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How did the Athenians build the Parthenon?

The goddess' ivory skin glowed softly in the half-light of the temple's inner room. Her magnificent frame stood 33 feet (10 meters) tall – the masterpiece of the Greek sculptor Pheidias. She was Athena, the patron of Athens and goddess of wisdom and the arts, and the building in which she stood was the heart of Athens' Parthenon temple.

The building contained two chambers - one a treasury in which offerings were laid, the other housing the statue. It was a shrine to Athena Parthenos ('the Virgin') and gave its name to the whole temple.

The building of a shrine as a thank-offering to Athena had first been put forward after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when the Greeks won a surprise victory over the invading Persians. But only the platform had been laid before the Persians attacked again, demolishing what there was of the new temple before they were driven back once more. In around 447 BC the project was resumed.

The temple was the brainchild of Pericles, ruler of Athens from 443 BC to 429 BC, and was intended to symbolize the city's power. But as the building rose on the summit of the Acropolis, the hilltop that dominates Athens, it became a focus of scandal.

Clandestine liaisons, stolen gold

Pheidias, who was also the temple's chief architect, was accused of arranging assignations for Pericles with unmarried women visiting the site. Later, Pheidias was falsely charged with stealing gold meant for Athena's statue and was put in prison.

Overseeing the building was a committee of five, who dealt with contracts for the sculptors, stonemasons, scaffolders, carpenters, metalworkers and other craftsmen, many of them travelling artisans. The team working on the building was fairly small, perhaps just 200 at any one time.

Carved from mountain rock

The temple was built almost entirely from white marble; only the doors and ceilings were made of timber. Some 22,000 tons of the stone were transported from nearby Mount Pentelicon. Once it was on site, the stonemasons dressed the blocks already cut close to their finished shapes - so that they could be positioned. They used iron chisels, saws, drills, calipers, set squares and plumb lines.

Because no mortar was used, the surfaces where two blocks met had to be a perfect fit. The masons flattened only the outer rim of the face of each block where it joined its neighbor, and left a rougher hollowed surface on the inner section - avoiding contact with the adjoining block. The blocks were clamped together with iron clamps set in lead.

The builders constructed a large flat base with three steps leading up to it, measuring 228 by 101 feet (69 by 31 meters) on the top step. Next they raised a colonnade around the edge - 17 pillars on each side and eight at either end. In the center they built the two-room inner temple, with six columns at each end.

Scenes of siege and battle

Before the roof was added, laborers put 92 carved panels depicting siege and battle scenes from Greek mythology above the colonnade, each panel measuring 4 feet by 3 inches (1.3 meters) square. They were carved at ground level and then hoisted up on pulleys and positioned. The roof was of sturdy timber, covered with tiles hand-carved from white marble from the island of Paros were laid over it.

By 432 BC the Parthenon was complete and it remained in good condition for 700 years. Its crumbling appearance today is the result of war rather than decay. In the 5th century AD Athena's statue was carried off to Constantinople, and in the 7th century the temple became a Christian church under the Byzantines. It was made into a mosque in 1460 under the Ottoman Turks. In 1687 the Turks, besieged by a Venetian army, used it as an ammunition store. Venetian shelling exploded a powder magazine, shattering columns and walls.

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