Greece's Acropolis: no crisis for restoration

Like the victory goddess it honours, Athens' ancient Temple of Athena Nike stands free of scaffolding for the first time in nine years in a testament to another triumph - the prolific restoration of the Acropolis.

Greece may be struggling to ward off financial collapse but nothing will crush the ambitious plan - first started in 1975 - to restore Classical glory to the country's most visited monument.

The government vowed in May to press ahead with the drive to restore the landmark despite making deep budget cuts to battle its debt crisis. Even paycuts for the restoration team haven't dampened their determination to see it through.

"People have lower salaries as everybody in Greece today, but working here is a privilege and we have to keep our enthusiasm," said Mary Ioannidou, an engineer who spent 35 years of her life working on the site and today heads the Acropolis Restoration Service.

Yet another round of restoration started in January, this latest to last three years. The EU has already sunk millions of euros into the painstaking work and will finance 80 percent of the 12 million-euro budget (16 million dollars) for the new phase.

Whatever the crisis, "the Greek state never stops to take care of this monument," Ioannidou told AFP. "EU funds never stop; it's a symbol not only for Greece but for all European civilisation.

"It's a monument devoted to Western civilsation," she said.

The exquisite Temple of Athena Nike, on a rise flanking the entrance to the 5th-century BC citadel that towers over the capital, once again dazzles after nearly a decade hidden from view. Its pure Ionic columns support now-complete porticos that cut a fine angle against the deep blue sky. Only its walls hint at change - where bright new blocks of marble contrast with the centuries-old patina on original stones.

"We don't want to cheat, that's why we use this new marble, so that everybody can understand which is original and which is not," said Ioannidou, as jackhammers blare in the background.

The small temple's scaffolding came down in September at the start of a brief pause in restoration. Two months later, scaffolding was back up, this time on part of the Propylaea, a huge, semi-ruined gateway that served as the entrance to the Acropolis, and the celebrated Parthenon, the temple to Athena, protector of Athens.

The culture ministry plans to hire 50 more archaeologists, architects, stone masons and other artisans in the coming weeks, which would bring the restoration team to 200.

"Human interventions are our biggest enemy," said Ioannidou.

Damage came from many sources - transformation of temples into churches or mosques, bombings, demolition during the Ottomon empire, fires and notably what Ioannidou called bad restoration work in the early 20th century.

While the ancient Greeks took care to cover with lead the iron rods that link blocks of marble, early 20th-century restorers used ordinary, unprotected iron. "The iron elements rusted, expanded and caused a lot of damage," she said.

Today, modern materials are used, notably corrosion-resistant titanium, and the team's methods have become a reference point. "We have archaeologists coming from all over the world, we even had visitors from Korea where they used our methodology to restore some ancient stone pagodas," said Ioannidou.

Pollution and acid rain have also been a problem. Some sculptures and artefacts have been replaced on site with reproductions and the originals put in the ultra-modern Acropolis Museum that opened at the foot of the citadel in 2009.

Among these are the famous Caryatids, columns sculpted as females holding up the roof of a porch on the southern side of the Erectheum temple, and the frieze from the Temple of Athena Nike.

Six huge metopes, or square spaces on a frieze, from the west side of the Parthenon will also be replaced by copies.

The museum already already houses part of the Parthenon's priceless Elgin Marbles - with other fragments in the British Museum in London, a sore point between the two capitals. Greece has stepped up pressure on London in recent years to return the fragments, which it says were illegally removed in 1806 by British ambassador Lord Elgin when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire.

For Italian architect Constantin Karanassos, who has worked on the Acropolis for the last decade, "contemporary architects still have a lot to learn from the perfection of this construction.

"The ancient Greeks used their head and their eyes to measure 'optical accuracy' that today we rely on computers to do," he said.

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