Story by Asia London Palomba ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – Concealed behind construction fences, obscured by vegetation and overrun with trash and graffiti, a 3,000-year-old temple to the goddess Aphrodite sits in the heart of Thessaloniki, largely unnoticed by locals or tourists, despite the fact that it’s arguably one of the city’s most important archeological structures.
Discovered in 1936, the Roman temple in Antigonidon Square has been left to decompose behind construction work at an apartment complex, virtually invisible despite the fact that there is a sign informing passersby it’s there. The temple is 200 years older than the Parthenon in Athens.
“I feel disappointed when I see the site, I rarely go there and I believe that there should be more information about and on the spot,” said Daphne Lamprou, a professor of art history at the American College of Thessaloniki. “I feel frustrated because the city, the state, the Ministry of Culture, didn’t do the right thing, the logical thing in preserving and exhibiting the monument.”
The temple of Aphrodite is only one example of a large and growing catalogue of treasures that has been neglected or worse, forgotten about in the aftermath of an economic crisis that has robbed the country of the ability to protect its precious antiquities and historical sites. This is the case all over Greece, but in the northern city of Thessaloniki specifically, the consequences are profound. Excavation on multiple locations has halted, trash has piled up in and around these areas and security around numerous precious and priceless artifacts has all but disappeared.
“Everything was so slow before, and now everything is worse because of absence of money…the government doesn’t have the funds and if they did, archaeology should be the first thing they have on their minds,” Lamprou said.
The preservation of ancient ruins entails the documentation and study of every artifact that comes out of the ground. After each artifact has been analyzed, it is placed into historical context. Archaeologists often attempt to find public money for the preservation or restoration of certain monuments in need, according to Thodoros Togkas, who works for the Ephorate, a division of the Ministry of Culture responsible for the administration and direction of antiquities in Greece. But that public money simply doesn’t exist anymore, which means most preservation programs have been cancelled or suspended.
“We have no funds, no money from the central administration…we have to take measures for the existing buildings…these sites are about to be ruined very soon by everything,” Togkas said.
Greece receives money from the European Union in a system that allocates funds to the poorest countries, according to Leonidis Markis, a political advisor to Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris. As a result, the EU sponsors cultural projects in Greece such as the building of new infrastructure, the preservation of excavated ruins and the progression of the discovery of new archaeological sites. However, as of December 2015, there has been no money for the preservation, excavation and encasement of new monuments, Togkas said.
According to UNESCO, a branch of the United Nations that facilitates international cooperation, funds for the Ministry of Culture, which oversees all antiquities, have dropped by more than 50 percent.
Here’s how that translates: The national budget in 2010 was about $78.5 billion, with $793 million allocated to the Ministry of Culture, said Togkas. This year, the budget is $689 billion – the sum is larger because of the interest needed to pay off Greece’s enormous debts – with $271 million allocated to the Ministry of Culture.
That’s a drop from 1 percent of the budget, to .04 percent – a figure that speaks to how the economic crisis has taken its toll on the preservation of Greek culture. The money once used for antiquities has instead been redistributed to other sectors of the economy such as pressing social needs, unemployment benefits and preventing the emigration of Greek youth, said George Anastasiadis, an economics professor at ACT.
“Because there is no money. They have simply ignored [antiquities],” he said. “They have not exploited it.”
As a result, the lack of attention has caused many sites to slip into decay and ruin, often suffering from defacement and graffiti. A marble pedestal of a column that has existed in Thessaloniki since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. is one of the historical treasures to suffer. Named “Stili ton Ofeon,” which translates to Column of Snakes, it’s the only Hellenistic-age monument to have been excavated in the city, according to Lamprou.
In the 1970s, the street of Ag. Dimitriou, where the column used to be located, was undergoing expansion as a part of the city’s efforts to grow. As a result, the column was moved a couple of feet down the same street and was half submerged underground, without a placard to denote its historical significance. Today it stands in the middle of the sidewalk, covered in graffiti. People pass by it without giving it a second glance.
“It is as old as the history of Thessaloniki and it has been neglected for so long and people write crap graffiti on it,” Lamprou said. “People are stupid, but actually the state should have done something to show that this is something important.”
There are exceptions. The ancient Roman Caesar Galerius’ Arch, which served as a triumphal monument to celebrate the success of one of his military campaigns in the late 3rd century A.D., is one example. The Agora, a neighboring archaeological site that used to be a civic area and open space for markets, complete with hot baths and brothels, is another. And of course the White Tower, a Byzantine gem by the sea that stands as the symbol of the city, is a third example of sites that have been preserved. However, the area around the White Tower is heavily graffitied, which Ilias G. Nikolaidis, the managing director at Splendid Travel Center based in the city center, believes has negative connotations for Thessaloniki’s image.
“The White Tower is the symbol of the city. If the symbol of the city, or the area around it, is a mess, then everything will be a mess. The city will be a mess,” Nikolaidis said on a recent weekday afternoon in his office.
Galerius’ palace too, built in the early 4th century, has brightly colored graffiti on its sides and piles of trash inside. George Palandjian, managing director at Palandjian World tourism agency in the city center, said most Greeks are not outraged by the lack of attention to antiquities because they were not educated about them and therefore don’t respect them.
“It is a mentality that starts from a young age. We need proper education,” Palandjian said. “If we don’t have the proper education, then this continues.”
That struggle between archaeologists and the Greek government continues today. Recently, the Attiko Metro company of Thessaloniki has been building new underground rail stations and destroying historical artifacts as a result, Togkas said. Meanwhile, the metro company, which has been experiencing delays, is placing blame on the Ministry for the destruction of antiquities and for the delays in services.
“The construction companies place the Ephorate in the middle of this conflict…the metro is using the Ephorate to absorb the people’s rage for the destruction of antiquities and for the delays,” Togkas said.
In addition, Mayor Boutaris cited another instance of tension with the metro system in regard to the excavation and preservation of antiquities. When the metro was undergoing construction, it unearthed the Via Egnatia, an ancient road that connected Istanbul to Rome, built in the 2nd century B.C. The metro company wanted to remove the findings to continue construction, but were eventually forced to leave them alone and find another way.
“This is almost atrocious, you can’t do things like that,” Boutaris said in recent interview in his City Hall office. “Unless you know your past, you can’t know your future.”
The neglect of these ancient ruins has not gone unnoticed by the Greek people. Patricia Korfus, a business owner on Proksenou Koromila street, just off of Aristotle Square, addressed the lack of attention.
“It’s sad for any local person from Thessaloniki to see areas that would be very beautiful and cultural to be wasted in such a way. It’s sad for locals, sad for Thessaloniki, sad for Greece. I’m really troubled by it.”
The importance of preserving history, of preserving artifacts significant to a country’s culture, cannot be understated. People like Togkas advocate for the continued preservation and excavation of ancient ruins because they believe that if they don’t, they rob future generations of culture and lose important traces of who they were.
“The generation after us will be cheap, they will be poor,” Togkas said. “Archaeology has its own speech, its own words. If we don’t at least preserve and encase sites, we lose very important rings of the chain of human history.”