Athens is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It has been a place of human settlement for at least five thousand years. However, its fortunes and its relationship with the wider world of Greekness have fluctuated wildly.
By Bruce Clark
After spawning one of the world’s most prosperous, creative, and extroverted societies in the golden century (500 to 400 BC), Athens underwent a bewildering mixture of fates. It became a cultural jewel in the imperial crowns of Macedonia and, later on, Rome. As barbarians assailed the Roman empire and the Christian religion spread, it was a last redoubt of polytheistic worship and philosophy.
Later on, it was a place of medieval Christian pilgrimage; a modest Ottoman town whose ruins fired the imagination of rich young Westerners; and, later, the capital of a fragile new kingdom built on German dreams of the Hellenic past.
Only in the 20th century, amidst war, refugee flows, occupation, and rapid expansion did Athens take shape as the chaotic, dynamic hub of modern Hellenism.
In the early 21st century, after recovering against the odds from economic disaster, a sprawling conurbation of four million people teeters between exuberant, multicultural creativity and ecological dystopia.
Constant factors in the history of Athens and Attica
There are some constant geographical features which have blessed and challenged the development of Athens.
The Acropolis has been recognized since Neolithic times as a marvelous natural fortress. As countless invaders discovered, it is almost impossible to capture by direct assault although its occupiers can be starved into surrender if the besieger is patient enough.
It is a safe but convenient distance from the sea and surrounded by beautiful mountains whose resources, from honey to marble, would be an economic boon if they were skillfully managed. The city was well watered by three rivers, whose virtual disappearance is one of the blights of modern Athens.
Despite these blessings, the soil of Attica is relatively poor. It can sustain fine olive trees and vines but not enough grain to feed the population. In both ancient and modern times, Athens has been dependent on the import of food and other essentials from the sea.
To survive, it needs to be a naval power itself or else be strategically aligned with the naval power of the day. In ancient Athens, prowess at naval warfare and a flair for maritime commerce were at the heart of the city’s greatness.
As the capital of modern Greece, the city was perpetually vulnerable to naval blockade, and the country had little choice but to ally with Britain and then America, when those countries ruled the waves. In the 21st century, entirely new alignments may occur, as China has tightened its control of the port of Piraeus and made it a hub for exports to Europe.
The Acropolis as a place of holiness
The size and status of Athens has fluctuated over centuries (from straggling village to vast, prestigious city) but the importance—and, above all, the mysterious holiness—of the Acropolis and its monuments has never diminished. In the modern Western mind, the Parthenon stands for human reason, open-ended deliberation, and debate.
It is forgotten that the Acropolis—often described in Greek as the Iera Vrakhos, Sacred Rock—was a place of worship where Athena and Poseidon were revered, celebrated, and thanked. Deep inside the Rock were cavities that served as important shrines to Pan, Zeus, and Aphrodite.
Even more forgotten is the fact the Parthenon served as a place of monotheistic worship for most of its history. It was a magnificent Greek Orthodox church, then a Roman Catholic one, and then a mosque. Unfortunately, the presentation of the Parthenon to visitors focuses exclusively on the pre-monotheistic period.
Quite a lot of the Parthenon’s Christian decoration survived the Ottoman period and the Venetian bombardment of 1687, but it did not survive the antiquarian zeal of the early Greek kingdom. A more balanced presentation of the Parthenon and its function would recognize all phases of its history.
The shadow of the Golden Age
So brilliant were the achievements of the Athenians in their golden century (500 to 400 BC) that every subsequent phase of Athenian history has been lived in the shadow of that flash of genius.
In generation after generation, Athenian excellence was seen as something to be possessed, exploited, and turned into a source of power. Even as the strength of Athens waned, the armies of Alexander the Great and his successors spread an essentially Athenian high culture as far as present day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Then, the Romans tried to boost and beautify Athens as the epicenter of a commonwealth of cities that were Greek in culture but loyal to Rome. Even in the empire’s final years, Athens was a university town that attracted lively students from across the eastern Mediterranean and trained them in Greek thought and letters as they had developed in Athens eight hundred years earlier.
A millennium later, as Britain and France competed to build their own empires, their political and cultural elites became convinced that possessing and copying Athenian excellence would burnish their own prestige. This “possessing” could take the form of accurately measuring and drawing classical monuments with a view to copying them in London or Paris. In due course, it came to mean physically removing the antiquities of Athens to western capitals and museums whose “greatness” would thus be affirmed.
This desire to “possess” Athens came to a head with the removal of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire; even at the time, this was seen as an opportunistic abuse of power by the diplomat and his Ottoman collaborators.
Only when Greece became independent was this passion for neo-classicism repatriated and readapted with varying success to the soil of Athens. Teutonic architects and Greek tycoons joined forces to create spectacular buildings in a space which was only semi-urbanized. It was a town where cocks crowed, donkeys brayed, and goats bleated in the side-streets of broad avenues whose designers hailed from Munich or Vienna.
Athens played a central but ambivalent role in the expansionist dreams of the modern Greek state. For many of Greece’s 19th century masters, the development of Athens was only a stepping-stone to the creation of a neo-Byzantine empire whose capital must be Constantinople.
Only in 1922, when those dreams failed with the rout of the Greek armies and the flight of the Greek population from Anatolia, did Athens become firmly established as the hub of Hellenism. As Athens was still struggling to absorb an influx of Anatolian refugees, however, it suffered a harsh Nazi occupation, and in December 1944, the first bloody round of a contest between Soviet and Western powers.
Despite all this and despite political turbulence which included a seven-year dictatorship, the city saw demographic expansion and rising living standards as Greek tourism, films, and music became a global icon.
More thanks to the creativity of ordinary people than to any inspired planning, families fleeing to Athens from the depressed provinces of Greece found ways to live and flourish in a forest of low-rise apartment buildings which were practical but not beautiful.
Hellenism in compound—a swirling, multicultural future for Athens
Until the mid-1990s, both Greece as a whole and Athens were homogenous spaces—places where a single language, religion, and culture prevailed and homogeneity was seen as a source of strength. Then, immigrants began arriving at first from Albania and then from throughout central and eastern Europe, particularly poorer countries. such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Chinese came, and many set-up small shops; there were also new arrivals from across the Middle East and Africa, especially from Nigeria.
This had extraordinary and complex consequences, both positive and negative. Migrants faced exploitation, petty prejudice, and threats from an emerging neo-fascist movement. There were also signs of a dynamic cultural fusion between local popular culture and that of immigrants: African or half-African rappers who flip between Greek and English have become popular among middle-class Greek youngsters.
One of the world’s most famous sportsmen is Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in a rough part of Athens to Nigerian parents; he spent his teenage years selling trinkets on the Athenian streets. Although he now lives mainly in the United States and plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, he is fiercely loyal to Greece and has become a Greek national hero.
This has transformed Greek attitudes to race and ethnicity, especially in the younger generation. In a city where Greek Orthodoxy almost monopolized the religious scene, there are now dozens of informal mosques or prayer spaces where Pakistanis, Egyptians, and Afghans gather to worship and listen to sermons. Police generally have a good relationship with the imams who help them keep an eye out for budding extremists.
In a city where the best food was simple village fare, there is a new fad for fusion restaurants, whose creation is often the result of some unusual personal story. For example, one of the most well-known gourmet chefs is of Greek and Japanese parentage and combines culinary skills with inspirational talks on how to live a balanced life.
As COVID-19 takes its toll on tourist revenues and frays Athenian nerves, the city’s social peace is by no means assured, but after millennia of bewildering change, it is evolving in ways that Pericles never imagined.
Bruce Clark is a writer, lecturer, and journalist. His latest book, published recently and titled “Athens: City of Wisdom,” is a sweeping narrative history of Athens, telling the three-thousand-year story of the birthplace of Western civilization.