BMCR 2001.04.01

Τα Προπύλαια της Αθηναϊκής Ακρόπολης κατά τον Μεσαίωνα. [The Propylaea of the Athenian Acropolis during the Middle Ages] (2 vols.)

, Τα Προπύλαια της Αθηναϊκής Ακρόπολης κατά τον Μεσαίωνα. Vivliothēkē tēs en Athēnais Archaiologikēs Hetaireias 165. Athens: Hē en Athēnais Archaiologikē Hetaireia, 1997. 2 volumes. ISBN 9607036670 $100.00.

Full text (text)
Full text (images)

As Tasos Tanoulas describes in the prologue, the original instigation for this study came from his teacher, John Travlos, author of the classic text Η πολεοδομική εξέλιξις των Αθηνών [The urban development of Athens] (Athens, 1960). What was originally envisioned as a doctoral study of the Propylaea under the Frankish rule (1204-1456) expanded broadly in scope to become a life-time engagement not only with the historical study but also with the physical restoration of Mnesicles’ monument. Trained also as an architect, Dr. Tasos Tanoulas has been member of the Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments since 1977 and director of the restoration of the Propylaea. since 1984. Although he has published on the subject both in Greek and English, this is his most extensive work to date. Given his unsurpassed knowledge of the monument, and the scarcity of recent studies on post-classical Athens, his book is a welcome addition to the field. It is a trove of information, not only about the Propylaea in the middle ages, but also about the history of the Acropolis and the city of Athens from antiquity to the present. T. is a methodical and tireless researcher whose broad historical knowledge, technical expertise, and love for his subject are evident throughout this two-volume book.

Volume One is divided into four parts: 1. Historical evidence; 2. Travellers’ testimonies; 3. Architectural evidence; and 4. Reconstruction of the structural history of the Propylaea. Volume Two, titled “The Propylaea of the Athenian Acropolis from 267 AD to 1458” (pp. 283-313), contains the illustrations and an English summary.

In Part One (pp. 9-36), “The History of Propylaea,” T. describes the physical building, designed by the architect Mnesicles and constructed in 437-432 BCE. Throughout the book, T. takes into account the broader context of the western approach to the Acropolis and the surrounding region. He provides a synoptic history of the city of Athens from antiquity to the present, pointing out the impact of major historical events on the buildings of the Acropolis and especially on the Propylaea.

In Part Two (pp. 39-151) T. reviews written testimonies by travellers and archaeologists, dating mainly between the 15th and the end of the 19th centuries. As T. notes, the general category “travellers” includes a wide spectrum of visitors, ranging from civil servants to military engineers (p. 3). Included, among others, are excerpts from the testimonies of Niccolò da Martoni, Evliya Celebi, Jacob Spon, James Stuart and Nicolas Revett, Thomas Hope, J. C. Hobhouse, Louis Dupré, Ludwig Ross, and H. Ch. Hansen. T. presented a selection from this material in his article “The Propylaea of the Athenian Acropolis since the Seventeenth Century, their Decay and Restoration,” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts 102, 1987, pp. 413-483. Naturally, the treatment of the material is much more extensive in the present work, which offers valuable critical commentary of these accounts. For example, in reviewing the work of Richard Chandler (1765), T. points out several mistakes and misappropriations. “It seems that Chandler is one more victim of book dependence that muzzles the senses and logic…” (p. 81; all translations from the Greek are by this reviewer). Especially valuable are the photographs, which include work by the 19th-century photographers Robertson, Beck, Stillman, and Moraitis, among others.

Part Three (pp. 155-261) provides a detailed review of the condition of the Propylaea and the evidence that helps illuminate the history of the monument. It focuses on the central building, the north and south wings, the surrounding area and the western approach to the Acropolis. T. likens the Propylaea to a palimpsest “upon which it is possible to recognize many traces of the various building phases of the monument, [phases] which are traced in Part Two in the travellers’ testimonies” (p. 4).

In Part Four (pp. 265-323) T. synthesizes material from the first three parts and reconstructs the building’s history. He focuses on the following historical periods: the end of the 3rd century C.E., 4th-8th centuries C.E., the Middle Byzantine period (9th century-1204), the reign of the de la Roche family (1204-1311), and the reign of the Acciaiuoli (1388-1458). The Propylaea is studied within its broader physical context that includes the neighboring areas and the western approach to the Acropolis. Moreover, we are presented with valuable information on the history of the Acropolis as a whole. For example, T. speculates that the conversion of the Parthenon to a Christian church probably happened during the end of the 6th century and that of the Temple of Hephaistos and of the Erechtheion “at the earliest during the 7th-century” (p. 270). “What…usually escapes us,” he concludes, “through this plethora of information that builds a study such as this one is the fact that just five centuries ago these monuments were in a state of preservation that was incomparably better than that of today and that which the travellers in the second half of the 17th century encountered” (p. 321).

The photographs and illustrations that make up most of the second volume admirably complement the text of Volume I. The reproductions from 17, 18th and 19th centuries and photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries provide an excellent visual documentation of the Propylaia. The measured hardline drawings that follow these images offer a more detailed look at the Propylaia as it was built and as it weathered the subsequent centuries. Of particular interest are Tanoulass drawings showing reconstructions of the Propylaia from the 4th to 15th centuries CE.

Reviewing Τα Προπύλαια as an architectural historian, and not as a field archaeologist, I must admit that “this plethora of information” often obscured my own appreciation of the author’s work. All but those most intimately acquainted with this material would find it hard to distinguish which parts of the book summarize established theory and which overturn its assumptions or offer new insights. While T. may be too modest to blow his own horn, some stronger acknowledgment of his own contribution to this research would help highlight the text. In a similar vein, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the meticulous recording of the monument’s condition without more visible signposts by the author. Why is this information important? How, for example, may one incorporate it into a course syllabus on the history of Athens? An epilogue in Greek and English that placed the findings within the broader context of the post-classical city in the eastern Mediterranean would help make ΤΑ accessible to a wider audience.

As the book incorporates extensive passages from travellers’ accounts, it invites the inevitable question: can we take these comments at face value? While T. is careful to point out the archaeological discrepancies found in many of these testimonies, he is not as discriminating about the authors’ generalizations and possible exaggerations regarding conditions in Athens. For example, T. writes that “at the end of the 4th century, Athens was but a shadow of the splendid city of the middle 3rd century CE. That is corroborated by the testimony of Synesius, who visited Athens between 395 and 399” (p. 18). Synesius was a young philosopher, who had studied in Alexandria under Hypatia. Through his sharp criticism of Athens he was intending, primarily, to exalt Alexandria, Athens’s rival philosophical center.

T. has mined the foreign literature for real and fantastic descriptions of Athens that reflect the opinion of the outside (Western) world. One such example comes from a 1575 letter by “Martin Crusius, professor at the University of Tübingen, who asked the Greeks with whom he was corresponding if Athens had actually disappeared from the face of the earth” (p. 26). Athens, of course, had not disappeared from the face of history, as T. later suggests. It would have been interesting if T. juxtaposed these Western accounts with contemporary demographic data. According to the 1520-1530 census, Athens was the fourth largest city in the Balkans, after Constantinople, Thessalonike, and Adrianopolis. In the 1570 census Athens numbered 3,203 houses, reflecting a population of approximately 17,616 people (Dimitri N. Karidis, “Πολεοδομικά των Αθηνών της Τουρκοκρατίας” [Urban issues of Athens during the Ottoman rule], Ph.D. dissertation, National Technical University, Athens, 1981, p. 108). Furthermore, as his historical account reaches our days, one does wonder what the residents of Athens had to say about their city’s fortunes in general and the Propylaea in particular.

These last comments are in no way meant to detract from the most valuable contribution of Τα Προπύλαια in the historical and archaeological literature on Athens. It is impossible to expect an individual researcher, even one with the breadth and stamina of Dr. Tanoulas, to cover expertly all aspects of the city’s life through the centuries. His book is a valuable resource for classicists, archaeologists, and historians working on Athens. It would be most welcome, however, to see in the near future a collaborative volume on post-classical Athens that represented current work in both the historical and the social sciences.