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Sacred spaces

The story of Panagia Atheniotissa

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02 March 2017

I will never forget the first time I obtained a taste of the famed kung fu movie The Way of the Dragon. I was 15 and chanced to come across the scene where Bruce Lee is fighting Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. The sheer majesty of the ancient edifice, the chiaroscuro interplay of the light between the arches and the galleries as the two masters attempted to harm each other lent the film a palpable Dutch master-like quality.

For weeks afterwards my friends and I, haunted by the incongruity but also the majesty of the conflict in such an iconic place, attempted to recreate it in the playground, to no avail, for we lacked the necessary chest hair which would grant our re-enactment the requisite verisimilitude, though I do remember feeling slighted at the time that Bruce Lee was not so possessed of sensitivity and respect for the Greek civilisation as to set one of his signature fight scenes amid a similarly iconic Greek building, such as the Parthenon, or the OTE Tower of Thessaloniki.

The thought of Bruce Lee ripping off Melina Mercouri's chest hair in front of a restored Parthenon, fully replete with marbles, remains an enduring fantasy, to this day.

It is not as if the Parthenon has not been used for commercial or political reasons before. In 1929, photographer Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari (known as Nelly's) published a series of photographs of scantily-clad or nude models frolicking in ancient-pastiche poems between the columns of that temple. At that time, the intellectual Pavlos Nirvanas defended her actions against accusations of 'desecration' of a scared site by saying: "I see respectable gentlemen sitting around a table, scratching their heads and writing about desecration. Desecration would occur if, in the throes of archaeological enthusiasm, they happened to throw off their clothes on the Parthenon Marbles and pretended to be Hermes of Praxiteles ..." Neo-pagan would-be nudists be warned …
Whether it was due to Nelly's artistic talent, or the public's inherent voyeuristic tendencies, by 1951, when Christian Dior artfully posed his ethereal models before the Caryatids, bravely inviting comparison, and then, arranged them before the columns of the Parthenon like mid-west prom queens, asked to assume the air of an ancient Greek chorus, the populace at large seemed unperturbed.

Given this precedent, the largely adverse and rather indignant Helladic reaction to the news that Gucci has recently sought to use the Parthenon as the setting for a fashion show, for a vast sum of money, appears mystifying. That is, unless one is to infer from the vehemence of the Greek reaction that the Greek populace know good taste and that Gucci, manifestly, does not partake of it. The Greek authorities' declining of a request to use the Parthenon as a setting for one of those excruciating Bourne Conspiracy, Identity, Inadequacy sequels should also be seen in this light.

Ostensibly mystifying, too, is the Orthodox Church of Greece's weighing into the debate, with its Primate, Archbishop Hieronymos, stating his opposition to Gucci's proposed utilisation of the space by commenting: "When something is de-sanctified, it is cheapened. And when it is cheapened, it becomes a valueless commodity."

The leader of a church, which, it is common knowledge, does not particularly appreciate pagans, has suffered under their hands, and has persecuted them in turn, (and there are still in effect innumerable church canons prohibiting pagan usages) is, without hesitation, calling what we understand to be a pagan temple/archaeological site, sacred.

From an Orthodox point of view, such an appellation is completely justified however. The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church in the final decade of the sixth century AD, becoming the Church of the Parthenos Maria. It remained as such until 1458, when Athens was conquered by the Ottomans, after which time it operated as a mosque until the liberation of Athens in 1832. Although it is therefore a building sacred to at least three religions, importantly, it cannot be denied that it has been used as a Christian church for longer than anything else in its history.

In The Christian Parthenon, Professor Anthony Kaldellis of Ohio State University reveals that not only was the Parthenon a Christian church for almost a millennium, far from being derided as an unwanted relic of an unsavoury past, it actually became the fourth most important Christian pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople, Ephesos, and Thessalonica.

Such was its significance that in 1018, the emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer deliberately embarked upon a pilgrimage to Athens directly after his final victory over the Bulgarians for the sole purpose of worshipping at the Parthenon. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of the many monks and pilgrims who had gone before him and who have carved their names on the building's columns and walls.

Further, in so doing, his view of the Parthenon unwittingly mirrored that of those who originally constructed it: as a monument for the celebration of a military triumph over "barbarians".

By the 12th century, the Panagia Atheniotissa had become famous throughout the eastern world and also become a foundation for other religious founding myths. According to one story, the miraculous icon of the Theotokos, written by Saint Luke and taken to Mount Soumela by the founders of the Panagia Soumela monastery in Pontus, was removed from its original housing, in the Parthenon.

The central importance of the Parthenon in the Christian world defies easy justification. No significant religious events took place in or around it. Instead, Professor Kaldellis argues convincingly, that the Parthenon was "trapped between a discursive Christian element and a non-discursive subliminal supplement that pointed to the monument's non-Christian background".

In other words, the Byzantines revered the space because it had always been outstandingly special and sacred and they sought to enshrine that outstandingly special sacredness in their own religious discourse. By doing so, they maintained its importance and cult status according to the manner it had always been regarded.

It would have been easier to understand the complex and beguiling manner in which the Parthenon has been seen by the Greeks throughout the ages had not, soon after liberation, the Greek authorities decided to strip the Parthenon of all of its Muslim, Venetian and Byzantine accretions, rendering instead an interpretation of a building that is both anachronistic, and Orientalistic in the Saidian sense, a manifesto, rather than a building, calculated to instil pride in a culture of which the west claims it is the sole inheritor, inducing in all of us neo-Greeks, an ontopathology of self-loathing and inadequacy far more dysfunctional and disruptive than the Byzantine experience of appreciation and continuity.

When it comes to the Parthenon and its numerous palimpsests, we are therefore extremely touchy, for we too pick which of our many layers to emphasise or efface. We make our symbols in our image and our symbols make us in theirs. To all intents and purposes, whether we are Christian or pagan, secular or spiritual, a large part of our psyche is enmeshed and interwoven within that glorious marble ruin that crowns the Acropolis, for it is the first image that comes to mind in most when one evokes Greece.

Because we are bonded to it, each in his own way, we are willing to overlook the fact that its existence is owed to the theft of the treasury for the mutual defence of the Greek city states by Athens and is actually the product of stolen goods, for its beauty, and by corollary, our own, absolves us of our sins. Similarly, any slight, real or perceived, upon the Parthenon is a slight upon us and is not to be countenanced, and it is to this interweaving, rather than the incontrovertible Christian history of the Parthenon, that Archbishop Hieronymos is possibly alluding.

Though I suspect my own psyche would escape unharmed from the aftermath of pre-anorexic girls prowling in impossible clothes that no one can plausibly wear upon a Parthenon proscenium, there is something heart-warming, though unsurprising, in knowing that at this particularly low eddy in the collective Helladic fortunes, the Panhellenium's pride cannot be bought, and remains intact … except for the part that is housed in the British Museum, that is …

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