Date September 3, 2021
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In Athens, new Acropolis renovations threaten to erase ancient history, expert says

Archaeologists across the globe, including one scholar at Brown, believe recent renovations at the iconic Athens landmark are promoting the site’s classical past — and ignoring the rest of its history.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — After closing for nearly five months in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Acropolis of Athens — one of the world’s most iconic ancient wonders — reopened to the public in March 2021. And when it did, it was practically unrecognizable to Yannis Hamilakis, a professor of archaeology and modern Greek studies at Brown University.

Hamilakis was astounded to see that crews had paved over much of the rocky summit to create wide paths of reinforced concrete. The Committee for the Conservation of the Acropolis Monuments — which advises the Acropolis Restoration Service, a special unit of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports — had deemed the work necessary to accommodate visitors with disabilities. The committee revealed in 2020 that it also has plans to reconstruct a Roman marble staircase on the site’s western slope.

Hamilakis and other scholars have decried the renovations, saying the committee’s plans amount to a “Disneyfication” of the historic site that not only fails to meet modern accessibility standards but also erases significant history from before and after classical antiquity. Last spring, he joined hundreds of other scholars in making the case against the changes.

What hidden histories do the Acropolis renovations ignore, and why is such historical exclusion problematic? Hamilakis answered questions about new and proposed construction at the Acropolis, the controversy it has ignited, and the artists, scholars and activists who are actively working to spotlight the site’s full, unvarnished, millennia-long history.

Q: Archaeologists and historians across the globe are in hot debate about the future of the Acropolis. What’s driving these conversations?

In the autumn of 2020, the global archaeological community was taken by surprise when, in the midst of a national lockdown in Greece, we were notified that extensive work would be taking place. They said they were going to lay out broad new pathways in concrete, cementing over large portions of the site.

We were alarmed, because we hadn’t seen any prior study or report that indicated the Ministry of Culture and Sports was planning this work. Typically, work at an ancient site such as the Acropolis — which is so iconic that its most celebrated monument, the Parthenon, has inspired UNESCO’s logo — doesn’t take place until the global community of conservators and architects discusses and debates it extensively. You could say the ministry took advantage of the national lockdown in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct this work mostly in secret.

When we archaeologists were first allowed to visit the site and see the work, briefly in November 2020 but mostly in the spring of this year, we were shocked by the extent and type of the interventions. Most of the Acropolis’s non-built area — the parts of the site that aren’t currently occupied by conspicuous monuments — is now paved over with concrete, some of it reinforced. The ministry says it also has plans to expand the concrete paving in the southern part of the site and create a series of concrete terraces on the western side.

Q: Why are these changes problematic?

There are a few reasons. First, the ministry justified this work on the basis of providing access to those with physical limitations. That was a bit surprising to hear, because it hadn’t commissioned a detailed study by a group of scholars who specialize in planning for restoration work that expands accessibility. And that is made very clear by the steepness of some of the concrete slopes. People in wheelchairs cannot move autonomously on such steep paths.

Second, paving over the rock with reinforced concrete casts aside the notion that the plateau of the Acropolis is an important monument in and of itself. The natural rock has traces of activity, like cuttings and workings, that archaeologists use to understand people’s interaction with this space throughout history. People still refer to the Acropolis as “the holy rock.” The very geology of the place is important in the Greek public imagination. Reinforced concrete not only covers up but also damages the rock.

Third, the head of the restoration committee, Manolis Korres, has said his vision is to recreate the Acropolis in the image of the fifth century B.C., at the height of classical Athens’ golden age. The problem is, that is not the only historical period in which this site was culturally and historically significant. It is a multi-temporal monument. In the Late Bronze Age, around 1500 B.C., the Acropolis was an important Mycenaean citadel and the site of a Mycenaean palace, and there is still physical evidence, mostly in the form of fortification walls. Through the Roman and Byzantine periods, structures on the Acropolis served as administrative centers, churches and fortresses. At the time of the Ottoman Empire, the site had what one 17th century traveler, Evliya Çelebi, called the most impressive mosque in the world, and there was an extensive cemetery on the Western slope where saints and prominent Muslim leaders were buried.

Those who visit the site today would have no idea they’re walking over the graves of people of Muslim faith. A few tombstones from that period were salvaged and displayed in a protective metal cage — but there’s no signage to provide context. There are an increasingly large number of scholars who study various facets and historical eras of the site, but what’s missing is Greek officials’ appetite to integrate this scholarship into signage and brochures for the public.

Q: Why is it important for the global public to understand the full history of the Acropolis?

In the 19th century, neoclassical architects and archaeologists would remove anything they found at the Acropolis that wasn’t from classical antiquity. The 19th century Romantic nationalism movement viewed anything classical as the cornerstone of the Western European imagination. Anything from the Byzantine, the Frankish or Ottoman periods was deemed not important, or even a remnant of barbarity, and was destroyed with no recording. As a result, we lost so much information about the changing fate and value of that monument over many different periods of time.

Try and see this as a kind of metaphor for society as a whole. If you have a diverse, multicultural society, and you say, “We still believe that one particular culture is more valuable than the others, so the rest can be erased,” you can see how chauvinistic this becomes. Furthermore, this is not really about preserving the society, the monuments and the people of classical Athens. If it were, restoration workers would have painted the monuments and the statues in bright colors, since they were polychrome in ancient Athens. I see the current “preservation” plans of the Acropolis, and the decision to evoke one historical period at the expense of others, as a celebration of whiteness: a celebration not of the fifth century B.C. but of the 18th and 19th century white Eurocentric modernity, which chose the fifth century as its key ancestral legacy.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see why celebrating whiteness in this way can be harmful. Greece has recently suffered from the rise of neo-fascist parties, including Golden Dawn, whose leaders are now serving time for running a criminal organization. The nation is trying to heal, but it cannot heal as long as its monuments emphasize one idealized moment in time and ignore the others.

“ We need a monument that can speak to the new Greeks, who come from many different backgrounds, who want to see part of themselves in the Acropolis. ”

Yannis Hamilakis Professor of archaeology and modern Greek studies

Q: How can the Acropolis be restored in a way that both accommodates visitors with physical limitations and celebrates the site’s multicultural heritage?

What’s crucial is starting with a different mentality. You have to accept that many different historical periods matter to the larger legacy of the Acropolis, historically, politically and socially. That is especially true now that the people who visit the site are more culturally diverse than ever. I think many in the ministry think, “We know what we have: a classical monument everyone wants to see.” But we think many people from different backgrounds and points of view who visit the site would love to know the full history and read about more than just the classical monuments. It would enhance their experience.

From there, I think it’s important to bring in scholars who specialize in access at heritage sites. These experts can study the site, engage in wide public and scholarly debate and create a plan that grants access to everyone, regardless of physical ability, without destroying the many layers of the site. It has been done at many sites across the world.

Q: What is the likelihood that officials will reverse course and embrace the site’s full history in future preservation work? How can concerned citizens across the globe help make that happen?

I think it would help enormously for UNESCO to publicly express its concern. It is an authority that cannot be ignored easily. But historically, it has been careful in issuing public statements — it takes a lot of time to thoroughly evaluate a problem before making a judgment. We need more bottom-up initiatives to make it happen.

There is now a petition that people can sign, and momentum is building on movements to decolonize the Acropolis and Greece as a whole, which is helping to put pressure on the ministry. There have recently been discussions on this problematic restoration work in high-profile media outlets globally and in artist and activist communities. We have also created a photoblog called The Other Acropolis, which is bringing more of the site’s non-classical history to the fore. Taking part in activist discussions, visiting these websites, supporting these movements — all of that can help.

I think it’s also important to be aware of what Greek society looks like today. One of the most famous Greeks in the world right now is an Afro-Greek, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a celebrated NBA player of Nigerian heritage. That is a sign of the times, and it demonstrates that the current vision for the Acropolis is out of sync with what the nation has become, socially and politically. We need a monument that can speak to the new Greeks, who come from many different backgrounds, who want to see part of themselves in the Acropolis.

Tags Q-and-A