Athens, October 2001Classical scholars and students of ancient Greece won't find any new discoveries in the article below. Instead, it intends to render an eyewitness report of how things are in the city of Athens today.
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The Lycabettus Hill seen from Acropolis
From the vantage point on top of Mount Likavitos (the Lycabettus Hill) one has a great 360 degree view of the four-million city of Athens. Situated inside a horse shoe of low mountains opening up to the sea in the southwest, modern Athens is geographically well defined even though the furthermost edges of the city have now begun to climb the slopes of the surrounding mountains. In the sunshine the distinct, light colors of the buildings emit an almost sparkling light as if from marble, but as the sun is setting, the rosy coloring of the sky dampens the buildings' sharp glare into a warm glow before the artificial lights start leaping up and gradually draw sparkling technological lines across the valley.
Below us, toward the sea, lie the famous remnants of ancient Athens in plain view: first and foremost the Acropolis and the ancient Agora, the ancient stadium (now completely reconstructed) and the few columns of the former very impressive Zeus Temple. Among the modern buildings the Parliament building on Syntagma Square and the Panathinaikos football stadium stand out; and in the distance the harbor of Piraeus, the island of Salamis, and further out the beginning of the passage to the Peloponnese peninsula close the horizontal view.
The south view from the Lycabettus Hill - Acropolis in the middle of picture
Strolling among the ruins of the cradle of western civilization is indeed awe-inspiring, and the unique situation of the Acropolis on top of a "mesa" - a flat, decapitated mountain with steep sides - explains why it was chosen for a sanctuary in the first place and why it stood relatively untouched until that fateful day in 1687 when a Venetian shell hit the innermost, holy chamber (the cella) of the Parthenon temple and smashed or scattered invaluable pieces of art and history all over the place.
The general archeological interest in ancient Greece which began in the late 1700s has since put some of the pieces together, at least enough to render a very impressive impression of the importance of the hill, and since the 1830s reconstruction and conservation has been the daily order. When we visited the Acropolis, the small Nike temple near the entrance to the hill was under reconstruction, i.e. most of the temple had been taken down (actually for the third time in history - as were it a test piece for apprentice architects). However, much of what used to be part of the artistic decoration of Acropolis (e.g. metopes, gables and statues) can now be seen in museums, one of which is situated on the very spot right underneath the Parthenon.
Of all the many details in our guidebooks the most interesting was perhaps the fact that the columns of the temples are not of equal width, nor are they placed at the same distance from each other: to escape the slimming and dwarfing effect of perspective and instead ensure a "natural" appearance both vertically and horizontally, the pillars "bulge" to create a perfect vertical view, and their slight displacement allow an illusion of equidistant distance. Even the reliefs bordering the temples some 30 feet up are deliberately disproportioned to avoid a twisted view from below due to the effects of natural perspective. In other words, much care has been put into making the temples "imperfect" to seem "perfect".
From the temple overlooking the Agora - were they trying to move a grand piano into the temple? (right)
These physical manifestations of cultural prowess spring from the same sources as the renowned Greek democracy. At the foot of the Acropolis hill is the ancient Agora, the Athenian counter piece to the Forum Romanum, and as is the case in Rome, a good amount of imagination is needed to mentally furnish the site with buildings and people. This is where the famous philosophers met, and when we were standing where written contemporary reports say Socrates received his students, we had much fun imagining him receiving the students' belated "written reports".
Besides being the city's general market place, the Agora was also where the people's council met to banish potential enemies of the state by ostracizing them. The members of the council would scratch the name of their choice on an "ostrakon", a potsherd ballot, and in the reconstructed, long agora building several such ostrakons are exhibited. The interesting thing is that the potential enemies of the state were often the very people who had distinguished themselves as leaders in the many battles against other Greek city states or, above all, the Persians. Apparently, by doing so they had put their political careers on the line as they were now the objects of jealousy (cp. the fate of dictator Julius Caesar).
According to a census around 310 BC the city state of Athens had a total population of about 200,000 divided into the following groups:
21,000 grown, free men
75-100,000 women and children
10,000 grown, male "metoiks" (freed slaves, merchants and craftsmen)
+ an estimated 50-100,000 slaves
Of these only the 21,000 free men could vote. Originally, everybody was welcome to take the floor before voting, but as the number rose, direct democracy was replaced by indirect democracy: the popular assembly (held outside the Agora) was replaced by the people's council.
Only free men were accepted as soldiers (no mercenaries or slaves), but since state leader Solon around 600 BC put through a reform that forbade debt slavery among Athenians, the city state had been able to maintain a high level of military preparedness. Further, since the equipment needed for infantry was very costly and a private matter, Athenians soon preferred the navy which in turn enabled them to defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BC and eventually control the Aegean Sea.
With the free men serving in the navy, Athens needed people to work the fields, and after the Persian wars slaves became the most important force of labor in Athens. And with the control of the Aegean Sea came dependencies, vassal and client states which all paid taxes for protection. Athens thus became the political as well as the economical and administrative center of Greece in the 400s BC until its capitulation to Sparta in 404 BC. In spite of the political defeat Athens maintained its position as a cultural force, and when Alexander the Great took power and started his long succession of conquests in the 330s BC he brought Greek (i.e. Athenian) culture to the world.
That culture is what we admire today, and for very good reasons. But it should not be overlooked that what today we understand by democracy is a far cry from the democracy practiced in Athens. Even Plato and Aristotle spoke against democracy and advocated an almost fascist rule by the few fit for ruling. The majority is not always right just because they outnumber the knowing few - an interesting thought also today.
Democracy and Christianity
But ancient Athens is much more than the Acropolis and the Agora. On the footway up to the entrance to Acropolis we passed the very spot where the apostle Paul gave his famous speech to the Athenians about Christianity, reprinted in the Acts of the Apostles. Today a plaque indicates the place.
The presence of Paul in these surroundings underline the importance of the ancient city of Athens. Long after the Romans had made their conquest, Athens and Greece continued to influence the thinking of western Europe, and it is indeed amazing that what came to be the defining political attitude for all the western democracies was developed in Athens in just a few hundred years.
In much the same manner that sculpturing went from being general and symbolic to expressing individual thinking - in the sculptor as well as the sculptured - the philosophy of Greek thinkers set the standard for the questions man asks himself regarding human nature, cognition, and society - a standard that we hail today as the questions also modern man should put to himself to understand the world and himself. The world has seen many other powerful states and cultures rich in material wealth, but none so long-lived as the thoughts put forward in Greek philosophy and drama which to this day encompass most basic problems related to man.
And how strange that Solon's laws - originally intended to raise an army of free men and thereby freeing the Athenian aristocracy from debt slavery - was the starting signal to a long series of "democratic" events that have since become generally accepted as the only decent way to build a society. If only we could free more people from the shackles of debts (sharecroppers, migrant workers, sweatshop workers...).
Wrong Part of Town
Our hotel was situated near the Omonia Plaza (which is round and thus not a "square") within walking distance of all the important sights in Athens. Without difficulty we managed to cover also the National Museum with its many treasures that we knew from pictures in books (e.g. the Mycenaean findings) and the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square, but the most fascinating thing about the situation of our hotel was that it appeared to be right on one of the many ethnic borderlines that run through the city.
One evening when we were making our way through the city back to our hotel and had the map out to find a quick way through the last maze of dimly lit streets, a friendly gentleman addressed us and offered his help as in his mind we were obviously in the "wrong part of town" - he just couldn't imagine that we were close to our hotel.
Jonas (left) and Jakob in the "wrong part of town" - just a few streets from our hotel
The hotel itself was fine, in fact much better than the one we stayed in in Rome in 2000. What was typical for the southwestern part of the district, however, was the fact that after working hours a great number of single men seemed to flock there to hang about on street corners or squat in front of closed down shops. Very similar to street gangs, in fact. These men were all immigrants from Turkey, India, Pakistan, Albania, Egypt, and we got our knowledge of this fact from signs in the shops that lined the streets of the district. One of the boys got a Pakistani haircut; one night we had supper in an Indian restaurant on the second floor of a former concrete storage building complete with neon lights and cement floor; we did some of our shopping in an Egyptian supermarket, etc. etc. - all of these places were definitely ethnic in terms of products offered for sale, their accompanying labels, and the people in and near the shops, i.e. no Greek writing, which we wouldn't have understood, anyway, but also no or very little spoken English.
True, the neighborhood was a bit scary at times, especially the time we realized that Vibeke was the only female in the street, but her three male companions all stand more than six feet four which may be why we weren't bothered. But, to speak the truth, when we had wandered through the southwestern neighborhood a couple of times, we investigated other routes so as not to tempt our destinies unwarranted.
Later we found out that the alley leading east just across the street from our hotel was the beginning of a fashionable, mondaine district, quite the opposite in character, but also less intriguing.
Hellas and the Orient
But the non Grecian population is not a new phenomenon. In the 400 years of Turkish rule until 1829 the Greeks lived side by side with Turks, and Turkish culture has put a definite stamp on many cultural traits such as "Greek coffee", which would otherwise be termed "Turkish" (non filtered coffee) and delicious snacks like gyros and kebab (right).
Furthermore, it is relatively easy to distinguish the fair Greek look from the darker Turkish one (hair, skin, nose, mustache, etc.) and it seems as if the two groups may well have lived side by side for centuries, but they haven't mixed much. In much the same manner the new immigrants seem to keep to themselves. (See also "Turkish Immigrants" below.)
The famous district called the Plaka (or Monastiraki) at the foot of Acropolis makes you feel you are in the Near East. Its narrow and winding streets which barely allow passage because of the bazaar-like shops is a perfect image of the Orient as is the behavior of the shouting proprietors who call your attention to their display of products. If they don't own a proper shop, the goods will be on display on a blanket, and, needless to say, some the items are plain junk.
When we exchanged thoughts on how the members of the family experienced Athens, it is striking how we all pointed to a feeling of being in the Near East rather than in Europe. The new puzzle, then, is how much of a European is the modern Greek? - and the modern Turk living in Greece? A "European" Greek man in a restaurant thought we were British and offered to pay for our drinks. He was slightly "sloshed" and kept mumbling about Winston Churchill saving Greece from Communism after WW II ("if not for Churchill, Greece would have become another Albania," he said).
Main shopping street in the Plaka
Danes in Athens
When Greece gained independence it became a monarchy, and its first king was a German nobleman. However, when he was dethroned in 1862, a Danish prince was elected king, and with him began a Danish dynasty in Greece which (after a few years of interregnum during the civil war) ended when a military junta took power (1967) and abolished the monarchy in 1973. But long before that the Danish architect Christian Hansen started his life-long love affair with ancient Greek architecture. In the 1830s he and his brother Theophilus Hansen designed the trilogy on Eleftheriou Venizelou: the Academy of Arts, the University, and the National Library, all very impressive buildings in the ancient style, but perhaps also slightly overdone, a bit too monumental and pompous for a modern eye (except perhaps an American one with respect to the quasi classic buildings in Washington D.C.). Among the other works by the brothers Hansen are: the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Syntagma Square, the Observatory, and the Eye Clinic; the latter originally designed in classical style, but later changed into a Byzantine look, a demonstration of an alternative to classicism, but equally manifest of the political orientation in the mid-1800s when the prevailing ideas were of a "greater Byzantine Greece" rather than a preservation of what was ancient Athens.
When foreign architects were banned from public work in Greece in 1843 the Hansen brothers continued their work in Vienna and Trieste. Theophilus Hansen's last design was Athens Cathedral on Mitropoleos Street.
Doves - the rats of the air - near the trilogy buildings
With the 2004 Olympics drawing nearer many Greeks wish to call back the archeological treasures they feel have been stolen from them by the numerous foreign archeologists who were the first to give back to Greece her past. In many streets are displayed lists of petitions which demand that England gives back her Greek treasures which may be a fair request today, but there is no mentioning of Germany (Berlin) or Italy (Rome and Naples), or even Denmark for that matter, which indicates that the petition is more of a populist thing than reason based on archeological knowledge.
A strong argument for the displacement of the treasures and their subsequent preservation is, of course, that at the time they were found Greece was in no position to take care of them herself. This may not have been the archeologists' argument - they'd sooner claim that the treasures belonged to the world and that Greece was no longer the state it was when the artifacts were produced. Besides, Greece had not shown any particular interest in her past until after the findings. On the contrary, the artifacts had all been disfigured and otherwise marred by varying groups of vandals (including early Christians who wanted to do away with heathen gods).
Now, with Greece a member state of the European Union, it seems unlikely that other European nations will be able to defend their possession of invaluable items of Greek art and history, and in the coming years a visit to Athens will probably be even more worthwhile.
Delphi, the Navel of the World
One thing that is in no need for repair is the very hilly countryside of Greece. Although not fit for farming, the mountains provide the perfect backdrop for ancient sanctuaries and castles one of which is the Apollo temple in Delphi which was also the place of the oracle (of Pythia, or Sibylla).
The original rock of the oracle where Pythia sat
On our way to Delphi, near the town of Thebes, we passed the valley with the very crossroads where Oedipus killed his father Laius in a dispute of "the right of way" (see how life's basic facts don't change with the times?) before he went on to marry his mother Jocasta thus making manifest the "Oedipus complex". The story of Oedipus may be part legend and myth, but there was once a king called Oedipus, and he...
The beauty of the countryside near Delphi is indeed stunning (below), and it is easy to see why it was chosen for a sanctuary: everybody will agree that this is just about as beautiful a sight as can be. According to legend, Zeus let two birds fly in opposite directions around the world, and where they met (in Delphi) was supposedly the center (the navel) of the world.
In the local museum the egg shaped "navel" stone is on display (as are the famous archaic statues of Cleobis and Biton, who died from exhaustion yet happy since they were at the height of their careers, and the equally famous refined bronze statue of the chariot driver), but the main interest focuses on the outside, the slopes of Mount Parnassus and the remains of the sanctuary.
Cleobis and Biton
The "heavenly way" (formerly lined with statues and treasures donated by worshipping visitors in ancient times) takes the visitor up above the temple of Apollo from where the magnificent countryside unfolds in all its beauty. A few meditative moments of rest while overlooking the area with the sea in the distance will help you answer the famous question of "the meaning of life", and it's no wonder why Romantic writers like Lord Byron flocked here to sip from the fountain of wisdom which supposedly gave the drinker eloquent powers. (I would have liked to have a sip myself, but didn't dare drink the water which may be the distinguishing difference between the layman and the artist: instead of just sipping the water, Lord Byron dived into it and took a swim).
Outside Delphi - the strait of Korinth in the back
"Interamerican" - barracks for immigrant cotton workers
On the plains between Athens and Thebes we saw a strange sight in Europe: cotton fields - all around, in fact, as far as the eye could see. Obviously, the temperature is right, and the man power to harvest the crops present. A few quick questions gave at least part of the answer: in 1923 it was decided that Turkish citizens of Greek Orthodox denomination should be exchanged with Greek Muslims, regardless of genetic extraction - religion was the applied ruler. The resulting influx of 1.5 million immigrants added to the Greek population by almost 30 percent, many of whom settled on the plains of Attica (north of Athens) as tenant farmers. Others went on to live as unskilled or unemployed labor in Athens and Thessaloniki which accounts for the many people of non Grecian extraction we noticed in Athens. (In 1923 some of these exchange refugees were accommodated in the Athens Theater, one family to a box.)
One of the effects of the presence of these new Greeks was a renewed interest in Oriental aspects of Hellenism which in turn may account for the Oriental look we'd found in Athens. Geographically, Greeks are Europeans, but culturally they are a stepping stone to the Near and Middle East.
Two arguing businessmen, a Turk and a Greek (left)
Yes, of course
Modern Athenians are friendly people, but they are also a proud people. Since many things seem to work according to the principle of "mañana" (like the prices of last year still on display in shop windows), we took nothing for granted and always asked politely if this or that was possible, e.g. "Can you call a cab to take us from the hotel to the airport?" The answer was invariably, "Yes, of course," as if we had questioned the capability of the hotel. In Denmark we'd read reports of stagnation in the building of accommodation for the 2004 Olympics (and resulting reprimands from the IOC), but when asked if they would be ready in time, all Greeks answered, "Yes, of course," as if trusting in some divine Providence.
Many of them drive in the same manner. Traffic is hellish, but many drivers are very skilled (they have to be to survive); however, a great number of cars also bear the stamps of rather serious accidents. Traffic lights and yellow lines are often ignored (also by pedestrians) as are speed limits, but if you don't bend the rules you'll get nowhere in Athens.
The cost of the same trip in various taxis varied more than 50 percent; commission is widespread, also when exchanging money or applying one's Visa card - or we've been had, as we were when buying "original" perfume packed in original boxes. Luckily, the price was very low, and we did suspect that things were not what they appeared to be.
But despite these small annoyances the trip was a great success, especially since it combined a visit to the earliest beginnings of western civilization with a glimpse of a multicultural future.
With a bouzouki group playing syrtaki music, every meal is turned into a party (left)
One question remains, though: that of what happened to Greek culture in the Middle Ages when the country was under Turkish rule? It is difficult to maintain the belief that the nucleus of democracy that was formed in ancient Greece survived intact for several centuries.
Surely, Grecian artifacts belong in Greece, but not because they were stolen from a defenseless, democratic country who thereby suffered a deeply felt loss. However, modern Greeks act as if they have been democrats all along ("of course"), and it shall be interesting to see if they can live up to the image they have of themselves when it comes to integrating the many Albanian immigrants and other refugees who are squatting in the streets. What we saw sooner resembles the maxim of "survival of the fittest", first and foremost in commerce and trade - cp. the ancient "democracy" of the aristocracy and oligarchy - than social welfare and respect for minorities.
P.S. Athens has more than 100 small Greek Orthodox churches some of which are a thousand years old. Although they are visited by many people during the day (mostly in the mornings), they stand as left over relics in a modern city which has spun a cocoon around them (picture).
P.P.S. Not until we drove back to the airport did we find out about the very fine beaches situated to the southeast of Athens (due to the geographical position of Athens the temperature was constantly in the 80s, even in late October, and thus invited to a swim). And as far as the weather was concerned, the only thing that really surprised us was very strong and overpowering gusts of wind which made the visit to the Acropolis extra exciting.