I had a chance to spend a few hours in Athens last week. It was my first time in Greece, and my first time on the Acropolis. It was awe-inspiring, of course; utterly spectacular. But it's a disappointingly-ruined ruin, after 41 years of restoration.

Recalling the Acropolis's sad history helps to understand how this could be the case. In 480 BC, the Persians crossed the Hellespont, broke through the Spartans at Thermopylae, and burned Athens, the Acropolis, and the Old Parthenon. Shortly thereafter, in the sea to the west of Athens—at Salamis—the Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet. A year later, at Plataea, they destroyed a large part of the Persian army. What was left fled back to Asia Minor, and the Greeks followed. They spent the next 10 years driving the Persians out of Ionia. After that, though the Greek-Persian war would struggle on for 20 years more, the Athenians felt secure enough to begin rebuilding the Acropolis.

In 447 BC, under the direction of Pericles, construction began on a new Parthenon. It soon became the quintessential Greek Temple and the most famous building in the world. Two thousand years later, in 1687, the Ottomans, who had captured Athens, decided to store gunpowder in the Parthenon, which they had turned into a mosque. The gunpowder was ignited during a battle with the Venitian army, which was trying push the Ottomans out of Europe. After an impressive 2,000-year run of architectural perfection, the Parthenon exploded. Bits of columns and sculpture littered the surrounding mountain-top. They stayed there, more-or-less untouched, until 1800.

In 1800, the Scottish diplomat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, struck a deal with the Ottomans—who still controlled Athens—to purchase some of the Parthenon's sculpture. (Specifically, sculpture that neither the Ottomans nor the locals had bothered to pick off the Acropolis rubble pile.) The Ottomans gave their assent, Elgin paid, and he shipped a substantial part of the Parthenon's frieze and pediment statuary back to Britain.

The Elgin Marbles, which live in the British museum, are controversial. The Greeks insist they belong in Athens. I tend to take the British side: the Elgin Marbles were ill-treated in situ, and the sculpture that Elgin was unable to purchase—sculpture that hadn't been blown off the Parthenon's facade—was treated even worse in the decades that followed his purchase. What remained was left to weather the new industrial smog and allowed to erode and decay, some of it beyond repair.

Returning to the present and my visit, this laissez-faire attitude the modern Greeks have towards the Parthenon endures. The Chicago Tribune reported that this summer, for the first time since 1983, the Parthenon would be visible without scaffolding. I did not find this to be the case. The Greeks have been rebuilding the Parthenon since 1983. After 36 years, there is no end in sight. (In the Iron Age, during a war, on a mountain-top, it took the Ancient Greeks nine years to build the Parthenon from scratch.)

When I was there, there was scaffolding aplenty, discarded construction materials piled inside the adjacent Erechtheion Temple, and no construction-workers in sight. It was the day after Assumption Day; a Greek local told me that it generally takes Greek workers a few days to get back on the job after a holiday. We wonder at the collapse of the Greek economy.

No one seems to know exactly when the restoration will be finished. The consensus is something along the lines of "at least five more years". I won't hold my breath. But it's lucky that, with trash and scaffolding, the Acropolis was still the most breathtaking thing I've ever seen.

Joshua Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.