The most prominent symbol of Western civilization, the Parthenon, was converted into a Christian church for nearly a millennium, from AD 500 to 1450.
Originally built in 432 BC. in honor of Athena Parthenos, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, the magnificent temple has undergone several changes.
In 500 AD, when Christianity was established in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the temple of Athena became the temple of Panagia Athiniotissa (the Athenian Virgin Mary). Soon the temple and the Acropolis hill became the center of Christian pilgrimage, which was of great importance throughout the history of Byzantium. Pilgrims from all over Greece and the Orthodox world flocked to the Acropolis like pilgrims to the Virgin Mary.
Parthenon of the Byzantine era. From the video by Kostas Gavros (see below)
One of the most interesting aspects of the conversion of the ancient temple into a Christian one is that there were no radical changes in its appearance. The gables were not covered, they were left as they were. Fear of “demonic” ancient gods did not appear to be related to the Acropolis. It seems that Christians have shown respect for this historic site.
However, the interior of the nave and parts of the columns were severely damaged by fire (possibly due to the invasion of Athens in 267 AD) or an earthquake.
In the 5th century, the Parthenon was transformed into a three-aisled Christian basilica, dedicated first to Hagia Sophia, and then (in the middle of the Byzantine era) to Panagia Athiniotissa. However, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, it was consecrated and designated as the “Athenian Catholic Church.”
An anonymous 15th century manuscript from the Vienna Library says that “the temple of Our Lady on the Acropolis was built by Apollo and Eulygius,” who were contemporaries of Justinian and Tiberius II, respectively.
From the end of the 6th century onwards, dead priests, bishops and other persons began to be buried around the church. Excavations in 1836 uncovered many monuments of the Christian cemetery. Also found was a marble inscription about “the most holy church of Athens”, bronze coins of the emperors Justinian and Justinian II and several gold coins of Tiberius II of Thrace.
Icons of the Byzantine era in the interior of the Parthenon. Commons
The Parthenon is designed like a Christian church
Gradually, the temple of Panagia Athiniotissa was decorated with icons, mosaics and Byzantine frescoes. The eastern entrance to the ancient sanctuary was closed, and the pronaos, which became a holy step, was raised one step above the old land.
The altar was covered with Pentelian marble and rested on four small porphyry columns with marble and gilded Corinthian columns. Above him hung a golden dove representing the Holy Spirit.
Two smaller ones were built in a sanctuary in the north to represent sacred gifts, and in the south there was a sacristy, which kept sacred vessels, vestments and liturgical books. At the bottom of the arch and in the middle of the semicircular platform was the episcopal marble throne.
The ancient rear building was converted into a narthex, which was connected to the nave by a door, and the church was filled with frescoes. The old and wide entrance has been preserved like a large gate. In another place there were columns of jasper.
There was also a pulpit and a bell tower, which protruded from the wooden roof of the basilica, resting on the nave of the temple of the Virgin of Athena. A golden image of the Virgin Mary stood in a niche above the sanctuary, adorned with thousands of souls, the so-called golden stones.
The back walls still contain the faint remnants of Byzantine icons. In this church, a linden lamp burned, which has existed in the temple since ancient times. Pausanias mentions that she burned in front of a statue of Athena.
Parthenon turned into a mosque
After the brief conquest of Byzantium by the Crusaders, during the Fourth Crusade (1204), the Christian Church of the Parthenon was plundered and then converted into a Catholic church called Santa Maria di Atene.
Later, when Athens was under the rule of the ducal family De la Roche, the church was dedicated to Notre Dame, and a high bell tower was built in its southwest corner.
Parthenon 1839, engraving. Commons
After the fall of Athens under the rule of the Ottoman Empire under Muhammad II the Conqueror in 1458, the Parthenon was turned into a mosque, and the Frankish bell tower – into a minaret. Despite periodic changes and damage, the building retained its architectural integrity and most of its plastic decoration until the 17th century.
Only in 1687, at the height of the Second Venetian-Turkish War, a shell from Morosini’s artillery fell on the Parthenon, where the Turks set up a gunpowder store, as a result of which the temple exploded. The explosion severely damaged its sculptural decoration.
For centuries, Christians have believed that the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, protects her faithful, as the goddess Athena protected the Athenians, at every difficult moment in their lives.