Sunrise on the Parthenon
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I HAVE enjoyed every hour in Athens. Last Tuesday I climbed Mount Pentelicus, and from its summit looked right down on the famous battlefield of Marathon. It is as smooth as a race-course, and so small that Miltiades with his ten thousand Athenians could cover the whole front against ten times as many Persians. On my way back I rode through groves of classic olive and pine, and green vineyards. It seemed as if I might meet Sophocles going out to meditate a new tragedy, or Anacreon to compose a new song for the vine-dressers. The air was instinct with the memories and glories of the past. This little land of Attica once ruled the world with its genius. On the ruins of that wonderful commonwealth—after long dark centuries of ignorance and obscurity—a new Athens and a new Greece have sprung up. No land on the Continent of Europe has a stronger claim on our hearts, or excites a more thrilling hope for its future than the land in which Pericles builded, and Plato thought, and Phidias carved, and Paul proclaimed the Gospel of eternal life.
At four o'clock yesterday morning I aroused my fellow-lodger at the Hôtel des Etrangers for a tramp up the Acropolis in time to catch the sunrise. The shadows were still lingering in the clefts of old Hymettus as we hurried across the open space between the Arch of Hadrian and the modest chapel of the American Mission. Rounding the hillside, we pass the ruined Theatre of Dionysius, with its forty carved marble seats—all empty. I would give something to know from which one of those tiers Socrates rose up to answer the gibes of the comedian. A little further on, we see the square-cut "Berna" from which Demosthenes once thundered. Let us be thankful that Lord Elgin could not kidnap that for the British Museum. The smooth roadway leads around the south side of the Acropolis and close by the rocky spur of Mars' Hill. We see the actual steps in the rock by which Paul went up, and the spot where he must have stood when, within ten minutes, he delivered the sublimest speech that ever stirred the air of classic Greece.
We had to hammer pretty loudly on the gate to arouse the porter who keeps the entrance to the Propylea. Those walls once trembled to a louder alarm, when the explosion of a magazine sent the columns of that splendid structure flying in the air. Powder seldom wrought more mischief ; for that ascending vestibule of richly sculptured Pentelic marble (which cost two millions of dollars and which was adorned with the statues of Phidias) was one of the marvels of Athenian magnificence. What a gorgeous spectacle it must have been when the Panathenaic procession swept up through that vestibule from the Sacred Way, with its trains of chariots and waving branches of the olive and the pine ! Nearly a dozen of the Doric columns yet remain. Across the two central ones still hangs the solid lintel, twenty-two feet long and four feet in thickness. To have lifted that enormous block of marble to that position must have been no ordinary feat of engineering; but of far more interest to me than the columns is the pavement beneath them, worn smooth by the ceaseless tread of more than three and twenty centuries. Upon those identical slabs of white marble Pericles and Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes have set their feet; the famous men of Rome—Cesar, Pompey, Cicero, and Seneca—have trod there. Paul him-self undoubtedly has walked there. The famous scholars of our times have gone in there. In fact, there is no other small spot on this round globe which has been pressed by the feet of so many of the mighty men of genius as the six square yards of that Portico of the Propylea.
We had no time to stop and moralize, for the sun was just beginning to peep over the northern end of Hymettus. A streak of his rays was touching the heights of Ćgina and Salamis. At the eastern brow of the Acropolis the late Queen Amalia built up a "Bellevue," or platform of stonework, from which a view can be got sheer down into the modern city, which lies upon that side of the sacred mount. We hasten to that "coigne of vantage" and look westward. The first rays of the sun are just kindling on the brown columns of the Parthenon. They are browned now by the hand of Time and the storms of over twenty centuries; but what they were when Pericles first set them there, in their flashing splendor, what imagination can conceive or pen describe? It will always re-main an enigma that within a single century Grecian art and philosophy should have flowered out in the most consummate of their productions of genius and then straightway ceased to bloom again ! All the greatest achievements of Athenian brains were wrought between the battles of Marathon and Cheronea, and that space does not cover more than the lives of a father and son, provided that they both lived seventy years. The only answer to this problem is that it seems to be God's plan to illuminate this world not by single stars, but by constellations.
After watching the golden sunlight for a few moments on the Parthenon, we walk on, amid heaps of broken columns and shattered friezes, to the northern brow of the Acropolis. A guard walks behind us, perhaps to see that we do not pocket a stray metope or triglyph; for since the Acropolis has been so plundered nobody is trusted there alone. A sly Britisher was detected, a while ago, in tossing rare bits of marble over the walls, which an accomplice was as slyly picking up down below. Let us be thankful, however, that neither Time nor Turk, nor Lord Elgin himself has ever succeeded in spoiling the exquisite northern colonnade and doorway of the Erectheum. Those columns are the perfection of the Ionic order. The carvings around that "Gate Beautiful" are the consummate masterpiece of delicate Greek art. No human hands ever excelled that workmanship. There is a mass of exquisite moulding and of delicate "egg-and-anchor" ornamentation, that looks more like lacework cut in ivory than any carving of ordinary marble. All the finest Ionic structures in the world for the last two thou-sand years have been only the copies of what those Greek wonder-workers wrought on that end of that little Erectheum within a single decade. They struck perfection at once, and all subsequent generations have done nothing but try to imitate their handiwork.
The rocky summit of the Acropolis is one mass of picturesque ruin. Of the forty-six superb columns of the Parthenon less than one-half are left standing. These are sadly marred; some of them snapped off in the middle. The broken fragments of the columns which were blown to pieces by the powder explosion caused by a Venetian bombshell, in 1687, lie scattered all over the bill-top. I climbed over piles of sculpture on which the workmen of Pericles had made their eyes ache; but mine ached still worse to see such marvellous productions dashed into destruction. Yet, after all the havoc that time and storm and shell and invading enemies have wrought, the Parthenon and the Erectheum still re-main as incomparably the most magnificent ruins on the face of the earth. The sun that shone on them yesterday morning has never yet shone on their equal.
But, while we are on the Acropolis, let us take a glimpse of the Athens which stretches around us to the north and east. There is a bright day-dawning of promise in this beautiful city, with its broad, clean streets, elegant Parisian mansions, in imitation of Attic architecture, and with its showy Academy, and University, and publie schools. There are seventy thousand people here now. When Parliament is in session, there will be many more. Down in that plain building on the corner of Sophocles and Aristides Streets, the highest court of the city, still called the "Areopagus," will meet to-day. That large structure, surrounded by a fine park, is the Palace of King George the First.
While in cost, and adornment, it befits the modesty of a young kingdom, it contains some beautiful apartments. Upon its walls figures the fight at Navarino ; and there are portraits of Capo D'Istria, and of Lord Byron who half redeemed the last months of his pitiable career by his devotion to the deliverance of Greece. Around the palace stretches a fine garden which is thrown open to the people every day.
Looking towards the Ilissus—which at this season is shrunk to a rivulet—we see the fourteen surviving columns of the Temple of Jupiter. When the whole one hundred and twenty-four were standing—crowned with their Corinthian capitals—that structure must have been one of the most magnificent on the globe. Not far from these imposing ruins is the ancient Stadium, on whose race-course the Olympic games were celebrated. It is six hundred feet in length and one hundred in breadth; we can still see the terraced sides on whose marble seats over forty thousand Athenians once sat, and cheered the victors in the games. Paul had such encounters in his eye when he exhorted the racers for an heavenly crown to "so run that they might obtain."
Let us turn to the opposite side of the Acropolis, and below us, near the road to the Pirćus, stands the Temple of Theseus—still in such perfect preservation that it scarcely shows the ravages of twenty centuries. As one looks at that exquisite Doric structure, with its columns and roof still complete, he can form some conception of what Athens must have been in the days of its matchless glory.
Of that ancient glory only a few other splendid fragments remain. The Parthenon is shattered. The stadium is deserted. Plato's Academy is now a private gentle-man's garden. The tomb of Socrates no man knoweth to this day. But as I descended from the Acropolis, and passed by the inmovable rock of Mars' Hill on which the great Apostle once stood, I said to myself;—" The glory of this world passeth away, but like that rock, the word of the Lord endureth forever!"