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August 19, 2009

Controversy in the Acropolis Museum Over the Film by Costas-Gavras by Greek Clergy

News report from Mega News concerning the controversial new film by Costa Gavras

On June 20th the magnificent new Acropolis Museum opened to the public. To commemorate this event Oscar winning and Greek-born French filmmaker Constantine Costa-Gavras directed a historical tribute to the Acropolis, a short segment of which was to be shown as an introduction to visitors in the museum. Certain clerics of the Church of Greece unofficially protested this film because the short segment depicts christian priests and faithful destroying part of the sculpture of the Parthenon frieze. According to The Associated Press dated to July 25, 2009:

"The animated segment showed figures clad in black climbing up ladders and destroying part of the Parthenon frieze; the scene referred to well-documented episodes of destruction that took place in the early Byzantine period (5th-8th centuries A.D.), when Christians often demolished monuments and temples belonging to the old pagan era. Many parts from those temples were used to build churches. The Parthenon itself suffered some damage but was spared a worse fate by being converted into a church.

"'The priests used to destroy ancient temples. Now they want to remove scenes from a film,' Costa-Gavras told Greece's Mega TV channel. 'This is the kind (of censorship) that used to happen in the former Soviet Union.'"

So what is the truth?

First of all, there is no documented evidence that Christians set out to destroy the Parthenon. Though it served as a pagan temple, it also served as a memorial for those who had fallen in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Rather than destroying it, the Christians seemed to have kept it as a memorial and converted it into a church in the sixth century dedicated to the Theotokos and was later re-named Panagia Atheniotissa (Virgin of Athens) around the eleventh century and served as the city's cathedral. The Erechtheion was dedicated to the Sotiras (Savior) or the Panagia, the temple of Athena Nike became a chapel and the Propylaia an episcopal residence. The Acropolis during this time was a major destination for pilgrimage visited by Saints and Emperors, probably within the top five in the world. Thus during Roman/Byzantine times, there is no evidence that Christians set out to destroy this historical monument of antiquity, but rather evidence points to the fact that they may have helped preserve it.

For further study on the Parthenon during this time period, I recommend The Christian Parthenon by Anthony Kaldellis. I also highly recommend the article "A Heretical (Orthodox) History of the Parthenon" by the same author. Further information is found in "The Restoration of the Athenian Acropolis".

Significant damage to the Parthenon is recorded to have began with the Ottoman occupation when it was used as the garrison headquarters of the Turkish army. The Venetians under F. Morozini besieged the Acropolis in 1687 and on September 26th bombarded and destroyed the Parthenon, which then served as a munitions store. Lord Elgin caused further serious damage in 1801-1802 by looting the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon (the so-called "Elgin Marbles"), the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. The Acropolis was handed over to the Greeks in 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, and Odysseas Androutsos became its first Greek garrison commander.

Thus, according to Alison Frantz in her still seminal and elegant article from 1965 (A. Frantz, "From Paganism to Christianity in the Temples of Athens," DOP 19 (1965), 185-205), the destruction that the Parthenon endured during the nineteenth century rendered it impossible to know whether or not and to what extent if any the Christians caused any damage to it. She writes:

"The zeal with which the classically-oriented archaeologists of the nineteenth century stripped away from Athenian temples all possible reminders of their post-classical history has rendered unduly complicated the task of dating their conversion. The nature of the required alterations made it impossible to eradicate completely all traces and these, supplemented by descriptions and drawings by the early travelers, have sometimes made it possible to reconstruct the general appearance of both exterior and interior. But the systematic removal, without recording, of wall masonry and, in many cases, even of foundations, destroyed at the same time almost all chronological evidence..." (p. 201)

Costa-Gavras, upon hearing that the scene depicting Christians destroying parts of the Parthenon was to be censored, insisted that his name be removed from the credits of his film. He insisted that because Christians were known for destroying other pagan temples, it is to be rightly assumed that they did the same to the Parthenon. Of course, he cannot prove this historically or archaeologically, but it rather seems that he is displaying his well-known anti-clerical attitude in his film. His previous films supported issues within left wing politics and directly attacked conservative based values and institutions (his father was imprisoned for being a communist and this had many repercussion on Costa-Gavras which made him eventually move to France to be able to get an education and eventually make politically based films). For example, in 2002 he made a film based on a highly controversial play titled Amen, which depicts the role of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII in the Holocaust and on the poster promoting the film a cross was mixed in with a swastika. This issue has continued to be hotly disputed, yet this did not prevent Gavras from making his film and continuing the controversy of the play. In regards to his film on the Parthenon, it is not surprising that his left wing anti-clerical propaganda would creep into the film.

Throughout this controversy, I find it odd how a debate rages on about whether or not Christians set out to destroy the Parthenon, while there was a controversy on whether or not the new Acropolis Museum could obtain the rights to destroy one of the finest masterpieces of art deco architecture in Europe just so it can have a better view of the "sacred rock". Its interesting how an awe-inspiring monument can empower the need to both destroy and create not only in the past but also in the present.

On August 4th Reuters reported that the Acropolis Museum reversed its decision to censure Gavras' film and will now show it uncensored. Reportedly this was done to prevent further picketing and threats of an alleged lawsuit.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, eager web surfers have posted the controversial video on Youtube. The clip, originally posted by the site, features the offending scene at around the 1-minute 45-second mark.