Our American Parthenon

In her remarkable new book, "The Parthenon Enigma," classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly fortuitously highlights the similarity between the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11, and the construction of that most famous of human monuments, the Parthenon. In the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C., the Older Parthenon, roughly in the same spot and yet unfinished, was destroyed in the fires that swept over the Acropolis. She writes of the motivations of Periklean Athens, a generation later, to rebuild the Parthenon:

"[The Athenians] wanted to leave their own children something more than a citadel in ruins, a barren ground zero that fossilized the bitter memories of defeat. It was time to forge a new narrative for the city, one of Athenian triumph and supremacy, a visual tribute to its miraculous rise from the ashes."  (page 84, emphasis added)

A city that had witnessed its own ruin and ultimate victory over a foreign invader considered the rebirth of the place, where the worst had been done, a sacred task. Whether the Athens of twenty-five hundred years ago, or the New York of our own day, the motivation to rebuild has never been about putting a horrific past behind us. It is about enshrining the memory of the legacy of the attack, and the subsequent sacrifice and heroism, in a temple that will tell the tale to generations yet to come. Whether it was the Parthenon then or Saint Nicholas now, the shared embodiment of memory and triumph is the same. Our Holy Archdiocese of America is building more than a parish church that was destroyed in the attacks of September 11, 2001.  We – all of us – are building a Shrine of memory and honor for the human spirit and to glory of God. We are building our American Parthenon.


By coincidence, Santiago Calatrava, the architect of the new Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, was in Athens on September 11, 2001. As he reflected years later:

"Early that afternoon, I was confronted by the images broadcast out of New York. Horrified by the magnitude of the tragedy, I sat transfixed, unable to move until well into the night. Days later, as I walked through the Plaka - the ancient quarter in Athens - the walls of the Acropolis recalled the previous days' images. The first Acropolis was destroyed in the 5th century BC when Athens was invaded and burnt to the ground. Athens and its Acropolis were rebuilt. The relicts of the original structures were collected and carefully entombed. The columns of the original Parthenon were saved, and reused to buttress the walls of the new Acropolis. To me, these columns link the tragedy and triumph of ancient Athens,  and testify to man's innate capacity to overcome such events…. The reconstruction of the Acropolis marked the beginning of the golden age of Greek civilization. Not only did Art, Philosophy, and Poetry flourish, but Democracy, as we know it today, was born. May the reconstruction of Ground Zero encourage us, and our children to such noble achievements."


The responsibility for raising the new Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero, while not on the same physical scale as the Parthenon, is clearly on the same moral and societal level. Perikles began construction of the Parthenon in 447 B.C., a few years after the transfer of the treasury of the Athenian League from the sacred island of Delos to Athens. That incredible amount was 8,000 talents, or nearly five billion dollars in contemporary terms. Then, with the cooperation and consent of all the citizens of Athens, over five percent of this total (around 280 million dollars) was spent building the Parthenon over a sixteen-year period.

Dr. Manolis Korres, the foremost scholar on the archaeology of the Athenian Acropolis and chief architect of the Acropolis Restoration Project, has written extensively on the difficulties of building this masterpiece. (See his "From Pentelicon to the Parthenon" and "The Stones of the Parthenon") In all, over one hundred thousand tons of marble were moved the ten long miles from Mount Pentelikon to the Acropolis. It is an engineering feat that could be said to surpass the Pyramids of Egypt! The citizens of Athens were deeply engaged in this extraordinary effort, leaving an example for us.

In order to complete the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, the same shoulder-to-shoulder effort is required from the ‘citizens' of our "polis" – "a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10). All across our great Nation, Greek Orthodox Communities embody the living "City of God" a "politeia" that is based in the salvific labor of sacrificial love and compassion that our Lord Jesus Christ completed on His Precious Cross and through His Glorious Resurrection. Indeed, the rebuilding of Saint Nicholas is an act borne out of the Passion of our Nation on 9/11, and will only be consummated by the Resurrection of our National Shrine. Every member of our Church has a stake in the rebuilding of Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, just as every Athenian citizen had a stake in rebuilding the Parthenon. Every gift and donation to this effort, however great or small, serves to move us closer to constructing our American Parthenon, a temple of memory and honor.

Unlike the Temple that towers to this day above the Agora of Athens and the hustle and bustle of the city below, Saint Nicholas will stand among the vertiginous heights of commerce and industry that will be the new World Trade Center. Tower One, formerly called the "Freedom Tower" and a brief walk from the site of the church, is the tallest building in the United States. And yet, as has been pointed out in these pages before, Saint Nicholas will rest in an elevated park, a little ‘acropolis', if you will. And from its height of a mere twenty-five feet, it will look down into the Memorial waterfalls set within the footprints of the Twin Towers. As Santiago Calatrava, has observed, the absences created by the voids of the Memorial Pools will be balanced by the presence of the Church. Absence and presence. Absence of those whose lives were lost that fateful day. Presence of hope over adversity, triumph in the face of destruction, and love that is victorious over hatred and evil.

It is perhaps no accident of history that that the Athena Victory (Nike) Temple is the first structure that confronts the visitor to the Acropolis, and that the meaning of "Nicholas" is "the Victory of the People" (e nike tou laou). Just as the Parthenon reminded the ancient Athenians of the price for their freedom, so too shall the Saint Nicholas Shrine at Ground Zero remind the whole American People that our most treasured freedom is that of religious belief according to our conscious, and that mutual respect for all religions is the only way to live in a world without war and violence.

Additional Stories

Memories of St. Nicholas: A Refuge
Series titled "Memories of St. Nicholas" We headed to social media to ask people to share their memories of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church before it was destroyed on September 11, 2001. This story is about a worker at City Hall who frequented St. Nicholas.
Memories of St. Nicholas: A Treasured Place
Series titled: Memories of St. Nicholas. The story from an individual who frequented St. Nicholas during their lunch hour, celebrated joys, and commemorated their grandmother's one year memorial at St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Ground Zero: Out of the Ashes, A New Symbol of Faith
The Church of St. Nicholas that will be built at the heart of Ground Zero replacing the one destroyed on 9/11 will make the most stirring statement that any house of worship has made in the United States in a long time. It will tell America in brilliant visual images what we are, where we come from, and where we are going. A fusion of the past and the future is what characterizes the new St. Nicholas Church. Calatrava has taken his inspiration from some of the great churches in Constantinople in creating his design.
A National Shrine for Everyone
The new Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero will be much more than a rebuilt parish. It will be a National Shrine of our Holy Archdiocese and a place of pilgrimage for our Nation and the whole world. This recognition, this raising of the consciousness of every member of our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to the value and significance of the Saint Nicholas National Shrine at Ground Zero is just the beginning. Saint Nicholas will be the only House of Worship in the entire sixteen-acre rebuilt World Trade Center site.
Our American Parthenon
In her remarkable new book, “The Parthenon Enigma,” classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly fortuitously highlights the similarity between the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11, and the construction of that most famous of human monuments, the Parthenon. In the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C., the Older Parthenon, roughly in the same spot and yet unfinished, was destroyed in the fires that swept over the Acropolis. She writes of the motivations of Periklean Athens, a generation later, to rebuild the Parthenon:
A Tale of Three Churches: Part 2
Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, a famous man sardonically asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” As Orthodox Christians, we know that there is an answer and that answer is “Very much!” In the same way, we have seen that New York City has much to do with Jerusalem – as the world’s two most famous cenotaphs are located in each. But we began last issue with three Churches in our tale, and it is time now to include that third House of the Lord, and to behold how all three are intertwined in the work of salvation and history.
A Tale of Three Churches: Part 1
On September 11, 2001, in an act of terror and hatred, our Nation was attacked and three thousand of our fellow human beings were mercilessly murdered. The horrific deaths of the innocent victims of that tragic day were brought about by a hatred fueled by perverse and perverted religious views. In the face of the horror of that day, we all witnessed the heroic love of the responders who gave their last measure to save others. This altruistic love is at the heart of the rebuilding of the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, a National Shrine of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The City Set On A Hill Cannot Be Hidden
It should not difficult for anyone to see that Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the World Trade Center, a National Shrine of our Archdiocese, will truly be, as the Lord preached in the Sermon on the Mount, “the city set on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
Rebuilding St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
The original St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church cast a reverent and faithful shadow on the World Trade Center. Greeks purchased the row house in 1892 as a community home, and it became the Saint Nicholas Church in 1916. For many Greeks immigrants, it would have been their first stop after seeing the Statue of Liberty and disembarking from Ellis Island. The little church was a spiritual jewel, open to all. Generations of New Yorkers stopped in to light a candle, say a prayer, or just sit quietly.
St. Nicholas: On this rock I will rebuild my Church
On September 11, 2001 the barbaric attack not only destroyed the majestic Twin Towers but also the tiny yet historic St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, located south of the second tower of the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of its destruction, very little survived: two icons, one of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos and the other of the Zoodochos Pege, along with a few liturgical items, a book, and some candles.