Athens in the 19th Century: Archaeological Landscapes and Competing Pasts
Effie Athanassopoulos (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
This paper examines the changing archaeological landscape of Athens in the post-liberation phase, in the decades following the establishment of the Modern Greek state in the 1830s. During the Othonian period (1833-1862) large scale demolition of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine buildings took place in the new capital. These actions were an attempt to eradicate the physical evidence of an “inferior” past, which interfered with the efforts of the decision makers to establish an unbroken continuity between classical antiquity and the re-born state.
The government officials of the 1830s and 1840s were all proponents of a purist classical perspective. Their goal was to enhance the classical buildings by freeing them from additions of later and ‘lesser’ eras. The ‘purification’ of Athens was carried out by archaeologists who shared these views and felt little sympathy for the material remains of the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine eras. Thus, churches, mosques and other structures were demolished on the Athenian Acropolis and in the lower town. Some churches were destroyed because they stood near ancient monuments. Others were viewed as obstacles in the opening of new roads and the beautification of the capital. According to one estimate, approximately seventy-five churches met that fate; they were noted on maps of the early 1830s but disappeared in the next few decades. The ‘cleansing’ of the Acropolis is well documented, the destruction of churches in the lower town less so. Here, I will document several examples through plans and drawings of European visitors as well as archival research.
Another goal of this paper is to examine the relation of the discipline of archaeology to evolving national ideals. The initial hostility towards Byzantium shared by the educated elite gradually waned. In the 1850s the work of an influential historian, Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, led to the inclusion of the Byzantine past into the national narrative. In turn, Byzantium’s new role influenced the direction of Greek archaeology, which gradually began to lose its exclusive classical emphasis. Still, the purist classical ideals prevalent in the Othonian period have left their indelible mark; they guided the physical reorganization of the archaeological and urban landscape of Athens in the course of the 19th century.