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Monday, March 17, 2003

Our Opinion

Olympic Defeats

Last week, in an article in the Greek daily Kathimerini (“Architects’ designs are slighted,” March 13), Dimitris Rigopoulos reported that under heavy pressure to complete projects in time for the 2004 Olympics, the architectural designs for four major Athens squares had been compromised. The report came a week after The Daily Telegraph of London published a letter signed by 23 European and American archeologists and classicists that strongly protested the construction of the Olympic rowing center at Schinias, the ancient site of the Battle of Marathon and a rare haven for biological diversity in the Attica basin.

At first glance, these might seem to be two different situations. They are not, however, as they are both part of the same disturbing pattern that has become common practice as we move closer to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Rushing to complete important projects, the Greek government appears to be ignoring — indeed violating — basic archeological, environmental, and architectural standards. And while one can argue that the esthetic consequences of eliminating certain architectural elements from a square’s original design is not of critical importance in a city already so esthetically and architecturally damaged as Athens is (although we find this to be a particularly perverse notion of “piling on” in an urban space that is presumably already hopelessly ugly), the same argument does not apply in either the case of Schinias or that of the new Acropolis museum.

In our inaugural issue, invited Makis Aperghis, the secretary general of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, to comment on the plans for building the rowing center at Schinias, and to analyze the destructive environmental and archeological consequences of such a decision. He did so, quite damningly (see “The Second Battle of Marathon, 2001 CE,” October 15, 2001). Needless to say, environmentalists and archeologists both inside and outside of Greece have criticized the project extensively. While this enormous attention has resulted in some concessions, the construction of the rowing center has proceeded apace. The letter published in The Daily Telegraph, and its reference to the discovery of a Bronze Age village at the site last fall, brings new — and even more critical — attention to the project, as well as to the way it has been handled and the (increasingly unfathomable) decision to proceed with it.

In response to the recent archeological discoveries at Schinias, the Greek government has asserted that they are not “important” enough to justify canceling the rowing center. But what does that mean? And who decides? Indeed, for many years now, there has been a disturbing tendency on the part of the Greek government to diminish Greece’s archeological heritage. We’ve all heard the argument before: In a country like Greece, if one were to halt every building project because of the discovery of archeological artifacts, nothing would ever get built. (Would that Greeks could wrangle a promise out of that threat.)

We all saw what happened with the Athens metro, when continual (but apparently “unimportant”) archeological excavations were “catalogued,” and then subsequently dug over (or simply destroyed). Truly, it can be said that the government’s official policy on the country’s antiquities now appears to gravitate somewhere between indifference and downright contempt. The fact that the government decided to ignore archeologists in regard to the new Acropolis museum, on whose site are located important artifacts dating from the Neolithic to the post-Byzantine periods that demand careful excavation and proper handling, points to a policy of actively sacrificing “expendable” sites for those that carry some kind of (arbitrarily determined) celebrity status.

As with Schinias, the ministry of culture has declared the site of the Acropolis museum to be of no particular archeological importance; in fact, once again, it is speeding up construction so that it is completed in time for next year’s Olympics. Archeologically, this rush to completion is catastrophic. The recent statement by the man who purports to act as Greece’s minister of culture, however — to wit, “we only want the Parthenon Marbles back” — speaks volumes about the philistinism with which the government, which is legally and morally obligated to act as steward of the country’s past, is cavalierly violating its most basic cultural responsibilities.

And what about the ecological consequences of the rowing center at Schinias? For those of us, unfortunately, who have first-hand experience with the rampant and uncontrollable development that has turned much of Greece’s environment — both built and natural, urban and rural — into a living obscenity (and unending tragedy), there is no need to explain the government’s decision. The self-incriminating environmental record of Greek governments, past and present, speaks for itself. In the event, both ecology and cynicism are Greek words.

Finally, for those familiar with issues of cultural patrimony and the unregulated trade in antiquities, there was a shock to be suffered in the 23 names affixed to the letter to The Daily Telegraph: namely, finding among them the names of Leon Levy and Shelby White. The couple is controversial (to say the least); considering their reputation on issues of private collections and ownership, it is farcical (the kindest word we can think of) to see them protesting against the Greek government in the name of protecting the country’s antiquities. Why any archeologist would agree to co-sign a letter with this husband-and-wife team of unremitting “collectors” is beyond our grasp. Then again, we are reminded of an international conference at Columbia University a few years back about cultural patrimony and the illicit trade in art and antiquities (appropriately entitled Who Owns Culture?), at which Ms. White seriously (or so the assembled attendees were supposed to think) declared that archeologists destroy antiquities, while collectors save them. Not a single archeologist of all the many present as much as demurred, let alone objected.

The final irony of a veritable cornucopia of ironies here is that, by its actions, the Greek government has magically transformed Leon Levy and Shelby White into knights in shining armor (or, at least, into one knight and a damsel in distress), striking melodramatic poses as philhellenic protectors of Greece’s archeological heritage. Of course, we learned a long time ago that it is with such ironies — and contradictions — that philhellenism is replete.

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