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.
Yet for most outsiders, modern Athens has never ceased being a footnote within the story of Ancient Greece. The five million foreigners who visit the city every year come largely inspired by a notion of Periclean Athens, replete with poets and orators, gods and goddesses. This sliver of the city’s history, half a dozen decades, was set upon a pedestal and left to ferment for two millennia in the minds of the barbarian North. Hundreds of popular and scholarly histories put this fragment of time under renewed inspection every year, while histories of modern Athens for the non-Greek reader are few and far between.
Present-day Athens is above all a product of the Cold War, when it was both modernized and, at the same time, rendered more visibly classical. In the decades that followed the end of the Greek Civil War, the vast majority of the pre-1949 city vanished, cannibalized by two simultaneous developments. First there was the pell-mell construction of a huge middle-class conurbation, by way of a maniacal building boom that enclosed and part-proletarianized, part-bourgeoisified a huge peasantry within a capital that had just waged war against many of them. Athenian urbanization was distinctive in the Balkans: stringently anti-Communist, conducted almost exclusively by individual transactions, funded less than 5 per cent by the state. At least a quarter of the new housing was constructed illegally or without authorization. This is the megalopolis glimpsed from the airplane window: a grey anonymizing expanse, starved of public space, tagged with graffiti, spreading out across the Attic basin in a jagged mass of concrete.
At the same time, another Athens came into view. Immediately surrounding the Acropolis, the city of Pericles sprang back out of the ground. Funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, later by the Marshall Plan, American archaeologists commercialized Greece’s cultural bona fides at a time when, owing to Soviet cultural prestige, it became increasingly important to show that democracy had originated in a nato member state. The exaltation of Greek antiquity was a geopolitical imperative. This became the Athens contrived for outsiders and which most foreigners understand to be the ‘real’ city: an archaeological theme-park steadily eliminating the last standing quarters of Turkish and neoclassical Athens. Cut off from lived existences, it pullulates with double-decker tour buses and knick-knack shops selling ouzo bottles in the shape of the Temple of Athena.
The anti-Ottoman partisans who fought for a Greek nation-state in the 1820s under the leadership of the Filiki Etairia were a congeries of interests, stretching across thousands of miles of Greek-speaking lands. Chieftains from the mountains of the Peloponnese and Roumeli waged the war on the ground. Sea captains from the Saronic and Eastern Aegean islands provided naval backing. Greek merchants from Odessa and Vienna lent financial or intellectual support to the Revolution. But it was the Great Powers that ordained Greece’s statehood at the Conference of London in 1832, ordering the Ottomans to cede the land south of an imaginary line stretching from Arta to Volos in exchange for 40 million piastres. The Greek Crown was handed to a seventeen-year-old Wittelsbach princeling named Otto. Elevated over the squabbling Greek factions that had turned on one another before independence was secured, King Otto’s task was to act as a breakwater against them, thwarting their ambitions for territorial expansion. His father, Ludwig I of Bavaria, was a philhellene funder of Greek independence who was busily filling Munich with classical façades.
At the time, Athens was one of the smaller settlements of what had been Ottoman Europe. Piraeus, its harbour, was a cluster of huts bearing an unknown name. A dirt track wound upland towards Athens through olive groves that teemed with brigands. The rest of Greece was barely accessible by road half the year. In 1787, to protect the town and its adjacent countryside from banditry, the Turkish governor Hadji Ali Haseki had erected fortifications of mud brick, roughly where Themistocles’s Long Walls had once fended off the Spartans. Within them, a patchwork of peoples—Greeks, Roma, Turks, Sudanese slaves and Orthodox speakers of an Albanian dialect called Arvanitika—clustered in thirty-six neighbourhoods. Few homes had foundations of stone. Dusty in summer, muddy in winter, streets were no more than thirteen feet wide and bore no names. ‘No books, no lamps, no windows, no carriages, no newspapers, no post-office’, a former headmaster of Harrow, Christopher Wordsworth, observed, shortly before he was stabbed in the neck by brigands on Mount Parnitha.footnote1
Classical Athens mostly lay submerged beneath the village. On the southern slope of the Acropolis, a pair of ancient theatres had been gutted of their marble. Atop one of the few upright columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, a stylitic monk heaved fruit up by rope and claimed not to have touched ground since the last century. Sprawled beneath the western slope of the Acropolis, where most Athenians lived, palm trees and minarets ‘crowned with big storks’ nests’ stretched above a bazaar town.footnote2 A fish market ‘patched together with planks and plaster’ extended through the corridors of what had once been Emperor Hadrian’s library, now full of camels.footnote3 Looming above the town, on the Acropolis, three millennia of history converged. Fortifications first laid by Bronze Age kings bristled with Ottoman cannonry. The Erechtheion was a harem. The Parthenon was an archaeological chameleon, bearing evidence of its career as a basilica, a cathedral, a keep, a munitions stockpile, a seminary for virgin girls and a mosque still manned by a Turkish garrison.