Published on 20/02/18 in Press
Why did Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinopole, not touch the Parthenon, and Morosini, the Venetian admiral, destroy it? The answer is that the Sultan had had the benefit of a good education: He knew Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, even Chaldean. When he visited Athens in 1458, where he stayed for four days, he was so influenced by its past glory that he granted privileges to the Athenians but, above all, he declared the monuments his personal property in order to protect them from the risk of looting and vandalism.
The Athenians weren't allowed to visit the Sacred Rock unless they had special permission. The residence of the Turkish commander was located at the Propylaea, the Erechtheion hosted his harem there, and scattered all over the area were private homes built for the guards of the city and their families. Athens was under the administration of the Pasha of Negroponte, but much later fell into the hands of the Chief Eunuch, who lived in the Top Kapi, in Istanbul.
Athenians were allowed a certain autonomy. Men of the most prominent ten or twelve families were allowed to wear yellow shoes, the colour that the most eminent Turks of the empire wore. After them came the wealthy merchants, the artisans and the people who cultivated the land around the city. Their relations with the Turks were passable and, when Admiral Morosini decided to take Athens, they sent him a message that he had their support.
Early one day in September 1687, the Turks panicked when, from the Acropolis, they saw Venetian ships arriving. Hoping that the Sultan's army would soon arrive, they ordered the entire Turkish population (2,500 women and children) to take refuge on the Sacred Rock. It took a few hours for this to be accomplished and eventually the Rock was host to sundry furniture, kitchen utensils, alimentary staff - all in the open air. The Athenians, numbering almost 75,000, were located at the foot of the hill. Fearing the confrontation, especially the looting, they knew would follow, either at the hands of the Turks or the Venetians, they buried their most precious belongings in the ground.
Morosini's cannons started to bombard the Propylaea from a hill opposite, damaging a significant part, but the worst was yet to come. Someone, it is said that it was most likely a Turkish traitor, signalled to the Venetians the Turks had stashed their gunpowder in the Parthenon. A terrible cry ensued: "Target the Parthenon!" and the cannons were turned in its direction. The imposing marble columns and roof resisted the bombardment until late. It was at half-past midnight when a terrible explosion cut the Parthenon in two. The marbles started to collapse as if in a terrible earthquake, and the continuous explosions could be seen, because of the full moon that night, rising hundreds of meters up, like fireworks. Mixed in all the pandemonium were the screams of joy heard from the Venetians: "Long live our Republic!"
When the Turks saw that the Sultan's army hadn't arrived to protect them, and as their commander was dead, they decided to send two men bearing the white flag of surrender. Morosini released them, but remained doubtful of his victory. He feared that the Sultan's army would arrive and he didn't have enough soldiers to defend the Acropolis and continue in his conquest of Negroponte, a point considered more strategic by the Venetians than Athens. However, he also feared for the fate of the Athenians so, a year later, he decided to give Athens back to the Turks and to send the Athenians to the safety of Venetian possessions in the Peloponese, just like Themistocles had sent them to the island of Salamina when Xerxes was arriving in Athens.
Everything had been well organized. The Turks were ready to reoccupy Athens and Morosini was ready to leave. It was to have been a very straightforward operation. During his retreat, the Admiral tried to remove some of the marbles of the Temple to take back to Venice but, because of his men's inability, the marbles were destroyed. The only thing he managed to successfully remove before his ships sailed away was the lion that adorned the entrance to the port of Piraeus. It is the one we can see at the entrance of the Arsenal in Venice today.
So Athens, for the first time in history, was deserted, without a soul for days. Just an eerie silence. And I am wondering if the traveller today, who knows the details of this story, doesn’t think while looking at the Parthenon: “All this catastrophe? For what?” And if he feels a great bitterness…
The images above:
An Athenian lady
A Greek archon
Watercolours painted by artists who visited Athens in the 19th century. Many European travellers had commissioned painters to accompany them and capture the beauty of the sites, much like today's cameras
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