Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Burbs of Athens

For a few days now I have been staying with an OSU contingent in one of Athens’ northern suburbs, Melissia. It borders the more famous town of Kifissia located on the Cephissus River – a wealthy enclave in both modern times and ancient. Kifissia was once the home of that loveable scamp Menander, while also becoming a real social hotspot when the slightly psychopathic Herodes Atticus built his villa there.

Dallas DeForest, Brian Swain and a complete stranger gaze at three sarcophagi, thought to be those of Herodes Atticus’ children, buried by their father. They're kept behind glass, right next to a periptero (kiosk) and amongst all the Kifissia shopping.

Menander: "A rich wife is a burden. She doesn't allow her husband to live as he pleases. Nevertheless, there is one good to be gained from her: children."

More recently, Kifissia has been home to political dynasties and the mansions that they build, as well as a succession of ritzy shops and cafes. It doesn’t have quite the glitz and bling of Kolonaki. Whereas Kolonaki is sorta South Beach, Kifissia feels a little more like West Palm Beach, to me at least. Others might think Cape Cod instead, with its ‘old money.’ The Nazi’s used the Kifissia home of Panayotis Aristophron, who excavated Plato’s Academy, as their invasion headquarters.

There’s not much ancient stuff left to be seen these days, even if you do wander around with a copy of Tomkinson’s Athens: The Suburbs, nicked from your professor’s shelf. The Church of the Panagia, supposedly built with the blocks of Herodes’ villa, is fenced off and locked. The Grotto of the Nymphs, used by women for divinatory purposes up until the 19th century (Tomkinson p.54-5), can’t be found by visitors.

At least, it’s lost to us. Brian and Dallas in Kifissia’s Kokkinara ravine, where we found garbage, dead birds and thorns, but no Grotto of the Nymphs.

It was Melissia, however, that proved to be a much more interesting ‘hood than Kifissia. Although it’s well-to-do, it doesn’t put on quite so many airs as Kifissia. It has shady lanes and plateias (squares), feels like it’s not trying so hard to impress rich people and teenagers, and appears to have a hefty sense of local identity.

Apparently the town was settled by Pontic Greeks sometime in the 20s after the ethnic cleansing in Turkey (I’d be more exact with my details if someone would be kind enough to fix Melissia’s Wikipedia article.) That's when, thanks to the now divinized Ataturk, the burgeoning nation of Turkey felt the need to expel all non-Turkish/non-Islamic elements. This included Greek villages whose ancestors had settled the region as early as 800 BCE – I guess in Turkey at that time you’d had to be around for more than 2,800 years for squatter’s rights to apply.

Anyways, in the 19-teens and early '20s, Pontic Greeks, Armenians and many others were the victims of genocide, were massacred or were forced to leave their homes. Think the ethnic cleansing of the Indian Removal Act or, as we more commonly call it, the Trail of Tears.

So all the Greeks in Turkey had to go back to their ‘true home’ in Greece. A group settled in Melissia, small town at the time, but now engulfed by the sprawl of Athens. The EU has even given money so that the neighborhood can spruce itself up a bit with better drains, nice cobble walking paths, and some fancification for its charming, shady, Plateia of the National Uprising.

The sculpture, paid for by a local patron, celebrates the mountain klefts who resisted the Turks and who represent the idea of Romiosini. We had a nice dinner in the beautiful plateia last night.

Melissia sits right at the edge of Athens. And I mean ‘edge’ because on one side of the Plateia is the city, and on the other side is the countryside. On Thursday Dallas and I wandered out that way to hike up Mt. Penteli.

Just a few years ago, the hills north of Melissia were covered in trees, but the 2007 forest fires have left behind a barren, charred wasteland. I couldn’t help wondering if anyone had been up to do a survey on Penteli since the fires, since we could see field boundaries and roads in all directions. It’s pretty stunning to see the view from Google Earth:

One of the more interesting things we came across was a glittering cemetery out in the middle of nowhere. It’s the cemetery of Melissia, with specific hours of access, a church and a lone desolate bus station.

The earliest death noted on the tombstones was 2003, so it seems to be a more recent cemetery. Oddly, though, parts of it were totally trashed, with shattered marble crosses and other grave paraphernalia in distinctly seperated areas.

New terraces were under construction. We watched a grave digger with a pick ax, working amongst rows of new, empty graves. He looked like nothing more than an archaeologist, actually. Given the relative dates on the ruined graves and the well-formed, marble ones, Dallas suspected that the cemetery had been destroyed in the fire, and the town was slowly fixing it up. None of the preserved marble fragments bore signs of fire, but that's the most likely idea we could come up with.

It was a strange place. The cemetery was also the parking area for the town’s municipal trucks and blue trash bins; it had the distinct appearance of a work site. The church was in the Neo-Byzantine style so common to Greece nowadays and was utterly immaculate. And the graves, one after another, bore birth years in the 19-teens and '20s. Can it be that this incongruous burial ground was the resting place of the Pontic Greek children exiled from their ancestral homes? We asked our Melissian sources but found no answers.

Perhaps when the area was wooded it didn't seem quite so eerie and out of place. Whatever its story, the town of Melissia is pretty concerned with keeping the graveyard well-maintained, even if it is visibly tucked away and hidden. It's nice to see a town that is so actively holding on to its own local history, one that is more modern than ancient.



There's not very much literature on the Athenian suburbs, but there is a good new(ish) bilingual book, Dimitris Philippides, Athens Suburbs and Countryside in the 1930s (Athens, 2006). Philippides is the best Greek architectural historian. He even discusses Eugene Vanderpool's house, which I'll blog about shortly. Much suspense. KOSTIS

Katie said...

Awesome! Thanks for the reference! And we were all sorry your Corinth visit fell through.

JPL said...

To be fair, the Greeks did provoke the Turks by invading Asia Minor.