Greece celebrates this year the bicentenary of her recovery of independance. I wish her well. So much in my life ... since the age of twelve ... has been taken up with that scintillating civilisation.
But every time I see Greece 'iconically' represented by pictures of the Athenian Acropolis, I groan. Or wince.
One very obvious reason for this is that Athens is not Greece. Classical Hellas was divided between very many poleis ... city-states ... independent and, very frequently, murderously at war with each other. The Acropolis in Athens is, quite simply, not some symbol of the majesty of Hellas; but an assertion of the polis of Athens.
But there is more to matters than that.
It was not until the Age of Lord Byron that the Greeks were taught by post-Christian Western European intellectuals that their glory, and the marker and symbol of their identity, ought to be found in pre-Christian Antiquity, or rather in the idiosyncratic reconstruction of Classical Greece favoured by the 'Enlightenment'. From the Advent of Christianity down to the Ottoman invasion, Hellenic identity had, on the contrary, been identical with Byzantine Christianity (that admirable civilisation which renamed Aphrodisias Stauroupolis and converted thousands of temples into churches). Until the Turks made the Parthenon a mosque and then an arsenal, it had for many centuries (more centuries than it served the pagan cults of glaukopis Athene and Mahomet) been a Church dedicated to the true Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Theotokos. Much of its statuary was defaced by the Christian Greeks themselves because of its pagan nature, especially at the East end, where a liturgical apse needed to be constructed. I would willingly contribute to a fund to restore the Parthenon so that it could again be used for the Divine Liturgy of S John Chrysostom.
But that would probably be pointless. There would be no congregation to worship there. The Acropolis Hill, until it was deliberately stripped bare, was a Levantine maze of little streets and alleys; of buildings Frankish and Ottoman and Greek; of homes and bazaars and churches. The 'iconic' scene so often now thrust before us, of a lonely arid rock, scraped nearly bare, with some damaged stonework atop, like an open mouth upon which some manic dentist has declared nuclear war, is a ghastly symbol of a culture which clutches at a colourless 'Antiquity' of ruins, and despises the human, not to mention the true Divine which was the glory of Hellenism when it was faithful to Christ and His Mother.
The present scene is 'iconic' only of the 'Enlightenment' preference for nostalgic memories of a long-lost pagan religious culture and a matching contempt for Christendom. This is the same preference, indeed, as was demonstrated in that infamous draft European Constitution which did a very Olympic long-jump from Ancient Greece and Rome to the 'Enlightenment', consigning the intervening centuries of Christendom to contemptuous oblivion.
In the 1890s, the then Greek Director of Antiquities showed himself to have been brainwashed by exactly this anti-Christian spirit: he proudly proclaimed that the Acropolis had finally been 'cleansed' of all 'barbaric' encroachments. Nearly two millennia of Greek History and culture written off as 'barbarism'! What a Greek! Who needs Turks when you've got Greeks like that!
I don't think I would want to visit the Parthenon today, even for free, even if it were entirely cleared of the heaving masses of tourists simply for my own solitary pleasure and convenience.
Dear Readers: just for one pointless but magical moment, imagine what it would have been like to pant uphill and then to turn a corner in some narrow and grubby little street and, suddenly, to see a partial view of the Parthenon, majestical, rearing up in front of you; and to hear, from inside, the sound of a great-chested deacon intoning the ektene.