Athens Return

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It only took me 35 friggin’ years to get back to one of the countries and cities I enjoyed most during my previous world tour. Funny how that works–but graduate school, family, parental health issues, change of jobs, publications, research, etc. etc. all claimed their share of my life.  No regrets, so being back is icing on the cake.

The contrasts with Turkey are both subtle and profound: Greece is definitely Europe, with all the positives and negatives of an integrated economic system. People in general are furious at the coercive measures taken by the EU to make Greece’s economy more in line with general practices (including a standard work day, something Spain is struggling with as well).

The wealth of the city is evident (as it was last time, even when the military junta ruled in 1978) and the grind of serving the economic system that has caused so much strife and austerity in recent years is reflected on the faces of 9-5 workers I see on the bus into town from the airport. Everyone looks exhausted and somewhat forlorn…but that’s probably my projection.

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The airport bus deposits me at Syntagma Square, facing the parliament building, and all I have to do is ask a newspaper vendor for the street leading to the Athos Hotel, and zoom, in 5 minutes I’m there. Made it just as it got dark, so relief (and fatigue) is tangible.

From my 3rd floor room, sandwiched between two 1970s era super ugly buildings, I can see the Acropolis and Parthenon’s eastern façade, as well as the old temple to Athena facing to the north. Scaffolding and a giant crane are still in the picture, and will probably remain so for the next 20 years at least.

Even a cursory read about the history of this site is humbling for all the things I don’t know regarding the many civilizations that, one by one, ruled the area and left an impact or legacy. Early settlements date back to the 8th century BCE and are attributed to the Mycenaeans, the same people who conquered Minoan culture on the island of Crete and whose hybrid legacy includes the story of the Minotaur, Theseus, King Minos, and the legend of the lost city of Atlantis.

The Myceneans were in due time overtaken and integrated into the Ionian Greek tribe. Their golden age was rather short lived, lasting from the 5th to 4th century before the Persians sacked the city and destroyed pretty much everything. But this was the time of Sophocles and other philosophers, of the great playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, and of the demos or “rule by people” that became the idea for democracy later on. Only men with property and good standing could participate in civic deliberations and vote on juries, but it was a dramatic departure from rule by despots and kings.

Alexander then came along in the late 4th century, rallied the noble families into an alliance, and created a vast empire, but it was not sustainable and collapsed not long after his early death at age 33. Hollywood and a respected director, Oliver Stone, tried to put his life (and immense ego) into a film but it didn’t work for some reason. Maybe just too much time has passed for contemporary audiences to feel much interest in an ancient conquerer.

Then it was Rome’s turn. The resources, materiel, manpower, and urban renewal and expansion they brought to the area was simply phenomenal. I think I enjoyed (what is today) a park-like area, the Agora, where the actual heart of the city was located at the foot of the Acropolis more than anything else I saw.

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It was the site of trading, government, learning, worship, and entertainment all in a fairly limited area. About a kilometer distant was the original gate to the city where two major roads–the “Sacred Way” and the “Path of Graves”– converged (and where Plato had his academy on a side route). Supposedly, this is the place where a 5th century BCE inscription first attests to the “immortality” of the soul, but I think the Egyptians were already promoting that idea in their burial and mortuary culture several centuries earlier.

(this is the monument to the individual who talks about immortality)

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The area became Christian from about the early 4th century CE, but the city never recovered from sacking by the Goths in 287 CE. Churches were built from the ruins of earlier temples but these too came under attack by the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s. The Parthenon, built originally in the 5th century BCE, was converted first to a Roman temple, then to a Byzantine church, then to a mosque, and finally a munitions depot, which exploded spectacularly when a cannon ball was lobbed into the center of the building by besieging Venetian troops in 1687.

According to the brochure one receives at the ticket entrance, the “worst destruction” took place in 1806 when Lord Elgin got permission from the Ottoman Turks to remove huge portions of the sculptures, now exhibited in the British Museum as the “Elgin Marbles.” Since 1983, the Greek government has been committed to the return of these treasures.

Well, enough history. Even though mid-March is officially “low season,” there were still plenty of people heading up the single entryway to the grand entrance. Scaffolding is up here and there, along with a crane, as the government attempts a selective restoration that will last generations.
No hurry, mon!

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And speaking of occupying armies, here’s a memorable account: There is a Greek flag flying high over the northeast corner of the Acropolis. When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the sentry who guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis, was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death. (This story may or may not be true)

“Nearby is a plaque by the flag commemorates Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, the two eighteen year-old heroes who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. It is of particular interest because these names are known not only by Greeks, but by many Europeans, because this act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression was an inspiration to all subjected people. Glezos, who became a member of the Greek resistance, was condemned to death for treason in 1948 and imprisoned for being a communist. He was later elected a member of the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK).” (from http://www.athensguide.com/acropolis.html)

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