The Acropolis: A Worldwide Touchstone for Hellenism and Greek Identity

In this blog post, I want to review what I believe are the different ways that historical sites that relate to Greek culture are used, both internationally and domestically.  To that end, I will compare and contrast 6 photographs in which the the Acropolis of Athens is being used to understand the purpose of their actions and why they are using the Acropolis.       

Marta Minujín’s Parthenon Of Books built 1983 in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina

The first image is a piece of art created by Marta Minujín following the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983, and is built of books banned by Argentina’s previous military government.  The banned books were used to physically show the oppression that Argentinians suffered under the previous regime, specifically the limitations placed upon their freedoms of press, thought, and speech.  However, the decision to use the Acropolis’ Parthenon allowed Marta to draw upon additional symbolism that transformed her art into a monument to freedom and democracy. Marta is able to do this because the Parthenon is a modern day symbol of Hellenic Athens.  This is important because Hellenic Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy as a form of government. Therefore, using the Parthenon created a connection that allowed Marta to make her artwork into a monument to freedom and the new Argentinian democracy, rather than a representation of their past oppression that the books alone would have generated.  All of this additional symbolism in Marta’s artwork shows the mobility of the Acropolis across cultures. In fact, much of the western world tries to establish connections between themselves and Hellenic Athens because of it being the birthplace of democracy.

Front face of the United States Supreme Court Building

Another example of the mobility of the Acropolis in western cultures is seen in the United States Supreme Court Building, shown above.  Specifically, the Supreme Court building copies aspects such as the number of columns in its front face and its small triangular, roof directly from the Parthenon.  Similar to the previous image, this resemblance to the Parthenon was intentional because it allowed the Supreme Court Building to draw additional symbolism, specifically between the United States’ government and Hellenic Greece, the birthplace of democratic governments.  Furthermore, while all three branches of United States government are centered in buildings that incorporate designs from Hellenic Greece, the Supreme Court is the only one built to specifically look like the Parthenon, Hellenic Athens’ sacred temple.  This creates the effect of giving the Supreme Court Building a “balance between classical grandeur and quiet dignity, appropriate for the nation’s highest court” (Architects of the Capital). In short, this image is important because it shows that the Acropolis is used in western cultures for more than art, it is used in the designs of western democracies capital buildings to establish their origins in Hellenic Greece, thus showcasing the vast mobility that the Parthenon and Acropolis have in cultures around the world.

Mug from a Greek Diner in the United States

Compared to the previous two images, this picture is different because it does not use of the Acropolis as a symbol for Hellenic Greece and democracy, but it is still an example of the Acropolis’ mobility across cultures. This difference arises due to the origin and purpose of this mug. This image was taken in a Greek Diner in the United States and the mug was used to showcase the modern Greek identity that the restaurant, and presumably its owners, believed they were a part of. Instead of being a reminder of the past, this mug is an example of the Parthenon being used as a connection to the present, modern day Greek identity. However, despite this difference, this image does share a key characteristic with the previous two images, it shows the mobility of the Parthenon as a symbol to those outside of Greece. All three of these images showed people living outside of Greece using the Acropolis and its structures to draw connections between themselves and an aspect of the Greek identity. The only difference in this image from the first two was that the Parthenon was used to connect people to a modern Greek identity that they still felt that they were a part of, rather than the Parthenon being used to establish a foundation or origin of a preexisting cultural identity.

Silver votive offering left in a Greek Orthodox Church.

With the first three images being examples of how the Acropolis and the Parthenon were very versatile and mobile as a symbol allowed them to be used internationally, the next two images will show how the Acropolis was used domestically within Greece. The image above is of a votive that was given in a Greek Orthodox Church with the portrait of the Parthenon inscribed into it. The use of a polytheistic temple on a monotheistic church’s votives may be confusing, unless if one understands the significance of the Acropolis has come to possess in the modern Greek culture.  Over the centuries, the Acropolis has been repurposed into multiple religious sites, including time spent as a mosque and a church. As a result, the Acropolis has gradually come to be seen as a sacred site in the modern Greek culture due to the vast history of the Parthenon has lived through and has come to represent. With this in mind, it is easy to understand the role this inscription has on this votive. The Parthenon is used due to it coming to be seen as a sacred site within the Greek identity. By inscribing the Parthenon onto the votive, a message on the sacredness of the votive is established through its relation to the Parthenon. In short, this image shows how the representation of the Acropolis as a sacred site to the modern Greek identity resulted in its image being used within the Greek Orthodox Church to communicate messages on how sacred its votives are.

Greek Communist Prisoners building a replica of the Parthenon

The above image is of Greek Communists being held in concentration camp on the island of Makronisos following the Greek Civil War. During their time on Makronisos, the Greek government attempted to reeducate the communists on what it meant to be Greek by making them appreciate and value Hellenic Greek history.  To do this, one of the methods that was used was to make the communists build model replicas of Hellenic sites, like the Parthenon. While this image is another example of the use of the Acropolis and its structures by Greeks living in Greece, there is significant differences in how the Acropolis is used in this image when compared to the previous image.  In the previous image, the Parthenon is used passively, to simply signify the church votive is a sacred object by connecting it with the Acropolis, a site considered sacred in the modern Greek culture. In this image, the Parthenon is being used actively, rather than passively, with the purpose of “reeducating” Greek communists. In short, the previous image used the Parthenon to passively convey a message regarding the properties of the church votive, while this image actively uses the Parthenon in a reeducation program meant to change peoples’ beliefs and cultural identity.  Comparing these two images is important because it shows the completely different ways that the Acropolis and the Parthenon are able to be used within the modern Greek cultural identity. On one hand, it can be used in a passive manner that communicates information. On the other hand, it can be used actively, to attempt to change the opinions and identity of people.

Picture of Athens taken by George R. Swain in 1920 (From the Kelsey Museum)

The final image that is that of the Athenian skyline, taken by George Swain in 1920.  What is interesting about this image is its composition, specifically how George decided to orient himself in relation to the Acropolis and the rest of Athens.  In this picture, George decided to take it from one of the hills near the Acropolis, which resulted in the Acropolis being in the middle ground while the rest of Athens is seen to be behind the Acropolis, in the background, of the picture.  This decision is interesting because not only does it not include the half of Athens that George had his back to, but it also separates Athens from the Acropolis by putting perceived distance between them. As a result, the Acropolis dominates the picture while the rest of Athens seen as filler for the background, unimportant when compared to the Acropolis.  Whether intentional or not, these results are interesting because they exemplify the sentiment that is expressed by the Parthenon bomber Ch.K during his testimony in the book The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrissopoulos that we read for class.  While the testimony of Ch.K can be considered unreliable at best, the general views that foreigners and tourists would have had regarding the Acropolis and Athens can give some small credibility to his testimony, specifically in his claims that the Acropolis places an impossible height that Athens and Greece can never hope to achieve.  This difference is symbolized in this picture through the perceived distance George creates between the Acropolis and Athens. In short, the composition of this picture implies that the Acropolis is separate and above the rest of Athens which is similar to the ideas expressed in the testimony given in The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrissopoulos.

Work Cited

All images except for the last were collected from the challenge images given out by Professor Leontis

Candela, Iria. “’The Parthenon of Books’, Marta Minujín, 1983.” Tate, Sept. 2013,

Chrissopoulos, Christos. The Parthenon Bomber. Translated by John Cullen, Other Press, 2017.

Hamilakis, Yannis. “The Other ‘Parthenon’: Antiquity and National Memory at Makronisos.” Oral History Review, Oxford University Press, 1 Oct. 2002

“Supreme Court Building.” Architect of the Capitol, Architect of the Capitol, 19 Oct. 2018, www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/supreme-court-building.