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F - 146 : "Marmairo" from Greece

Before writing my blog yesterday, I never asked myself where the marble for Greece's magnificent temples and palaces came from. But talking about the ancient ports of Miletus and Ephesus made me wonder. Definitely not from Italy. Only the Romans had vessels large enough to ship stone blocks weighting hundreds of tons. The granite columns from Egypt at the Pantheon's entrance in Rome weight 60 tons each. But the Pantheon was built 600 years after the Acropolis went up.

Big Tractors remove giant Blocks of Marble at Birros Hellenic Marble in Thrace, two hours north-east of Thessaloniki

Luckily there are sites like which host dozens of geology papers. After browsing through some, I found the map below showing the ancient marble quarries in Greece. To my surprise, many more than in Italy. Our word for marble actually derives from the ancient Greek word "marmairo", which means "glowing" (stone).

Marble is a by-product of Plate Tectonics which are violent in Anatolia and Greece as we have seen in my blog on Santorini (F - 165). Geologically speaking, marble is a metamorphic limestone which was transformed inside the earth crust under high pressure & temperatures of around 200 Celsius. Without melting, the calcite crystals recrystallize. Small crystals merge into larger crystals. The purer the limestone, the whiter the resulting marble. Metamorphism takes place at the boundaries of converging tectonic plates. The collision of the African plate with the Europe plate still folds the ancient sea floor of the Tethys Sea. In some places where temperature and pressure are right, the sedimentary limestone is “cooked” into marble. But it is a rare phenomenon which makes marble precious.

The Marble Quarry in Birros is one of the largest in Europe. On 25 levels, Marble is mined

We do not know when Greek people discovered marble. About 5’000 years ago, at the peak of the bronze age, the first marble figures appear in the Cyclades. Mostly women - small figurines - possible fertility symbols. They were nicely crafted and polished. These figurines were a few centimetres high, but a few are as long as a forearm. Over the centuries, the figurines morphed into statues reaching their full beauty by about 500 BC.

Female Figurines from the Cyclades from around 3'000 BC

In Ancient Greece, ordinary buildings were built with limestones. But the temples for the Gods and the palaces of the Kings were built in marble. Not just with a marble façade as we woulds do today. Full marble blocks and columns were used, often as one single piece. The engineering necessary to lift and transport these weights must have been advanced. But we know this already from Archimedes' work. The burial site of King Mausolus in Halicarnassus is

an excellent exemple. Built with massive marble blocks, it was also richly decorated with columns and reliefs. Some of them survived. The blocks however were used by the Maltese Knights to build their crusader castle in Bodrum or burnt for lime. The site is in a sorry state today. But it gave us the name for a mausoleum.

Reconstruction of the Memorial Tomb to Mausolus in Halicarnassus (Bodrum)

Greece's most precious marble was crystal white and came from Paros. But Greek people never had to go far to find high quality marble. The Acropolis was built with marbles from Attica. Miletus on the Anatolian side with marbles from the Meander Valley. There were so many quarries, they were literally on everybody's door steps. Due to the inclusion of various trace elements, marbles in Greece show a great variety.

Evenos Marble from Microthebes in Thessaly

Achilles Marble from Tranovaltos, Kozani

Green Marble with White Streaks from Tinos Island

Royal Red Marble from Ritsona in Central Greece

When the Romans arrived in Greece, the marble industry had a second wind. Romans loved the marble variety so much that they exported large volumes to Italy and used them to decorate imperial palaces and temples in Rome. Having ships big enough to handle the transport definitely helped. Still to this day, Greece exports many different types of marble

The Kritios Boy from 480 BC from Paros

Learning all of this, I marvel about Italy’s marketing skills. Chapeau! They make the Western world believe that they are the only country with beautiful marble. Nobody doubts the quality of Carrara Marble. But they find their match in Greece. Good friends of mine are now building a new resort close to Thessaloniki. They assured me that Greek marble is not only as beautiful as Carrara marble but also just half the price. Good marketing, Italy!

If you are interested in how marble is mined today, watch the video below on YouTube on the Birros Quarry in Thrace:

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