THE TWIN FACES OF ATHENS
Southernmost capital of mainland Europe, Athens is an unrelenting concrete sprawl, some fifteen miles across, home to 4 million Greeks and at least half a million migrants and refugees. Balkan, it is not Slavic. Near Eastern, it is not Muslim. European, it cannot be called Western. Its ancient citizenry claimed to have emerged out of the very dust of the Attic Plain; its modern inhabitants have overwhelmingly come from elsewhere. They fled not only from the mountains and island chains of present-day Greece, but from the Greece of ‘two continents and five seas’ that once formed the grand Hellenic national project. Athens is the epitaph of that project, its culmination in disaster. Not ‘old’ in the same way as Rome or Istanbul, where history runs uninterruptedly across the centuries, the cursus of Athens is closer to that of Yangon, which for centuries was no more than a sleepy fishing village with a storied past and an imposing pagoda. As centres of Hellenic habitation, Alexandria and Trebizond ranked larger until 1880, Smyrna until 1900, Constantinople and Thessaloniki through to 1920. Today, in stark contrast to Rome, only a scattering of Athens’s 18th-century buildings still stands. Nearly one in two citizens of Greece lives in the capital, a percentage so outsized within Europe that only Reykjavik compares. Athens is by far the most populous city in the Balkans, and contains almost as many people as Albania and Macedonia put together.
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