The Parthenon was one of the most famous monuments of the ancient world. But today its columns are crumbling to dust. Its current state isn't due to wear and tear from exposure to the elements over the millennia, however. It's the result of an almost-forgotten 17th century battle.
A modern battle on ancient grounds
In the 17th Century, Poland and Austria allied to retake lands in Europe conquered by the Ottoman Empire after Turk forces attempted to invade and control Vienna in 1683. This intrusion into Venice planted the seed for the destruction of the Parthenon.
General Francesco Morosini, a sixty-four year old veteran shamed by the loss of the Venetian colony of Crete to the Ottoman Empire in 1669, led a band of homegrown warriors and mercenaries in an attempt to take back a portion of Greece.
As the Venetians surrounded the Acropolis, the Turks took shelter on the hill. Strategically, they hid their gunpowder within the Parthenon, believing the Venetian forces would not dare attack the Parthenon due to the historic significance of the building.
This would prove to be a bad strategic choice.
Bombing the Parthenon
Morosini knew of a concentration of Turk forces at the Parthenon, but it is unknown if he knew of the explosives held inside the historic building.
Armed with knowledge of the Parthenon as a pivotal battle site, Francesco Morosini ordered subordinate Antonio Mutoni, head of the mortar brigade, to target the Parthenon.
After three days of shelling, a mortar struck to Parthenon and detonated the gunpowder on September 26, 1687. It is unknown if Mutino himself let loose the fateful bomb or if a nameless soldier made the "lucky" strike.
At the very least, the responsibility for the damage done to the Parthenon weighs heavily on the deceased shoulders of Morosini, Mutino, and the Turk leaders who made the strategic decision to conceal explosive materials in a historic spot.
How do we know what the Parthenon looked like?
In the centuries since the Parthenon functioned as a temple to Athena, the site continued to be used in a religious capacity, serving as a a Christian church, a Catholic church, and a mosque.
As its functioned changed, the architecture of the Parthenon changed as well. One of the largest changes came under the guidance of the Catholic church, which added a spiral staircase that led to a watchtower and built a series of tombs underneath the floor of the Parthenon.
Our best understanding of how the Parthenon looked at the time before the bombing comes from a series of extremely detailed documentary drawings created by Jacques Carrey in 1674.
These drawings, made less than 15 years before the Parthenon's destruction, establish the basis for current reconstruction efforts by detailing the architecture and intricate statues and reliefs which lined the exterior. Without Carrey's drawings, we would be at a loss in reconstructing a mental image of this ancient site.
After the bombing
Records suggest 300 individuals died in the flames ensuing from the detonation of the mortar and explosives held within the Parthenon, while the Acropolis burned for the next two days. The explosion turned the tide in the battle, with the Turks surrendering hours later.
General Morosini added insult to injury over the next several months, removing many of the remaining intact statues and artifacts from the Parthenon. Francesco Morosini became Doge of Venice in 1688, a title akin to Duke confirming with it the powers of Chief of State. At this point Morosini returned to his newly appointed post in Venice, allowing the Ottoman Empire to retake the Acropolis.
Top image by Andrew Baldwin/CC. Jacques Carrey drawing of Parthenon sculptures is within the public domain, the coin celebrating one of Morosini's many military conquests is courtesy of Badseed/CC, while additional images of the Parthenon are by the author. Sources linked within the article.