What does the Parthenon mean?

What will archeologists twenty-five centuries from now make of the ruins of One World Trade Center, currently nearing completion in downtown Manhattan? Some scholars in the year 4514, familiar with ancient accounts describing the diminutive structure as a “skyscraper,” will no doubt speculate about the significance of its height—although they will be forced to admit that 1,368, the number of “feet” from base to roof, was a figure with no known significance in the culture of the ancient builders. Others, drawing on fragmentary scriptural texts (“wikis”) that refer to a now missing aerial spire, will propose an ingenious theory that the original height of the building was 1,776 of those antique units of measure: a symbolic reference to a date known to have had considerable ideological importance for the builders. (Still others will dismiss this notion as vulgarly literal-minded.)

Meanwhile, experts in epigraphy and prosopography will pore over inscriptions bearing the names of the ordinary people who lived, loved, and worked here (“Condé Nast,” “Michael Kors”). The presence of mysterious symbols—in particular, an apple with a bite taken out of it—will raise the vexed question of whether the site was sacred or secular. A few researchers will argue that the two immense rectangular pits near the site of the ruin, once fitted with pipes and, as most historians in the forty-sixth century agree, used as public baths, were the footprints of earlier, “archaic” structures known to have existed on the site, although they will not be able to explain why the outlines of those ruins were preserved. Try as all these scholars may, the unifying theory that connects the number 1776, the names, the symbols, and the traces of earlier structures will remain elusive.

When we look at the Parthenon today, we are looking at a building that began life much as One World Trade Center did—as a monument to a national cataclysm. By now, of course, it is one of the most iconic structures in the world: its majesty celebrated from Plutarch in the first century A.D. (“no less stately in size than exquisite in form”) to the Ottoman diarist Evliya Çelebi in the seventeenth (“We have seen all the mosques of the world, but we have never seen the likes of this!”); its aesthetic perfection adulated by professionals as well as tourists (Le Corbusier called it “the basis for all measurement in art”); reproduced in every medium and on every scale imaginable, from stone to paper, in tombs, stock exchanges, and courthouses, from a full-size replica in Nashville to the blue-and-white image on millions of takeout coffee cups. . . .

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Daniel Mendelsohn, The Ancient World, “Deep Frieze,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2014, p. 34

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by Daniel Mendelsohn

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