A Byzantine subterranean city was discovered during Greek city of Thessaloniki subway construction works. Decumanus Maximus street (photo) was in the heart of the thriving commercial center of Roman and Byzantine Thessaloniki (photo: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports)

Greece’s Unholy “Alliance” with Elgin: Turning Antiquities into “Legoland”

Despina Papageorgiou
Jan 7 · 9 min read

When Lord Elgin broke off and removed half of the sculptures of the Parthenon, he left a festering sore on one of the greatest world historical monuments. He, thus, rightfully gained the title of one of history’s great buccaneers. The present day sees Lord Elgin’s philistine behaviour being copied in a most remarkable place — namely, Greece.

While Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, like his predecessors, continues to demand the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum, his behaviour in the recovery and protection of the unique “Byzantine Pompeei” discovered in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, has drawn fierce local and international criticism. He now stands accused of being highly disrespectful to Greece’s antiquities himself.

Lord Elgin’s excuse for buccaneering was lame, namely the locals could not be trusted in safe keeping the artefacts. Lately, Greek authorities are seen by many as trying to supply some evidence for the late Lord.

The archaeologists had suddenly turned misty-eyed. They were standing six metres underground. Still, frozen, silent, they were simply trying to realise what had been unearthed during Greek city of Thessaloniki subway construction works. They hadn’t dared to imagine this in their wildest dreams: Under the centre of this anarchically built contemporary city, lay the commercial heart of an ancient one, dominated by a crossroads built by Caesar Galerius in the 4th century. The crossroads were reconstructed two centuries later, when Thessaloniki was the second City –after Constantinople– of the vast Byzantine Empire and by default the most important imperial urban civilisation in the whole of Europe.

Still visibly etched by the passage of carriers, this astonishingly well preserved 75 metres long stone paved road was the infamous Decumanus Maximus, discovered in its crossing with the marble paved Cardo Street, leading to port of the city. This crossroads is still marked with an impressive archway entered from four sides. It is surrounded by the remains of villas, shops, workshops and public buildings.

This has been characterised as a unique finding.

According to Europa Nostra, the leading European umbrella organisation of cultural heritage NGOs, which works with UNESCO and the EU, “[i]t is the only one preserved in the whole area once occupied by the Eastern Roman Empire and dating to the relatively unknown Late Roman and Early Byzantine period (4th -9th century AD)”.

And it is this discovery that the Greek government appears decided to turn into “a LEGO game”.

A brief chronicle of the find

This subterranean Byzantine city was discovered in 2012, during Thessaloniki 18-station metro system construction works. Metro workers and archaeologists came across it five years after the start of the Eleftherios Venizelos metro station construction (named after an emblematic early 20th century Greek statesman). The subway construction had started in 2006 and was supposed to have finished in 2012, but it has been stalled mainly because of many archaeological findings. The findings include more than 300,000 artefacts, from jewellery to statues, predominantly of Aphrodite, as well as 5,000 tombs and graves, some containing exquisite golden wraths.

Gold crown from burial, dating to the late 4th-early 3d century BC, found in Syntrivani Station (Photo: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports)

Because of the new discovery, but also due to continuous political strife about its future and alleged economic problems of the contractor company Attiko Metro, all works at Venizelou station stopped until 2016.

The latest decision regarding the fate of the Venizelou station discoveries was dating in 2017. This solution was approved by the contractor company, the Central Archaeological Council (an advisory body of the Ministry of Culture) and ratified by the then SYRIZA government: The subterranean Byzantine city would remain in its original place and would be incorporated into a redesigned Venizelos station.

Thessaloniki was now eagerly expecting to be crowned with a unique archaeological jewel. Local population and tourists would be able to join hands with their Roman and Byzantine predecessors in their everyday lives — and the metro would be wonderfully elevated to become a means of time travelling.

Now this northern city of the Greek prefecture of Macedonia would find its new status. Next to Rome, which displays at San Giovanni metro station ancient artefacts discovered there; Next to Paris, where foundations of the notorious 14th century Bastille fortress can be seen on the platform of the Bastille Métro; Next to Sofia in modern Bulgaria, which turned its Serdika II Metro Station to a “gateway to the Roman past”, according to Archaeology Travel website, since travelers taking the escalators to street level “get to walk through the restored streets of Roman Sofia, or Serdica”.

The curved apse of an early Christian Basilica is exhibited in situ at the northern entrance of the Serdica II metro station, in Sofia. The project for the construction of the Sofia Metro second line was modified to preserve the archaeological layers (Photo: Archaeology Travel)

Two years after this decision, reportedly all necessary planning had been completed, part of necessary works had been defined and revised fees paid to the constructor company.

However, the government of New Democracy party, which came to power in July 2019, was about to prove it had quite different intentions. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared as early as September 2019 that his government was “returning to the initial solution for the [Venizelou] metro station, the dismantling and re-assembling of the archaeological findings”.

Mitsotakis was referring to a solution said to be hastily approved in 2013 by the then New Democracy government and later by the Council of State, only to be followed, after massive reactions, by successive new proposals and decisions, culminating in the aforementioned 2017 one.

Now, the newly appointed Central Archaeological Council, politically headed by the Ministry of Culture General Secretary Giorgos Didaskalou, after a cause célèbre 14-hour meeting on 16th December 2019 and under reportedly intense political pressure, would vote in favour of what has been called the “LEGO Solution”, a dismantling and reassembling of the site.

It was claimed the in situ solution was risky and not feasible, the antiquities would now be more safe, while the Metro construction would progress quicker. Their arguments are fiercely contested, the counter claim is that any attempt to dismantle and reassemble the subterranean Byzantine city would irreparably damage the site and indeed further delay the Metro construction.

Part of Venizelou station findings (Photo: Eurokinissi)

Interestingly enough, archaeologists had warned as early as before 2006 that the route selected for the metro includes an area of “high archaeological risk”. It is claimed they had also estimated quite accurately the cost and the time needed, should this route remained unchanged. Their advice apparently fell on deaf ears. Thus, the archaeological digging budget was initially set as low as 30 million euros, only to balloon to 130 million, while the metro completion timetable has been completely out railed.

Turning “Byzantine Pompeei” into “LEGO-land”

“What the subway excavations brought to light was the Byzantine Pompeei … and you are planning to deconstruct it and glue it back later? Have you gone nuts? Do you intend to turn your ‘Byzantine Pompeei’ into LEGOland? Are you going to construct the Byzantine Disneyland?” were the biting questions posed by the renowned Italian academic Paolo Odorico, who chairs Byzantine Studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, in an interview with Greek newspaper “Ethnos”.

Europa Nostra had issued an appeal to the Central Archaeological Council to support the in situ solution.

In this, the organization underlined the “European significance” of this “unique find of an urban ensemble of monumental scale and in a very good state of preservation”.

Europa Nostra significantly state they, too, are convinced the reinstatement of the proposal to temporarily remove and later reinstall antiquities after the completion of the station’s construction “will cause irreparable damage to the physical condition of the antiquities during their extraction and removal as well as a drastic reduction in the authenticity of the monumental ensemble. It will lead instead to the creation of a scenic setting within a contemporary metro station, while reducing radically the historical, cultural and educational value and significance of the archaeological remains”.

It seems, as the Greek Archaeologists Association argues, the Central Archaeological Council majority in favour of the removal solution is “a minority in the Greek and international scientific community”. A growing citizens’ movement is also siding with the in situ side.

Alarmingly, 73 metres of antiquities were removed from another Thessaloniki Metro station, Aghia Sofia, in July 2012 — the findings of which are considered also very important. Forty five of these metres were supposed to be reassembled in the station. However, they did not fit, so all 73 remain in a warehouse! Given that findings in Venizelou station are some 700 tonnes, could children of a persistent personality maybe of great use to their city?

Marble paved square, discovered in the south entrance of Aghia Sofia station (Photo: Mixani tou Hronou)

Elgin and Mitsotakis: An Unholy “Alliance”?

“I don’t think [Britain] should be fighting a losing battle. Eventually this is going to be a losing battle”, Mitsotakis told British newspaper “The Observer” less than two months after having been elected. He reaffirmed the claim on the infamous Marbles as they are “a monument of global cultural heritage. But if you really want to see the monument in its unity you have to see what we call the Parthenon sculptures in situ… it’s a question of uniting the monument”, he emphasised.

However, given the policy towards the Venizelos station archaeological findings, one can imagine the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson response “Seriously? You are about to turn your ‘Byzantine Pompeei’ into a ‘LEGOland’ and you think we can trust you with the Marbles?”

The legitimacy of the claim for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, as they are part of one of the greatest monuments of all times, is beyond reasonable debate. The question actually raised is whether a government widely considered disrespectful to a unique archaeological discovery in its own country can really be trusted with the responsibilities that go with this repatriation.

The Marbles, which Lord Elgin famously sawn off from the Parthenon, are today exhibited in the British Museum (Photo: From the British Museum, APE-MPE, Pantelis Saitas)

Even allowing for the source of the claims, it is surprising that the most despised of plundering buccaneers, Lord Elgin, and the current Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis are being linked. The SYRIZA-backed opposition in the Municipal Council of Thessaloniki, “Thessaloniki Mazi” party, was stating Mitsotakis “as a new Elgin, announced without previous consultation with all parties concerned and the civil society, the depredation of the archaeological findings in order to house them in the yet to be designed Metro Archaeological Findings Museum”.

Faced with history

For those who ignore the perplexities of the Greek social-political reality, the continuous political strife over the Byzantine subterranean city issue may seem completely incomprehensible.

However, Greece is not only a country currently in economic turbulence, but crucially a country with politics still dominated by nepotism, clientalism and, thus, corruption and an abhorrent lack of meritocracy. These “chronic diseases” have many times resulted in detrimental decisions for the country’s civil society, economy, cultural heritage and natural environment.

It appears to be in this context that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), through its Greek department, in a press release denouncing the dismantling-reassembling decision for the Venizelou station findings was also referring to an “instrumentalisation” of monuments and their “transformation to playthings for various expediencies”. Similarly, the Greek Archaeologists Association referred to a decision that “enmeshes the antiquities in a public works game, designed according to who has been elected in the government and the municipality”.

Most importantly, the concern for the fate of these antiquities supersedes the country — in the sense that, like the Acropolis, they are part of our global cultural heritage.

It is the sentiment of this world heritage that, for example, overwhelmed us to tears when Notre Dame caught fire or when the ISIS smashed priceless archaeological treasures in Iraq and Syria. And it is this sentiment that still triggers anger in people around the globe when imagining Lord Elgin sawing off pieces of the one timeless monument which dazzlingly reflects on its flawless marbled beauty the birth of the Democratic Ideal.

This is due to the catalytic role of the art, which crucially includes that “[f]rom the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity” as the great Victor Hugo put it in his “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Because, when memory of the first races “felt itself overloaded”, at risk of being lost on the way, “men transcribed them [the mass of reminiscences] on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument”. Hence, “not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its monument in that immense book”.

And it is in the risk of tearing a page out of this amazing book that the New Democracy government is now faced with history. Their most radical critics would even say they will finally have to choose whether they would rather be applauded by Elgin’s ghost or by Greece’s Byzantine past.

Despina Papageorgiou

Written by

Freelance journalist — Journalism is not about being objective; It’s about monitoring power


AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

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