This is an extract from the Reading Materials in English that are available in the English and Education section of the website of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka,   

The entire text of Historical Buildings by Goolbai Gunasekara, covering twelve famous constructions, is now available on that website.   

The Parthenon - Greece

Greece is one of the three peninsulas extending into the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Europe. The capital of modern Greece is Athens. It is a very old city and dates back to a time long before the Birth of Christ, according to which we divide time into BC and AD. In that early period, Greece consisted of different city-states. Each was independent of the other. The two strongest city-states were Athens and Sparta. 

In those days, most developed areas were river valley civilizations, established around rivers in fertile areas that were good for agriculture. These civilizations were generally kingdoms, with power in the hands of a single person. In Greece however, there was more participation by the people in government, and it is from the Greeks that we get our idea of democracy. The word democracy comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ which means people and ‘kratos’ which means power. 

The Acropolis


The concept of democracy was most developed in Athens. All Athenian citizens used to come to a hill in Athens every nine days to argue, make speeches and vote. Being a citizen meant more than voting. It meant holding office in government, and also acting as a juror, that is participating in making decisions in the courts. Every citizen was expected at some stage in his life to do his share of duty as an office holder and a juror, and to make sure this happened many such positions were allocated by lot, rather than by election. 

However this form of democracy was not perfect. The Athenian idea of a citizen was not the same as today. Only men were considered citizens. Women and slaves, as well as foreigners, could never be citizens. Since the men made up little more than half the population, this system cannot be described as fully democratic. 

The hill they met at is called the Acropolis. The Acropolis was made very beautiful, specially during the time of Pericles, a wise Athenian leader who lived from around 495 to 429 BC. He ruled in Athens during what is called its ‘Golden Age’. During his time he had the famous Parthenon built. This period also marked the development of the Athenian empire, which included almost all the islands between Greece and the western part of Asia, called Asia Minor. 

The Athenian Empire


The Empire arose when the Greeks defeated the Persians, whose empire had extended from present day Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean. Amongst their conquests were many islands inhabited by Greeks. When Persia was defeated in its attempt to conquer Greece too, the islands rose in revolt and asked mainland Greece to help them. Sparta which was not keen on new adventures refused, but the Athenians got involved and helped in what they called freeing their fellow Greeks. 

However they then wanted to control these islands themselves, and so they built up their own empire. Through this empire they also developed their own trade routes to the east, and in fact established some commercial contacts with Persia and countries further east as well. 

The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to Athena, the chief goddess of Athens. It was built between 447 and 438 BC, with money that the Athenians collected from their empire. Initially this money had been collected as contributions to common defence purposes, but Pericles used this money as though it belonged entirely to Athens. 

Athena Parthenos


Inside the Parthenon was a statue of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. This was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Athena represented wisdom, and the Athenians prided themselves on their learning and their educational system. 

The Greeks believed in simplicity. They felt that ‘understatement was elegance’. This means that real fashion is always simple. Even their buildings were built with this saying in mind. They used tall columns. These were of three types of architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The pillars of the Parthenon look perfectly straight but actually they slant inward just a little. This gives the impression of perfect straightness. If the columns did not do this, they would look as if they were slanting outward. 

Pericles had a frieze done just above the entrance to the Parthenon by an artist called Phidias. This frieze is regarded as one of the best works of art in the world. Some of the sculptures of the Parthenon were taken to Britain in the 19th century, when Greece was just emerging from the control of the Turkish Empire, and required assistance from Britain to win and maintain its independence. Now Greece is trying to get back these sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, but Britain is unwilling to return them, since they are amongst the most treasured exhibits of the British Museum. 

The Parthenon Frieze


Today the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis are in danger. Pollution in the form of acid rain is eating away at the lovely building. New cracks are appearing in the walls and steps. After lasting two and a half thousands years, they now face the dangers of tourism and pollution. Fortunately the Government of Greece is doing its best to protect this great building. 


Grammar and Vocabulary 

  1. Give in your own words the meaning of the words or phrases that are highlighted.
  2. To what do the pronouns in italics refer?
  3. Divide the proper nouns in this passage into those that name people, those that name places, and those that describe a special type of place or person. Which proper nouns are used as adjectives? Are there any proper nouns that name things?
  4. Find three adverbial phrases of time, beginning with different prepositions, in the first five paragraphs.
  5. Find three adverbial phrases of place, beginning with different prepositions, in the last five paragraphs.

Comprehension and Further Activities 

  1. Name three other types of government. What is the meaning of ‘archy’, which is also used in the second part of words describing types of government?
  2. What are the other peninsulas of Southern Europe? Mark these, together with Greece and Athens and Sparta and Persia on your map of the world. What is the modern name for Persia?
  3. Write down briefly in your own words the main point of each of the paragraphs in this passage. Which paragraphs deal mainly with Greece or Athens, which with the Parthenon, and which with the situation now?
  4. What sort of government did Sparta have? What was their main safeguard against one man rule?
  5. Find out about three Greeks famous for learning and write a short paragraph about each.
  6. Do you agree that elegance requires understatement? Discuss with reference to a building that you consider beautiful.
  7. What are the threats in Sri Lanka now to ancient buildings, and what is being done about these?