Past as Propaganda, Part Two: Archaeological Cleansing in Athens
Athens is a model city for the study of Classical antiquity. Its whitewashed marble overwhelms the casual visitor in the bright Mediterranean sunlight. Athenian tourism caters to those craving the beauty and classical design from the height of Greco-Roman culture. Athens, however, exists in a bubble that tends to exclude its other 2,000 years of history. Where are the Byzantine and Ottoman structures? What about Greece’s history as a German-occupied state in World War II? This history takes a back seat to the power and prestige afforded to Athens by the dominance of the Classical Age.
The Acropolis, the main focal point of Athenian tourism, changed dramatically in the years following Greek independence. Nationalist archaeologists removed its Ottoman character and scrubbed it down its 5th century BCE roots (Athanassopoulou 2002: 273-274). Athanassopoulou states that “archaeology plays an important role in establishing national identities and creating collective memories or imagined communities” (2002: 276). This assessment goes a long way in explaining why the “archaeological cleansing of the Acropolis” occurred during the years immediately following the war of Greek independence in the 1830s; Greece was creating a national identity by building on its Periclean heritage.
The decision to emphasize Classical roots over Ottoman heritage no doubt springs from the wave of Philhellenism that became prevalent in 19th century Europe. Greece was not only building a foundation for itself, but for all of Western Civilization (Athanassopoulou 2002: 291). Is it right to ignore these other foundations of Greek history? To clear the Parthenon of its Ottoman Mosque? To pretend that it never happened? The answer is no.
The Acropolis hill contains two Roman monuments; the rest of the buildings and statues date from the height of Athenian power in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. That Roman history is important as well. There was a mosque inside the Parthenon under the Ottomans (Athanassopoulou 2002: 278). There are Byzantine churches scattered throughout Athens, but you won’t find any in the city center. The Venetians used the Acropolis as a fortress when they took control of Athens in 1684. These pieces of history should have been preserved as well, but they are noticeably absent from the cultural landscape of Athens.
Athens has a rich cultural history: the original melting pot of people and ideas. It is a shame that a visitor to the city will most likely not be exposed to the wide range of uses that the Parthenon had, or even be able to see Byzantine and Ottoman artifacts or monuments. It is a testament to Greek pride in its Classical roots that this history has been given top billing to the exclusion of others. This is not to say there aren’t museums in the city that can shed some light on this, or that you won’t find any trace of the Ottoman legacy in this European capital. It does mean that you won’t see any on the Acropolis, and this “alternative history” will always be shown as less important in the overall scheme of the Greek story: a spot that it has been relegated to, but does not deserve.
Athanassopoulou, Effie K. 2002. An “Ancient” Landscape: European Ideals, Archaeology, and Nation Building in Early Modern Greece. In: Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol 20, pp. 273-305.