Mykonos is not just a party island. It has important archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic era to the Middle Ages that are in danger of being lost due to anarchic touristic overdevelopment.
The archaeological service which is entrusted with protecting the island’s rich cultural heritage, and its distinct natural beauty, is on a war footing with developers.
Recently Manolis Psarros, an archaeologist who headed the division that issues construction permits on the Aegean hotspot, was hospitalized in Athens after a mafia-style attack.
“Villas have been built on archaeological sites” on Mykonos
“Even villas have been built on some archaeological sites,” Petros Nazos, the founder of local site Mykonoslive.tv, says.
“In the last 10 years, no one stopped anyone. There was no urban planning office in Mykonos. There is one on nearby Syros Island, but it does not have the time and resources to deal with so many cases of development. In addition, the police presence on the island is too weak to enforce the law,” he adds.
“What is happening in Mykonos is not a secret. The state authorities have known about it for years. If the attack on Psarros did not happen, everything would continue as it was,” Dimitris Koutsoukos, a resident and active member in the community of Mykonos says.
Archaeological discoveries of Mykonos
Mykonos boasts one of the oldest Neolithic settlements on the beach of Ftelia, the proto-Cycladic settlement of Diakofti, the Mycenaean vaulted tomb at Angelika, which yielded remarkable finds, but also the ancient cities both in the Castle of Chora, in Paraportiani, and in Paleokastro, in the Upper Mera, which are now being more systematically excavated and researched.
A set of photos that show how an area of excavations at Diakofti was transformed over recent years has gone viral. The photos show a villa with swimming pools erected on top of the ancient site.
Although Despoina Koutsouba, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, says that the construction is not illegal, the photos show the fine line between development and ancient heritage.
Further excavations at the Chora Castle have already revealed the entire Venetian residential fabric. Below, there are ruins of the Byzantine castle and findings from both classical and prehistoric Mykonos, revealing the timelessness of one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the Aegean.
“In many areas in the country, especially in those with strong tourist development, the archaeologists, while performing their duties and trying to apply the archaeological law, are under various pressures, even lawsuits or threats,” says Koutsouba.
“Mykonos has a history of attacks similar to the one on Psarros in recent years,” she says. “Mafia-style attacks occurred against a deputy mayor, a broker and a hotelier, which may not be related to archeology, but show that there are large financial interests that resort to such practices when they feel threatened,” she adds.
But, Koutsoukos says that the archaeological service does not treat everyone in the same way. “In Chora, the capital town of Mykonos they are strict. They chase small developers. But, in many cases, they let alone big investors.”
“I hope that after the attack on Psarros something will be done. What is happening in Mykonos is not development, it’s destruction,” he adds.
Buildings built overnight without permission
In Mykonos entire buildings were built overnight and of course without permission. Other constructions tread on gray areas of the law or even obtain renovation permits in order to be erected.
The most typical cases of illegal construction on the island are those on the beach of Panormos. Until a few years ago, Panormos was a mostly free beach with mild development. Locals often visited it to swim there, avoiding the overpriced sunbeds and the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan island’s beach bars.
A recent photo by Greek journalist Tasos Teloglou shows how developers have almost closed the pristine beach to the general public.
“The photo at Panormos speaks for itself,” says Nazos. “It’s the destruction of an area which has been classified as Natura.”
Natura 2000 is a network of nature protection areas in the territory of the European Union. It is made up of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas designated under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, respectively. The network includes both terrestrial and Marine Protected Areas.
“You can imagine what has happened to other parts of Mykonos that are not characterized as part of Natura,” Nazos adds. “You can’t make a beach private, barring Mycanonians to enter.”
“Half of the buildings in Mykonos are illegal”
“Quality of life for the locals has gone down. They can’t go to beaches. Most are now private. Owners wouldn’t even let you put down a towel,” Koutsoukos notes.
“Big investors don’t come to Mykonos for the love of the island. They destroy the environment by operating with the tolerance of the authorities… The Greek state is to blame because laws are not implemented. The state prefers to pocket a fine for illegal construction, which is often peanuts in comparison to the turnout of the business.”
Koutsoukos says that the lawlessness and anarchy in construction in Mykonos get worse every year.
The local Council called for the immediate demolition of illegal buildings with proven violations, in the aftermath of the attack on the Greek archaeologist. It also called on the central government to re-establish an urban planning office on the island and relocate the Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades to Mykonos.
Konstantinos Koukas, the mayor of Mykonos, has been trying to allay fears over law and order on the island. “Obviously in a place with intense economic activity there are those who are trying to take advantage of the absence of effective control.”
“Mykonos has never been afraid of controls for the developers. Everyone here is looking for transparency.”
Koukas, who has repeatedly denied that he or any member of the local council has been threatened by developers to turn a blind eye to illegal construction, said that following the attack on the Greek archaeologist, Mykonos attracted lots of negative publicity.
“We know that Mykonos ‘sells’ in the media. We pay the price of success because a similar incident anywhere else would not have attracted such publicity.”
The mayor says that the local council is in agreement with the decision of the Greek government to suspend all building work in areas outside the island’s main town until new checks and balances are in place.
However he decries the fact that the suspension is not applicable to major investment projects. “The law must be applied to all,” he says.
“Too late” to reverse construction on Mykonos
“Now they are trying to put some order in the construction sector of Mykonos, but it is too late because almost all the good areas of the island have been built,” Koutsoukos notes.
He urged authorities to crack down on building violations, but as he says, it’s impractical to believe that all illegal constructions can be demolished. “If you demolish the illegal constructions, half of Mykonos building would have to be demolished,” he says.
“I am saddened by the fact that we used to live on a beautiful, picturesque island and we have given it up.”
Mykonos has a heritage of small cubist stucco buildings that make up the town of Chora. Development threatens to obliterate this architectural heritage of Cycladic building style.
“The town of Mykonos was transformed in a matter of a few years from one whose streets were pristinely clean and white-washed with lime wash, bathed in soft, natural light, to one where once high-end retailers descended, the lights became garish and the streets dirty, painted once a year at best, and with latex or enamel paint,” says Stacey Harris-Papaioannou, an American living for many years in the Greek island.
“It is a good example of how insensitivity and ignorance have eaten away at what was once so special about Mykonos,” she adds.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis responded to the attack against Psarros by insisting that the “situation in Mykonos must be addressed decisively.”
The existence of an island where some consider themselves above the law is “inconceivable”, he said.
The government decided to send a mixed team of specialists made up of a building inspector, an environmental inspector, and a financial police officer to Mykonos to investigate illegal construction projects and inadequate law enforcement.
Until the time of writing of this story, no illegal buildings, or other structures without permit, have been demolished on the island.