European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Athens by Hatto Fischer

Athens - view from Lycabettou Hill towards Pireaus

Athens is a complex city quickly built up after waves of migrants came after the Asia Minor desaster and then with more influx of people leaving behind the provinces, islands and remote areas for the sake of a job in Athens.

In the city live over 4 Millionen people, about 50% of the entire Greek population (11 Million).

In 1985 the PASOK government was only four years in power after a long period of conservative rulership under Nea Demokratia, but also during that horrific period 1967-74 under the military dictatorship. Melina Mercouri had campaigned very much for the restoration of democracy in Greece during that dictatorship. She joined efforts by Andreas Papandreou who was teaching at that time at York University in Toronto, Canada and who had written that book called 'Democracy at Gunpoint'. Once he had come to power in 1981, he enacted an important step towards redemption in Greece and thereby overcome the old split between the Left and the Right by granting all Partisans, resistance fighters, ex or still Communists etc. equal Rights, including the Right to a pension funded by the state. Melina Mercouri had taken that spirit further with her incredible personality, charm and as Alexis Alatsis said 'vision' by initiating the idea of having every year in Europe a 'Capital of Culture'. She did it together with Jack Lang as referred to so much by Bob Palmer in his speech in Brussels during the celebration of 25 years of history of European Capital of Culture, March 23 - 24, 2010.

When thinking about Athens, then comes to mind immediately how the city survived the onslaught of the Persians in Ancient times. Instead of remaining in the city, they took to the boats and thereby interpreted the advice of the oracle. The latter had said to hide behind wooden planks. Since it would not have made much sense to hide behind the wooden fortification which protected also the road between Athens and Piraeus, they took it to mean to on board of their ships and wait there for the attack to come. Certainly on the ships they would escape the burning arrows of the Persian army. Afterwards Marx would say of this feat, the Persians managed only to destroy the city, but not the memory of its people who upon returning once the Persians had left could re-build the city.

Ships at anchor outside Port of Pireaus


Linked to Athens is this meaning of the Polis and what Pericles said in his famous funeral speech, namely 'no armies, but active citizenship is the best protection of the city!'

That entire period of the arts flourishing and democracy brought about by active citizenship was linked to the construction of the Acropolis. Whoever lives in Athens senses that immediate presence of history dating back 2000 years and more. The Acropolis stand on poetic grounds. Overlooking Athens, it is a unique place of solemn serenity and beauty. The archaeologist Korres has described how it was constructed and has been involved in restoration efforts. A good story about the history of the Acropolis has been written by the Polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert. He shows like an archaeologist when which group of souvenir hunters took something back home, lest of all being Lord Elgin with the famous Parthenon Marbles still being kept today by the British Museum and to which the newly opened Acropolis Museum was supposed to be an answer, namely that the marbles could return once no longer kept up on the Acropolis, but under proper conditions of a museum for purpose of preservation and accessibility. For the British Museum claims this to be a part of world heritage to which its house offers the best condition of access with no visitor being asked to pay an entrance fee. Also the British Museum would argue within its house different world civilizations meet. Hence the keepers of the British Museum would never favor a return of the marbles to Athens and to the Acropolis museum since this would mean virtually a re-nationalization of world heritage.

The Greeks and the past is a special story as indicated by the problem of finding access to a contemporary form of artistic expression which is not smothered by this ancient past. Melina Mercouri formulated in her own unique way how she envisions both change and continuity insofar as she coined the slogan "then as here and now!" The continual presence of the Ancient Past is something to be considered in the way cultural heritage facilitates but can also hinder how a modern society faces up to the problems of globalization and European integration.

Acropolis hidden behind the trees

Thus 1985 must be perceived in the wish to show what Greek culture has contributed to modern Europe while those who have been inspired by the Ancient Greeks would bring their contemporary forms of expressions to Athens so that people could meet under such an all embracing culture of Europe.

HF 27.4.2010


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