Unlocking Mysteries of the Parthenon

Restoration of the 2,500-year-old temple is yielding new insights into the engineering feats of the golden age’s master builders

The Parthenon, said the 19th-century French engineer Auguste Choisy, represents "the supreme effort of genius in pursuit of beauty." (Aris Messinis / AFP/ Getty Images)
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Haselberger also traced a labyrinth of faint scratches covering most of the temple’s unfinished surfaces. The lines proved to be reference drawings for everything from the very slight inward lean of the walls to details of the lintel structure supported by the columns. There were even floor plans, drafted conveniently right on the floor. As the temple’s stepped platform rose, each floor plan was copied from one layer to thenext. On the topmost floor, the builders marked out the positions of columns, walls and doorways.

The discoveries at Didyma suggest that the temple builders operated on a “plan-as-you-go” basis. “Clearly, a lot of advance planning went into a building like the Parthenon,” Coulton says. “But it wasn’t planning inthe sense that we’d recognize today. There’s no evidence they relied on a single set of plans and elevations drawn to scale as a modern architect would.”

Still, the Parthenon remains something of a miracle. The builders were steered by tradition, yet free to experiment. They worked to extreme precision, yet the final result was anything but rigid. A commanding building, with supple and fluid lines, emerged from a blend of improvised solutions.

But the miracle was short-lived. Only seven years after the construction of the Parthenon was completed, war broke out with Sparta. Within a generation, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat and a devastating plague.The story of the Parthenon resembles an ancient Greek tragedy, in which an exceptional figure suffers a devastating reversal of fortune. And from Korres’ perspective, that calamity is all the more reason to restore the greatest remnant of Athens’ golden age. “We wanted to preserve the beauty of what has survived these past 2,500 years,” he says. “A reminder of man’s power to create, as well as to destroy.”


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