We don’t have an “official” blogger today, it being Sunday, so I am temporarily taking the reins to report on a tour of central Athens that we were given by Gonda Van Steen, Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at KCL.
The main idea of the tour was to follow an itinerary which took in some of the city’s heritage sites that are less well known than superstars such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which exist amid the day to day life of the city and are thus overlooked; but which still have great interest and importance.
From the hotel, we headed south east, and first took in Hadrian’s Arch, a feature that that can be fairly easily clocked going to and from the Acropolis district, but which is nonetheless overshadowed by it. Hadrian was very keen on Athens, and the arch is one of a number of impacts he made on the city. We proceeded down the hill, and on to the ancient bed of the River Ilissos, now an overgrown tangle of weeds, shrubs and evidence of dubious nocturnal activities; but once a focal point of the ancient city’s life. Near where the ancient river bed disappears under the modern road was said to be an entrance to Hades.
Crossing to the eastern bank, we passed a small Orthodox church, where the priest greeted us with a bowl of wayfarers’ bread and invited us in. It was a remarkable phenomenological experience. We were plunged suddenly into semi darkness, with ranks of various saints and apostles gazing down from their centuries-old gold leafed ikons. With Gonda interpreting, the priest explained that the church was built on an ancient shine of Hecate, and was dedicated to Saint Photini, who is associated with light and fertility. The light of Photini, it was said, worked against Hecate’s darkness from the underworld; a fascinating and unbroken chain of spatial narrative of belief, inexorably tied to a particular genus locus, spanning hundreds, probably thousands, of years.
After that we saw the modern Olympic stadium, completed for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, marking the founding of the modern Olympic movement. The Games of this time were played out against the backdrop of emerging late nineteenth century European nationalism, and battles over Greek identity. We crossed into the large park over the road and visited the Zappeion, the hall build for exhibitions around the first modern Games, and subsequently used as a conference and meeting centre.
Passing through Syntagma Square, we descended into the ticketing hall of the Metro station to look at the exhibits of archaeological artefacts and, in the subterranean walls, “mindfully reconstructed” archaeological sections of the city’s past. There is distinctly political edge to these, with a subtext affirming the long pedigree of the Greek nation.
The next leg took us through the university district. Although the University of Athens has now relocated to premises outside of the city, it retains the three great Neoclassical structures there today on “University Street”, formally known as the Evangelos Venizelos Boulevard. Under the courtyard on the other side of the road was the rather poignant “Stoa Bibliou”, a little basement precinct where academic publishers used to sell books to students. However the Greek financial crash did for these publishers, and their stores still stand empty there, some with displays of yellowing books still in the windows.
We then passed back towards the Acropolis area, taking us through the ancient district of Acharnia, past the walls near Monastiraki on Aeolou Street, which formed part of the ancient Acharnian Rd and Gate (the area made famous by Aristophanes’ comedy Acharnians). We returned to Monastiraki itself and finished at the “little metropolis” church, which is famous for its use of ancient spolia.
The day finished with the excellent hospitality of Dimos Kouvidis, who hosted us with food and wine on the terrace of his apartment, complete with sweeping views across to the Acropolis.
All in all, this was a fascinating tour of ancient Athens in its modern setting, displaying for us a rich archaeology of ideas, people, styles and ideas through the ages.
Additional notes/images from Ana Cabrera:
This being Sunday, we were awakened by the bells of the nearby church, Saint Catherine, announcing the Sunday Mass at 7:45 and at 10:00; and the sunny day that it was.
Today we have the opportunity to walk in Athens from a different perspective, looking at some hidden places and learning different aspects of the Athenian urbanism, Greek history and Athens vibrant city.
Our first stop was the river of Athens, Ilissos. Channeling through tunnels today, the river’s location is important to Athens’s development as a city surrounded by mountains, including the hill of Lykavittos and the Acropolis, among others. In the near future, the river and its banks will be open to creating a riverside walk.
After that, we turned to the 19th-century Stadium, where the first modern Olympic games took place in 1896 and saw how the city expanded using the grid structure, connecting hubs between different districts.
During the walk we began to know a little of the different characters and figures that mark Greek and Athenian history, some through the street names, others through the sculptures and busts that decorated the streets, gardens and squares. Even at the underground station at Syntagma Square you can see the city’s stratigraphy and see some of the archaeological material recovered during the station construction.
One impressive sight was the Akademia and University halls, with the 19th century Classical Greek style, including painting capitals. On the garden, two ancient olive trees watch the entrance on the Akademia.
From that point, we turned to see some Byzantine churches and the University’s “Books Stoa”. This was a place which have many small bookshops prior to the financial crisis, but which the crisis closed.
The last monument was an amazing Byzantine church that reused many decorated fragments and spoke of the city richness in materials to be used in buildings, walls, roads, as we saw in Isthmia last Thursday.
The walk finished with a Greek picnic on the terrace of Dimos Kouvidis, facing the Acropolis hill! A snack to get a taste of this city.
Many thanks to Gonda for the tour!