4. Athens: Constructing A Classical Past

Creating Classical Athens

Fifteen years ago I went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. 

It was my first time leaving North America for the wider world, with the best company in the world: my mum and big sister. Long before I became the avid, capable travel planner I am today, I had a great teacher in my mum.

Theatre of Dionysus – 2016

Interested as we were in European history, it was trekking among the ruins and sketching my first real views of Greek temples, stones and statues which would influence the path my life would take thereafter. Athens was the last stop on our month-long trip, but left a resounding impact on my life.

In Greece, I began the process of ruining my life in North America for myself. I fell in love, and knew that whatever it took, I would make my way back and find a way to the columns, capitals and carvings of the Mediterranean.

Greece in particular holds a special place for me. I’ve done my most comprehensive traveling there, trying to see for myself the places I have read about. It is an understatement to say that it’s a place brimming with history, since you find traces of the past basically everywhere.

View of the Acropolis from the Areopagus – 2016

There is a lot of agency in creating the past. We choose to highlight aspects, or periods, which mean something to us, or do so to imbue these places or periods with meaning. It is important, when considering the presentation of the past, we remain aware that at some point a choice was made about what to present on an archaeological site, and how to present it. 

Creating a Historical Narrative:
The archaeological monuments we see before us today are only skeletons of times past, and most notably often illustrating one particular phase of site use. There have been many discussions in the last few decades about the way archaeologists, governments and historians construct and present an image of the past.

For instance, you may not be aware that there was a Byzantine period which saw a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built right into the Parthenon, which was turned into a mosque! Or a period which saw the Propylaea become part of the Ducal Palace. Not to mention the Erechtheion being turned into the Ottoman governor’s private Harem.  

None of these phases are represented any longer on the site. In fact, archaeologists dug so far down on the Acropolis there is bedrock exposed, which is slick to walk on and would not have been the stuff and muck under a Classical Athenians’ feet.  

Ottoman period building near Monastiraki station, one of the few visible reminders of the 400 year occupation – 2008

What does all this mean? 

From 1833 onwards, following the expulsion of Ottoman rule from Greece, the interest in the cultural florescence of the “Classical Period” of Greece would direct the new freedom the Greeks felt. Perhaps, it was appropriate to hearken back to a period following the expulsion of the Persians, after living so long under the rule of the inheritors of the Persian Empire. 
With an interest in archaeology, the new leadership of Greece under Otto, Prince of Bavaria, focused the gaze on the Classical period architecture to develop a new sense of Greek identity, officially making Athens the capital of Greece. His initiatives for conservation and restoration attempted to look back to a period of self-determination and incredible inventiveness which had so set them apart in the ancient world.  

A 19th Century painting depicts the presence of a minaret on the Ottoman building, illustrative of the romantic notions brought by travelers who admired the ruins, and wrote poetry about them in the din of the moon….as one does. 

Unfortunately, the 19th century interest in presenting the period of ‘Classical Athens’ required the removal of structures from other periods. This has left a disjointed archaeological impression and historical representation. We know from sketches and paintings made by gentleman travellers in the 1800’s how the landscape has been changed. Those other phases of history have been deconstructed and left unspoken in many areas. 

Early Photograph of ‘Classical’ elements of Athens

When viewing archaeological monuments and cities like Athens, it is worth remembering that the image you are presented reflects a moment in time and often is meant to symbolize how the people in power wanted to signify their rule. King Otto wanted to be seen as a liberator from the occupation by the Ottomans. Following a long established practice (especially in Athens), which we will look at in the Hellenistic and Roman posts upcoming, Otto focused on rebuilding and patronizing a period of history which saw the Greeks as leaders in Mediterranean politics and culture. None of what we see today is by accident.

Thank you for checking out my blog!

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