october 25th - november 1st, 2014
Strefi Hill looms over the Exarcheia district's riotous streets like the limestone castle of some indifferent authority. From this island in the sky, the serene geometries of the Acropolis appear to be in perfect order. Yet, in the depths of the urban canyons just below, the day to day order of the neighborhood comic book shops and cafes is often belied by anarchists or koukouloforoi, 'hooded ones' so deemed for the balaclavas they don to protect against identification and tear gas. One such group ambushed Greece's national finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, while he was dining in the neighborhood with his wife, the artist Danae Stratou, in April of 2015. In a surprisingly wholesome turn of events, she was able to shield the minister from harm with a hug before he managed to peacefully talk down the aggressors outside the restaurant.
Hadrian's library was once Athens' largest, framed with no less than 100 columns of Phrygian marble. The fortified outer walls were adapted over the centuries to safeguard papyrus scrolls, state archives, lecture halls, garden courtyards, a series of basilicas, bazaars, urban residences, the offices of the Turkish Administrator, a mosque, Lord Elgin's clock tower, a barracks and finally a prison. They could never fully guard themselves from the ravages of time, sadly, and today only the entrance façade remains cohesive enough to communicate the original grandeur of the skeletal remains within.
Classic indulgences: sweet and savory bougatsa from a 24-hour bakery; various handpies from the famously understated bakery Ariston washed down with a frappé; loukoumades, miracles of fried dough simultaneously rich and airy; and of course, the usual figs, pomegranate and yogurt.
Afloat in a different time, the quiet village of Anafiotika is harbored from the surrounding bustle in the northern eddy of the acropolis. Many of these hillside homes were literally built overnight by Cycladic islanders who flocked to Athens in the 1840's in response to King Otto I's call for craftsmen to help refurbish the capital of newly independent Greece. The migrants constructed quickly to take advantage of an old Ottoman decree stating that those able to complete a structure between sunset and sunrise would be granted ownership of the property- even if that property happened to be at the foot of the Western world's most renowned monument.
The architectural elegance of the Temple of Athena Nike has been lauded endlessly. It is diminutive, but detailed as richly as a jewel and perched dramatically on the cliff of a buttress facing the sea, stationed with supreme vantage of all the Aegean's comings and goings. Measured at the base, each column's diameter relates to its height by a ratio of 7:1. The conventional ratio of this order is 9:1 or 10:1, so by comparison the Temple of Athena Nike presents a markedly slender, refined profile. Each building of the acropolis is a masterwork alone, but also serves as an expression of Athenian democratic virtues by contributing to the compositional balance of the greater campus. For instance, Nike's frailty is complemented by the robust 5:1 proportions of the adjacent Propylaea. Tragically these harmonies, however sublime, did little to ease the mind of the sea's namesake, King Aegeus, who jumped to his death from this point when his son's fleet materialized on the horizon raising black sails. Legend has it that if the prince Theseus survived his confrontation abroad with the minotaur, he was meant to assure his father of the triumph from afar by flying white sails. Though he did indeed conquer the beast, the distress of hastily abandoning his lover distracted Theseus from honoring the pact and inadvertently led the King to sacrifice himself in vain. This macabre act was reinterpreted by modernity when in 1941, rather than obey the order to surrender the Greek flag and raise the swastika in its place, an acropolis guard ostensibly wrapped himself in the blue and white stripes and leapt to his doom. Recent investigations have called the veracity of this tale into question, but that doesn't change the fact it maintained morale during the harsh occupation and, like Aegeus and Theseus, remains part of the Athenian cultural memory. Anafiotika even hosts a plaque commemorating the supposed site of impact.
For better or worse, nothing much is left to be said of the perspectival artistry, superhuman craftsmanship, progressive political symbolism and natural resonances of the Parthenon. Suffice then to mention that without regard to the economic turmoil of the country, and barring the well-founded criticisms of its budgetary policies, the Greek government must at least be given credit for the lengths they have consistently gone to maintain and reconstruct this emblem of the reigning world-view. Although the ancients completed the building in only eight or nine years, recent restorations have already consumed over 30. Partly, this is due to the herculean effort of undoing prior mistakes in placement and attachment made in earlier restorations. To empathize with the archaeologists' devotion, imagine discovering a 70,000 piece three-dimensional puzzle incompletely and incorrectly assembled, undertaking the task of deconstructing and categorizing every single part based on identifying clues such as corrosion, cracking, stains and graffiti all so faint as to require nuanced expert analysis and then replacing all in the unique positions at which they belong. This is no hyperbole, for while the Parthenon may seem mathematically regular enough that pieces could be interchanged freely, in fact hardly visible curves, arcs and angles are worked into every element such that the entirety actively undermines optical illusions (like sagging or tapering) that truly parallel lines can cause. In order to appear more precise than it is, every stone must be returned to the one and only orientation from which it best supports the integrity of the whole.
The Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion, so named for the columns carved in the forms of women from a rebellious Peloponnesian town. The penalty assessed for their insubordination was enslavement in stone for all time. Happily for the captives the view is nice. It's doubtful the defendants ever expected to allow their prisoners quite so many visitors, nor that they'd be relieved to rooms comforted by scientifically optimized air conditioning. Of the six total, five have been moved to the Acropolis Museum, while the one abducted by Lord Elgin resides in the British Museum in London; these present in situ are replicas.
Any visitor to Athens would be remiss not to contemplate the myth which, If followed to the logical extent, tells us all of the polis' victories -imperial, academic, political and otherwise- are owed to this very tree. Allegedly, Athena bested Poseidon in a competition for patronage of the infant metropolis by upstaging his gift of a salt-tainted spring with a single olive tree, thereby endowing citizens with oil as sustenance and fuel as well as wood for building homes and ships. History has since demonstrated the great value wrought of these assets.
The colossal Temple of Zeus, as seen from the acropolis. Unknown numbers of workers spent some 638 years finishing the monstrous complex, and it only stood complete until the 3rd century AD. From then on, the corpse was intermittently picked apart by cultural vultures. That anything stands now is thus testament to the awesome scale of the design.
Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi's Acropolis Museum hovers precariously over unearthed Roman and early Byzantine relics. Inside the glass and steel anachronism, these constructions can be seen through glass floors, along with countless artifacts gathered from the acropolis and surrounding slopes. The climactic collection housed on the the top level, consisting of the Parthenon's original columns, pediments, friezes, metopes and cella walls is displayed in proportion to the original, but with sculptural components hung at eye level for legibility.
Dating from the late 10th century AD, the Church of the Holy Apostles is notable for being one of only two buildings in the agora left intact since foundation. The church marks the beginnings of the Byzantine 'Athenian type', a record of Hellenic expansion born in Ancient Greece and transmuted to Turkey by Orthodox Christianity before being delivered home to mature in Athens.
Considering the flood of images depicting toga-clad philosophers among pristine white colonnades and porticos most westerners are indoctrinated with, it can be difficult to picture Athens without marble, let alone painted in the saturated red, blue and gold hues of the day. Nonetheless, there was a time when only one marble structure stood in the city. That structure was the same Temple of Hephaestus pictured above. Built two years before the Parthenon, this building is today one of the area's best preserved. Based on the contents of the ornamentation, it was once believed the temple was dedicated to Theseus of the black sails, but this theory was refuted by the finding of cult statues of Athena Ergane and Hephaestus. There is some poetic justice in the truth that the sturdiest, longest-standing temple in Athens belonged to Hephaestus- the only god in the Greek pantheon who suffered physical imperfections.
More indulgences: the famous gyro sandwich, which can claim to be Athens' best is highly contested; simit, essentially a sesame bagel that may have originated in Turkey but is now ubiquitous across Greece; and salepi, a beverage made from pulverized orchids. Supposedly because hundreds if not thousands of flowers are required to produce a meager amount of labor-intensive orchid flour, salepi and related recipes like the stretchy turkish ice-cream kaimaki are hard to find outside the Aegean. The powder functions as a thickening agent, resulting in a pearly white, viscous liquid typically served warm in autumn. Historically, the drink has been thought of as an aphrodisiac due to its uncanny resemblance with...
No explanation necessary.
Six days of the week, Monastiraki's stalls peddle much the same kitsch as can be found in any junk shop. But come Sunday morning, the flea market explodes with all manner of colorful trash and art alike. The event is a dissonant jumble of authenticity and sham; honest to God icons hand painted by the monks of age-old monasteries compete for the consumers' gaze with plastic jewelry and sandals made by Chinese factories, or sandals made to fit to your feet on the spot. Few individuals have such insight into this creative tension as Stavros Melissinos, who now does business across Ermou street in Psiri after being evicted from Monastiraki by developers capitalizing on Olympic buzz despite his family's institutional social status. Known among sandal-makers as 'the poet' (and among poets as 'the sandle-maker') Stavros is reputed to have made shoes for the Beatles and Jackie O among other celebrities, not to mention published poems taught in UK universities and authored an entire book praising the joys of wine. Given we were far too destitute to invest in footwear at the time of our visit I can't sincerely endorse purchasing anything, but Stavros is worth meeting all the same if only to test which side of sincere you feel his stories fall and how your judgement reflects your own faith in humanity.
Speaking of faith in humanity, these kids may have a bit too much. Indeed adorable but woefully lacking in musical ability, they were lucky most every passerby had compassion enough not to grimace or laugh. Some even left tips, perhaps in the hopes that reaching their financial goals might compel the children to call it a day. Keep practicing starlets.
With no precipice to segregate it from contemporary life, Hadrian's Arch poses modestly at the end of an otherwise unremarkable block.
Zeus's take on dominoes.
Charilou Trikoupi is not a dead street. Below, in front of, across and to either side of this building affairs carry on as they would in any healthy place. Even so, Greece's economic troubles are such that blight like this can be found all over the city.
It's an odd symptom of media saturation that while traveling, as when settled, we're not infrequently tempted to weigh reality against scenes from the silver screen. Stranger still are the moments Americans concede to being caught unaware of an entire genre of movies. It was news to us that every generation of Athenians from the 80's onward maintains some nostalgia for campy films from the 50's, 60's and 70's (think Greece does Grease) in which the de facto hangout was most always a patisserie. Patission Avenue is by far the most recognizable location of these sweet shops, and though society has lately grown less fond of gossiping over elaborate ice cream sundaes the dessert parlor Xara holds out on Patission Avenue as if the glory days never passed. The original owner, Xara (pronounced Chara), is said to have carried the store's ancestral recipes in her shoe all the way from Istanbul. Her family continues to run the joint. Their delicacies accordingly tend to be more Turkish than Greek in style, particularly those featuring kaymak, an inexpressibly heavenly clotted cream made from buffalo milk.
Many a laugh has been had at the expense of the Ancient Greek's passion for male anatomy. Perhaps the artistic form that best illustrates their valuation of manhood is the herm, such as these kept in a side room of the National Archeological Museum. The practice of carving a disembodied phallus onto a torso with no other articulations has an interesting history, which when understood reveals the end result to be embody even more weirdness than first impressions suggest: In times before the technical refinements of civilization, Greek deities were often rendered as mere piles of stones or shapeless columns. Many of these were placed along thoroughfares, at intersections and at boundaries. The term for a rectangular pillar of stone, herma, soon came to be associated with Hermes, the god responsible for the well-being of merchants, travelers, roads and borders. Prior to assuming this role, Hermes was identified with fertility and luck, hence the relevance of the phallus. So, the first herms were logical combinations of the primitive quadrangular pillar with Hermes' head and his most characteristic feature, a penis. Then, for some unclear reason, sculptors began to free themselves from the restriction of placing only Hermes' head on the shoulders. Semblances of other gods, heroes and even mortals began to show up attached to trunks which almost invariably still sported Hermes' bits. Shortly, hybrids were invented like Hermathena (Athena with Hermes' cock), Hermanubis (Anubis with Hermes' cock) and Hermalcibides (Alcibiades with Hermes' cock). The most memorable is likely Hermaphrodite (Aphrodite with Hermes' cock), whose compound name remains the common term for individuals with both male and female sexual organs. This may all be comical today, but the Athenians took testes very seriously. As evidence, ponder the incident in which dissidents aiming to sabotage Alcibiades' departure during the Peloponnesian War chose to commit the impious act of castrating the city's herms, successfully stirring up a public furor. Athenian statesmen were also expected to swear oaths while standing over the severed testicles of sacrificial animals so as to be reminded of the consequences of breaking their word. One of the stones upon which such pledges occurred can still be found in the Agora. We implore any curious seekers to forgo emulating the ritual.
Presidential Guards, or Evzoni, stand duty at Athens' Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around the clock. Their distinctive costume hails from brigands called Klephts, which translates as 'thief', and is the root of the words kleptomania and kleptocracy. Why would Greece want it's Presidential Guards dressed like criminals, you might ask? The rationale lies in who they were stealing from. Summarily, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, most of the plains of present-day Greece fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Any Greek troops left alive were given the ultimatum of either serving as soldiers for the Sultan and Ottoman nobility, or else fending for themselves. Those who chose marginalization joined together with desperate or adventurous peasants, escaped convicts and assorted societal outcasts in nationalistic tribes that subsisted through banditry and resisted Turkish occupation into the 19th century, when they formed a core contingent in the Greek War of Independence. Though the extant units of Evzoni are primarily ceremonial, they maintain their posts with the utmost diligence. Like the British Queen's Guard, Evzoni are expected to stand at silent attention regardless of the circumstances. Two recent occasions prove how well the infantrymen respect this mandate: in 2001 a protestor threw a Molotov cocktail at one of the guardhouses pictured here. The wooden walls were engulfed in flame, but the Evzone stationed nearby didn't flinch until commanded to move by his officer. By the time he was given the order, his jacket was scorched and partly smoking on one side. In 2010, guards again refused to relinquish their posts after being informed of a bomb stashed just 20 meters away in Syntagma Square and remained on site as the charge exploded. That none were injured is only attributable to good fortune.
The EU's inability to rescue Greece from domestic turmoil hasn't yet obliterated every Athenians' confidence in the righteousness of European kinship. The quote regarding the army of 600 is borrowed from a poem penned by Lord Tennyson during the 19th century Crimean War, lending it pertinence to the 21st century Ukrainian conflict.
Dirty, perhaps; corrupt, certainly; crowded, often; but dull? Nobody can accuse Athens of that fault.
Kerameikos Cemetery hosts many stelae advertising the wealth of the deceased with elaborate decoration. The aesthetic value of these graves set in verdure nurtured by aeons of decomposition (and the relatively low number of visitors) makes the scene one of downtown Athen's more pastoral. Utilitarian tombstones devoid of all accoutrement apart from a horizontal bar were produced under the anti-sumptuary decree of 317-307 BC intended to curb displays of classism. Many of the etched names have been eroded over the millennia to the point of illegibility, forcing archeologists to relegate the markers to huddles such as the one above, effectively graveyards for gravestones.
Barring cemeteries and countless ghosts, Athens offers little in the way of Halloween celebrations. As with birthdays, Greeks simply haven't embraced what is to them this fairly new tradition. Not willing to forgo one of our favorite celebrations, we prepared our own party replete with sesame sweets, loukoumi (known elsewhere as Turkish Delight) and the ghoulish hues of ouzo.
The Acropolis and lights across the Saronic Gulf as seen from Strefi Hill. Athens' geomorphology is said to be among the most difficult of any urban area because of the way mountains surrounding the Attica Basin cause a temperature inversion that exacerbates the effects of industrial pollution. Ironically, the proliferation of the model of civilization born of this very city has begun to cannibalize its mother with contaminant concentrations severe enough to deeply concern preservationists. That said, one has to acknowledge how striking the illuminated ivory landmarks read amidst the stained ochre buildings below and hazy sky beyond.