built Acropolis Museum, is set on an angle, but in an axis facing the Parthenon.  The Theater of Dionysos, from the 4th century BC covers the hill, between the Parthenon and Acropolis Museum. 

We can see more of the Erechtheion, an unusual temple formed with slender porches reaching out on three different sides.   Because of its tall, Ionic columns and the Porch of the Maidens, I found the Erechtheion the most impressive of all buildings on the Acropolis.   The caryatids are replacements for the original statues.
The Erechtheion is an Ionic temple.  Its decorative
details contrast with the simple Doric columns of the other structures
The original statues can be seen from all sides in the new Acropolis Museum.  A trip to that museum is a must for understanding the many stages of construction and destruction on the Acropolis, and for understanding the many building programs of the Acropolis.  The Athenians had begun building their temple around 490 BC, before the Persians destroyed it.  However, there are sculptures reflecting at least two even earlier temples to Athena, one from about 570 BC, and another dating around 520 BC.  The stones of one of these temples are beneath the Erectheoion.  Construction and destruction were constants in the lives of the ancient Greeks.
A view behind the Porch of the Maidens over to the long side of the Parthenon
reminds me that the Erechtheion stands over the stones of a giant Archaic temple,
an earlier templet to Athena, 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Splendor of Knossos and the Minoans

This summer I finally had the opportunity to go to Greece and see the sprawling Palace at Knossos.  Actually, it's not certain if this site was a palace, administrative center, giant apartment building, religious/ceremonial building, or all of the above.  Yet it is so huge that, when discovered in 1900, archeologist Arthur Evans certainly thought he had found a true labyrinth where the legendary King Minos lived and kept his minotaur.  The name Minoan for the Bronze Age people who lived in Crete from about 2000-1300 BC has stuck.

Covering 6 acres, the palace of Knossos and the surrounding city may have
had a population of 100,000 in the Bronze Age
According to legend, the king of Athens paid tribute to King Minos by sending him 7 young men and young women who were in turn fed and sacrificed to the half-man, half-bull minotaur. Eventually, with the aid of Minos' daughter and the inventor Daedalus, Theseus carried a ball of thread to find his way out and to slay the beast.

Although the art at Knossos doesn't play out the precise myth, carvings and paintings found there involve imagery of bulls.  Acrobats jumped and did flips over the animals' horns, perhaps part religious ritual.  It must have been an exciting but highly dangerous sport, and it's easy to understand that as the story changed over time, later generations would envision a bull-headed monster in a spooky maze.

The palace at Knossos is on the hillside, about 5 kilometers from the sea.  It was never fortified
Other,  smaller palaces have been uncovered on the island.
Could a prisoner escape without Theseus' clever trick?  Three or possibly four entrances to the palace are off-axis and may have appeared entirely hidden.   The building also had windows, light wells, air shafts and ventilation.  It was an engineering marvel. No wonder its architect Daedalus became a god to the Greeks. When I was there, it not only felt like a "labyrinth," but also like "babel."  Its the only place I'd ever been where so many different, unfamiliar languages were being spoken at once.  Despite the number of people, it never felt too crowded, because the palace covers six acres.

The downward taper of Minoan
columns is unusual but may have
religious significance.  The capital
resembles the cushions of Doric
columns of Greece 1000 years later
The building runs over 5 levels of twists and turns, on the hillside, not on top of a hill.  It had 1300 rooms at one time and could have housed as many 5,000 people.  There's a large central courtyard, perhaps where crowds observed the bull-leaping sports. At least four other ancient maze-like palaces have been excavated on other parts of the island, but none as large as Knossos.  It is thought that only 10% of Minoan Crete has been excavated and that bronze age Crete had 90 cities.  I remember reading that Knossos had a population of at least 100,000 people around 1500 BC.  Minoans traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia.   Archaeologists have uncovered a Minoan colony in Egypt, Tel-el D'aba, and at Miletus in Turkey.

The North Entrance has a restored
fresco of a bull.  Minoans were probably
the first to paint in fresco, on wet plaster
Evans spent 35 years digging, researching and restoring the Palace of Knossos.  The restoration reveals the Minoans' unusual, downward-facing columns, with the narrowest parts on bottom.  The earliest builders used the cypress tree and turned it over, so it wouldn't grow.

There were both small frescoes and life-size frescoes, most of them now in the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, including the bull-leaping fresco.  Since Egyptians painted in secco, on dry plaster, it's believed that Minoans invented the fresco technique of painting on wet plaster. Colors such as blue, red and yellow ochre are very vivid.  Generally Minoans painted with a freer and more organic style than the artists of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and often had more naturalistic depictions.  However, whenever men or women are found marching with erect stiff postures, it's conjectured that they functioned as priests and priestesses partaking in the religious rituals.  There's a famous bull-leaping fresco in the local museum.

La Parisienne from Knossos

Archeologists of today would not take as much liberty and restore as extensively as he did.  While Evans  pieced together restorations of the palace based on the remnants and shards, he also used his knowledge to restore what is missing.  Personally I appreciate that his reconstruction fills in the blanks for us, giving an idea of the size and grandeur of the palace.  Also, there's a great deal to speculate as to what it may have been like to live there.  It seems that grains, wine and olive oil may have been milled and pressed at the palace, and also stored in huge pithoi (giant vases) under the floor.

The word labyrinth originates from the labrys, a double-axe related to the double horns of the bull.   The language used at the time the first palace was built, around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, has not yet been deciphered.  A second language which appeared at Knossos after mainland Greeks took over the palace after 1500 BC has been translated and is related to the classical Greek language
The life-size Prince of Lilies was thought by
Archeologist Arthur Evans to be a priest.
Lilies are common in Minoan imagery.

All the inscriptions on cylinder seals are commercial records and inventories.  Besides myth, the art and artifacts are the best way to figure out the story of these people.  Only about 10 percent of the ancient Minoan sites have been excavated.  Although the contents of the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, near Knossos, is well known and published, the beautiful pottery and artifacts from the museum of Chania, Crete's next largest city, have not been published.  Getting outside of the cities and into the countryside leaves the impression that the rural life really hasn't changed too much in 1000 years.

The grand staircase at Knossos spans 5 levels.  The layout of rooms is organic around a
central courtyard.  What seems to be a haphazard arrangement may reflect
building and rebuilding after earthquakes.
Certain things that date to the Mycenaean takeover of the palace include the Throne Room.  Amazing, when the room was discovered, the gypsum throne was intact.  Evidence points to the suggestion that the palace had to be abandoned all of a sudden, because of a fire, natural disaster or invasion.   Even if this culture eventually went into oblivion for a few hundred years, when the Greek culture re-emerged around the 8th century BC, the Greeks culture retained so much of the Minoan heritage in its art and myth.  The myths of the minotaur, Minos, Europa, Theseus, Daedelus and Icarus involve Crete, but so does the story of Zeus who was said to be born in Crete. 

The Throne Room was found with oldest throne in
Europe, dating to Mycenaean occupation of Crete, around
1450-1400 BC.  Evidence shows people had fled suddenly.
Knossos has a theatre right outside the palace. Performances took place at the bottom of two seating areas set perpendicular to each other, rather than at the end of curved seating area as in later Greek theaters.  The ancient Minoans also gave the world two important inventions, indoor plumbing and the potter's wheel.  Wouldn't it be something if some of the first great Greek literary masterpieces also had an origin here, 1000 years earlier?

Occupation of the palace ended sometime between 1400 and 1100 BC.  In the classical era Crete was never as important as Athens, though it is clear that much of what formed later Greek culture came from Crete.  A settlement re-emerged in Knossos during Roman times, but during the Middle Ages the population shifted to the city of Heraklion, about 4-5 miles away.

An area outside of the palace has two sets of seats set at a perpendicular angle. Acoustics indicate it was a theater.