ATHENS — THE Greeks are proud of their history. So proud, in fact, that they spend millions of dollars annually on restoration of ancient monuments - monuments that can be found pictured in almost every history book dealing with Western art and civilization. The names are familiar: the Parthenon, the Acropolis, the Erechtheum, all dating back at least to the 5th century B.C. And although many people have a textbook familiarity with the monuments, few can tell you just what the Acropolis really is.
``It's simply a rock,'' says Cornelia Hadjislani, an architect, anthropologist, and director of education for the Acropolis Museum. She grew up in the shadow of the Acropolis, and, even after years of working on the monuments, still speaks in awe of them. ``On this rock in the center of Athens,'' she says, ``some of the most perfect buildings ever built, were built within 40 years' time. The history of the Acropolis is really the history of Athens.''
It's a history that hasn't been kind to the Acropolis monuments. Over the years, wars, invasions, and occupations have taken their toll. The Parthenon, for example, built 2,500 years ago as a temple to the goddess Athena, was subsequently used as a Roman Catholic church, a mosque, and finally a fortress, when just 300 years ago, a Venetian grenade blew it up in a battle with the Turks, leaving the ruins we know today. ``It was a working building, in daily use for over 2,000 years,'' muses Ms. Hadjislani, ``and in six seconds' time, it became a ruin.''
But more has been done to damage the Acropolis in the last few decades than in the previous two millennia. Of the estimated 10 million people in Greece, half are said to live in Athens. It's a major city crowded with people, motorbikes, and aging diesel taxis. On a windless day, a yellow haze hangs over the city, and it is this pollution, the growing acid rain, and the growing number of tourists (estimated at over 2 million per year) that are cited as major causes of damage to the monuments.
As a result, vehicular traffic has been restricted in the area of the Acropolis; jets are prohibited from flying over the site; and visitors are no longer allowed in or on the actual monuments themselves.
But you can still walk around the monuments, and a first trip up the winding steps to the top of the Acropolis, although more exercise than some might enjoy, has its rewards. There before your eyes is the real thing. No more history book pictures. In fact, the monuments probably look better now than they did when the pictures were taken for the books.
The restoration process started in the late 1970s, and that work is beginning to show. The work on the Erechtheum, with its famous porch supported by huge marble carvings of maidens, is completed.
The remaining original marble porch columns are now in the Acropolis Museum, enclosed in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, which arrests the deterioration caused by the high sulphur content in the air. Cast reproductions now support the porch structure, and missing blocks of marble have been replaced, using stone from the same quarry on the island of Thinos as was used in the original construction.
Restoration work on the Acropolis is nothing new. In the late 1800s and through the turn of the century, a Greek named Belanos attempted the first major renovation, and, according to Ms. Hadjislani, caused more damage than good. ``He used blocks from one structure to complete a wall on another, and caused much of the original marble to crack through poor engineering.''
When the original builders of the Parthenon, for example, were faced with the problem of holding the huge marble wall blocks together, they devised a system of internal clamps. A key-way was chiseled into the matching ends of the blocks, and iron clamps were inserted to hold the blocks tightly together.
``Belanos replaced many of these clamps with new iron,'' says Ms. Hadjislani, ``but he did not put around these clamps molten lead like the ancient Greeks did (to keep them from rusting). And when water seeped into the cracks, the new iron rusted, expanded, and of course this has cracked the marble.''
The current restoration efforts include replacing the old rusted clamps with new ones made of titanium, which won't rust; replacing missing pieces of marble, using replicas of the original tools to match chisel marks; and using computers to guide in replacing blocks and pieces in their original locations. Pieces appear to be scattered randomly around the Acropolis like a giant jigsaw puzzle. But, in fact, every random piece of stone is marked, numbered, and cataloged, and almost daily some small fragment is found to match a larger piece, and is carefully restored to its original place.
The restorers are also concerned about the look of the monuments. The Parthenon dominates the Athens skyline, and would be unsightly, covered with scaffolding for the estimated 15 years it will take to complete restoration.
The solution? An internal rotating, 10-ton crane. ``We took very special care,'' says Ms. Hadjislani, ``that the crane is painted the color of the marbles, so that when it folds, the crane is least visible from the outside. And if you don't know about it, you might get through without seeing it at all.''