Voyeur in Athens

One mild January afternoon I found myself at the footsteps of the crown of the doric order and classical Greek Architecture—the Parthenon. Emotions were high as we parked our car and began the short trek across the park. The grass was suspiciously green for being winter, families were picnicking, dogs were being walked by their owners. The air was fresh and I had my eyes and heart set on viewing the Parthenon.


The Parthenon is surrounded on all sides by a sprawling green park. Concrete sidewalks take you to multiple fish ponds, and a few hot dog stands, and of course the Parthenon.


The structure towers over the surrounding park, somewhat bigger than imagined, yet somehow smaller too. Tourists are smiling for selfies, a father is chasing his child through the columns, signs direct us to the entrance.


We entered through the basement, and found ourselves in a sprawling gallery space. The art on the walls was largely plein air in style and made by local contemporary artists. While great in its own right, the basement galleries did not connect with the main attraction whatsoever.


Perhaps due to the restricted nature of the temple, there were no signs telling us where to go. Finally, we made our way up a set of undignified stairs and into the naos.


Athena Parthenos was right there.

Of course, she was blocked by red velvet ropes. But Athena Parthenos was visible to my mortal eyes. Holding Nike in her right palm, shield resting at her side, I had to visibly crane my neck upwards to see Athena in her full glory.


And I felt nothing.


Elderly couples were being photographed in front of the statue, children were yelling. It was as if I was in a theme park, not an ancient temple.


We continued to snake our way into the treasury room. The two walls were flanked by plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles and one of the pediments.

Our entire journey into the Hellenistic world lasted less than twenty disappointing minutes.


Here’s the point where I should mention that I am in fact not telling the story of touring the Grecian capital. There is an exact replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee’s Centennial Park. Made of concrete, this structure was built as part of a celebration of Tennessee’s first one hundred years as a part of the union. Athena Parthenos was put up in the 1990s.

Having never been to Athens it is hard to critique the sense of awe that comes with viewing the Parthenon. However, I have been able to view ancient Roman ruins in Italy, and was left with a feeling of adoration and reverence, which I was not in Nashville.


Perhaps it was my mistake for putting too much stake in the ‘exact replica’ of the Parthenon in Nashville. Or perhaps it has something to do with the influx of mysticism surrounding cult sites.


Nashville’s Parthenon is, too, a cult site—for the game of cup-and-ball. Upon exiting the temple and strolling on the stylobate we found ourselves emerged in some sort of convention. Fifty or so adult men surrounded the exterior of the Parthenon. In their hands they held wooden cups with a ball attached by a string. Each man was strategically standing in front of their professional camera, filming themselves attempting to catch the ball with the wooden cup.

Feeling a sense of not belonging and not understanding is common at cultural sites and museums. However, I must admit that this is a feeling that I do not often feel. I function with a great deal of privilege and have a strong art history background that allows me too often go unnoticed in these institutions. But upon entering the Parthenon, I felt that this was not the space for me.

But, maybe, just maybe, that’s the point.


Common everyday citizens were not allowed into the Athenian Parthenon. Priests would enter the sacred space to have some sort of spiritual renaissance and people like me would have to find spirituality through other means.

For me, this was through cup-and-ball. Watching the players congratulate each other and feel a sense of pride and camaraderie allowed me to have an actual spiritual experience. Viewing the small joys of others doing something so meaningless reminded of what it means to be a living and breathing member of society.

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