The Unbuilt Monument of Mount Athos

28 June 2020


Mount Athos Carved as a Monument to Alexander the Great, 1796, by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1750-1819

There was once a plan to carve the likeness of Alexander the Great into Mount Athos

As Mount Rushmore has been carved with the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and as the Crazy Horse Memorial is now being carved into Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Dinocrates imagined carving Mount Athos into an enormous likeness of Alexander the Great. This is one of the most ambitious unbuilt projects known from classical antiquity.

This sculpted mountain would not only have carved the likeness of Alexander, but would have carved an enormous statue of Alexander into the mountain, such that the statue would cradle an entire city in one hand. There were many cities that there built as a result of Alexander the Great — not only Alexandria, but also a string of Greek cities across West Asia along the line of march of his army — but if the statue and city had been built at Mount Athos, this would have been the great architectural monument of Alexander’s moment in history. It was not built, however, nor even started and abandoned, so all we have is the idea of a monumental statue and city dedicated to Alexander.

Here is how it is described in Vitruvius:

Dinocrates the architect, relying on the powers of his skill and ingenuity, whilst Alexander was in the midst of his conquests, set out from Macedonia to the army, desirous of gaining the commendation of his sovereign. That his introduction to the royal presence might be facilitated, he obtained letters from his countrymen and relations to men of the first rank and nobility about the king’s person; by whom being kindly received, he besought them to take the earliest opportunity of accomplishing his wish. They promised fairly, but were slow in performing; waiting, as they alleged, for a proper occasion. Thinking, however, they deferred this without just grounds, he took his own course for the object he had in view. He was, I should state, a man of tall stature, pleasing countenance, and altogether of dignified appearance. Trusting to the gifts with which nature had thus endowed him, he put off his ordinary clothing, and having anointed himself with oil, crowned his head with a wreath of poplar, slung a lion’s skin across his left shoulder, and carrying a large club in his right hand, he sallied forth to the royal tribunal, at a period when the king was dispensing justice.

The novelty of his appearance excited the attention of the people; and Alexander soon discovering, with astonishment, the object of their curiosity, ordered the crowd to make way for him, and demanded to know who he was. “A Macedonian architect,” replied Dinocrates, “who suggests schemes and designs worthy your royal renown. I propose to form Mount Athos into the statue of a man holding a spacious city in his left hand, and in his right a huge cup, into which shall be collected all the streams of the mountain, which shall then be poured into the sea.”

Alexander, delighted at the proposition, made immediate inquiry if the soil of the neighbourhood were of a quality capable of yielding sufficient produce for such a state. When, however, he found that all its supplies must be furnished by sea, he thus addressed Dinocrates: “I admire the grand outline of your scheme, and am well pleased with it: but I am of opinion he would be much to blame who planted a colony on such a spot. For as an infant is nourished by the milk of its mother, depending thereon for its progress to maturity, so a city depends on the fertility of the country surrounding it for its riches, its strength in population, and not less for its defence against an enemy. Though your plan might be carried into execution, yet I think it impolitic. I nevertheless request your attendance on me, that I may otherwise avail myself of your ingenuity.”

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, de Architectura, Book II, Introduction, sections 1-3

There is also a parenthetical mention of this proposal in Strabo, 14.1:

“After the completion of the temple, which, he says, was the work of Cheirocrates (the same man who built Alexandreia and the same man who proposed to Alexander to fashion Mt. Athos into his likeness, representing him as pouring a libation from a kind of ewer into a broad bowl, and to make two cities, one on the right of the mountain and the other on the left, and a river flowing from one to the other) — after the completion of the temple, he says, the great number of dedications in general were secured by means of the high honor they paid their artists, but the whole of the altar was filled, one might say, with the works of Praxiteles.”

from Pope Alexander VII Kupferstich François Spierre Pietro da Cortona 1666

Several artists have been inspired by this idea, including a painting by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (top), François Spierre and Pietro da Cortona (above), and Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (below). The project, though never built, continued to live in the imagination of artists and architects.

Plate 18 from Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur (Leipzig, 1725) by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723)

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s monumental work Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur includes the following description of the proposed city:


Mount Athos, cut into a Gigantick or Colossal Statue

It is to Dinocrates, Architect to Alexander the Great, that historians attribute this extraordinary Project of cutting Mount Athos into the Form of a Man, who was, in his left Hand, to hold a City, capable of containing 10,000 Inhabitants, and in his Right a Cup or Basin, which was to receive all the Water, that rolled down this Mountain, and afterwards distribute it to the Sea by great Precipices, not far from the Isthmus, which Xerxes caused to be cut.

Strabo seems to be mistaken, when, speaking of the Enterprise, he names Cheromocrates as the Architect. He mentions a Design of adding another City, below the former, on the Left, thought which the Water, that flowed out of the Cup or Basin, might be made to pass.

This Project Alexander thought worthy of his Greatness, and only disapproved of it, by Reason of the Difficulties, which would have arisen, how to furnish a City thus situated, without Corn-fields or Meadows, with the common Necessaries of Life. He looked upon Dinocrates to be a great Architect, but a bad Economist.

As for the Invention of cutting Rocks into humane Forms, it is more ancient than the Age Dinocrates lived in, even though we should not give Credit to some ancient Historians, who assure us, that Sermiramis executed a Project like unto this on Mount Bagistan in Medea, where she caused a Rock of 17 Furlongs to be cut into her own and several other Figures, But what may seem more surprising to those, who are not apprised of it, is, that such a Project has been really Brought to Perfection in Suchuen, a Province of China, near to the Metropolis Chunking, on the Brink of the River Fu, where there is a Mountain cut in such a Manner as to represent the Idol Fe sitting.

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur, Leipzig, 1725, Plate 18. I got a facsimile copy of the Entwurff by inter-library loan, and I believe that it was a facsimile of the 1737 edition with the wonderful Enlightenment title as follows: A plan of civil and historical architecture, in the representation of the most noted buildings of foreign nations, both ancient and modern : taken from the most approv’d historians, original medals, remarkable ruins, and curious authentick designs; and display’d in eighty-six double folio-plates, finely engraven : at a very great expence, by the most eminent hands : divided into five books : … / all drawn with excellent skill, and the utmost diligence by Mr. John Bernhard Fischer, of Erlach … ; first published at Leipzig, with the explanations of all the plates, in German and French, out of the best ancient and modern writers; and now faithfully translated into English, with large additional notes, by Thomas Lediard, Esq. … I scanned the pages associated with plate XVIII so that I had a copy of the text, which I have reproduced above, modernizing the spelling and punctuation, neglecting the italics, but retaining the idiosyncratic eighteenth century Capitalization. If you’re interested in more information, write me and I will send you the scans I made.

It would be interesting to find out how and why Strabo cites Cheromocrates (spelled “Cheirocrates” in the Strabo transliteration quoted above) whereas both Vitruvius and Fischer von Erlach cite Dinocrates. It could be a mere error, but Strabo cites Cheromocrates as the final architect of the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. it seems unlikely that the architect of such a work would be mistaken, but there was also an implicit tradition in antiquity of attributing great works to great men. One got a larger audience for one’s book if one published it under the name of a now deceased author of great reputation, as compared to publishing it under one’s own name. There are so many interesting counterfactuals here it would be difficult to name them all. If the Mount Athos monument had been built, it might have also found its way onto lists of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and so one would expect that a work of such stature be credited to an architect already know for similar greatness.

Detail from the above plate.

Connoisseurs of music sometimes discuss the relative merits of the unfinished fragments of incomplete works by great composers. Some of these unfinished works have become renowned in their right, as, for example, with the case of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, more commonly known as the Unfinished Symphony. I have a fascination with unfinished, or, rather, unbuilt architectural designs. I can still remember the first time I saw a picture of Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton (which I have written about in several posts, for example, in Central Projects and Axialization), which is among the greatest examples of unbuilt architecture. Would that Dinocrates had left drawings of his plan for Alexander’s monument as Étienne-Louis Boullée drew up for Newton’s monument!

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s design for a Cenotaph for Newton, which remains unbuilt. This is perhaps one of the most famous unbuilt structures in the history of architecture.

Today, Mount Athos is known as a famous monastery (actually, twenty monasteries, also known as the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos). If the vision of Dinocrates had been realized, the history of Mount Athos would have been quite different, and its environs today — whether the monument and the city had survived the ages and grown into a modern city, or had it become a monumental ruin — would have a different aspect. Rather than being an entire peninsula consecrated to monasticism and a goal of Christian pilgrimage, it might have been a celebrated pagan shrine and the goal of pilgrimage in classical antiquity, and for tourists today. But one could easily formulate an alternative history in which the monument and the city were built, stood as a thriving metropolis for hundreds of years, was eventually depopulated, after which time early Christian monks settled in the ruins of the city so that Mount Athos became an monastery anyway, albeit by a more circuitous route than that by which it did in fact become a monastery.

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Plate 18 from Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur (Leipzig, 1725) by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723)

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Discord Invitation

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