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Discovering the untold history of the Parthenon

On 22nd October 2019, Dr Elizabeth Key Fowden came to the Intellectual Forum as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas to guide us through the hidden history of the Parthenon. 

Despite its present-day abuse as a universal symbol of democracy or local symbol of nationhood, the Athens Parthenon has enjoyed a conspicuously diverse history, more so perhaps than any other building in the world. The scrubbed white columns we immediately recognize tell little of the temple’s varied afterlife as first an Orthodox and then a Catholic cathedral, next a mosque, and finally an archaeological monument. 

Since the nineteenth century, this complex history has sparked divisive debate: should the remnants of each phase be preserved, or erased in order to expose and privilege the Parthenon’s original, Periclean form? Needless to say, the monument’s nearly four centuries of Islamic use have evoked little interest. 

At a time when the whole Acropolis complex is acquiring a new skin and even shape, Dr Elizabeth Fowden joined us for this Cambridge Festival of Ideas talk to find out why might the Muslim strand in the Parthenon’s history and identity be retrieved and meaningfully incorporated in the interpretation of the building for its millions of visitors.

Elizabeth said: "What do we make of the fact that in order to create the simplified white marble icon that is the Parthenon we recognise today, all signs of a more complex history were destroyed? Is a European view of Greek antiquity enough for us today? My attempt to recapture the Ottoman experience of the Parthenon has forced me to reconsider many our assumptions about the value of Ancient Greece today. The Ottomans called the Parthenon Plato’s School and our only description of what it was like to worship inside the Parthenon (before the Venetians blew it up in 1687) come not from a pagan or Christian writer, but a Muslim. Our wonder at the building only increases the more we add to our knowledge, rather than cutting away the bits that might contradict our inherited Eurocentric views."

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