Thursday, 29 June 2006

Herculean task of restoring Acropolis

The Parthenon is clad in scaffolding as work continues on restoration of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Letter from Athens
Patrick Comerford

In the heat of the summer sun in Athens, tourists pick their way across the rocky top of the Acropolis from early morning, crossing mini-rail lines, ducking under overhanging cranes and scaffolding on the Parthenon, and watching in amazement as stonecutters chip away at marble blocks and archaeologists push ahead with their efforts to restore the most important classical landmark in Greece.

According to Greece’s deputy culture minister, Petros Tatoulis, the long drawn out work on restoring the Acropolis should be largely completed by the end of next year. However, the Parthenon will be the last monument to be renovated, and the entire project will not be ready until 2020.

“This is a national effort for which money is no object,” Tatoulis says. Almost €18 million was invested in the project between 2000 and 2004, and a further €14 million is being spent in 2005 and 2006, the vast majority provided by the EU.

Earlier this year, Tatoulis hinted that the government might seek private sponsorship, breaking a taboo that has been in place since the conservation project began 30 years ago.

Tatoulis says work is “progressing at a satisfactory pace”, but so far, the only monument to have been fully conserved and partially restored is the Erechtheion temple, at the northern end of the Acropolis.

Scaffolding on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates will come down by the end of next year, but restoration work on the Parthenon may then resume, according to Dr Maria Ioannidou, head of the official organisation overseeing the works, the Conservation of Acropolis Monuments (YSMA).

More than half the marble blocks from the three monuments have been treated and put back in place, but there is still much painstaking work to do. “We are treating each piece as an individual work of art. There has not been systematic support for the Acropolis monuments since the age of Pericles, so any delay is justified. The essence is the quality of the work involved and not the time,” says YSMA president Prof Haralambos Bouras.

Three basic restoration programmes on the monuments are on target and are expected to be completed by the end of this year, according to Prof Bouras. The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates have suffered from exposure to pollution and from damage caused by failed restoration efforts in the past.

Another view of the Parthenon, which will be the last monument to be renovated on the Acropolis. The entire project will not be ready until 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

However, new challenges continually arise as the restoration work continues. In the YSMA's latest annual report, Dr Bouras points out that the latest delays have been caused by problems on the periphery walls of the Acropolis.

Other problems include inscriptions which remain in the open air, as there are no final plans on where to move them and how to protect them. In addition, work on the Temple of Athena Nike is proving to be time-consuming, with two extra restoration techniques now being called for.

Greek officials say the construction of the long-awaited and much-delayed Acropolis Museum will be completed by next year and that it will open to visitors by the end of 2007. The original plan was to open the new museum in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The museum, in inner suburban Makriyiannis, is just 300m (984ft) south of the rock of the Acropolis. It covers 23,000sq m, and the ministry of culture says the entire project will cost €129 million.

Archaeologists digging at the foundations discovered antiquities dating from the late Neolithic period to the seventh century BC.

A special place in the museum has been reserved for the Parthenon Marbles, which are still on display in the British Museum in London.

Project director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis expects that glass partitions will be placed in the hall built to host the Parthenon Marbles by the end of July, and that the glass enclosure will be finished by August. Some of the heavy sculptures will be moved from the old museum on the Acropolis during the summer months.

Visitors will gradually start gaining access to the halls of the new museum, even while the antiquities are being moved.

The museum consists of four basements, a ground floor, an inclined level on the ground floor which will host the findings from the Acropolis, and a first floor which will host archaic and post-Parthenon collections. The two-storey building will be capped by a glass hall allowing visitors unrivalled views of the Parthenon.

The 14,000sq m exhibition area will contain more than 4,000 works – 10 times the amount on display in the cramped museum on the Acropolis. Most have been kept in storage for decades, and thousands have never been seen before by the public. “We are talking about masterpieces that have never been seen”, including bronze and pottery artefacts found on the slopes of the Acropolis, says one senior project official, Nikos Damalitis.

All the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures in Greek possession will be displayed on a full-sized model of the temple inside the museum, and the Greek government is renewing demands for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, 190 years after they were stripped away by Lord Elgin.

This half-page news feature was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June 2006

Friday, 9 June 2006

Survival of Albania’s ethnic
Greeks a tribute to resilience

Letter from Albania:
Patrick Comerford

In the backstreets of Saranda the street children selling cheap trinkets share only two words in English: “One euro.” But when they are asked their names in Greek, Pos se léne? (What’s your name?"), even they can answer fluently: “Me léne Christos, Me léne Florin.” Greek is commonly spoken in this corner of Albania but 10 years ago, Saranda and the surrounding villages in southern Albania were in danger of being deserted as the ethnic Greeks of Northern Epirus and their ethnic Albanian neighbours tried to cross the border in droves, seeking greater freedom and economic opportunities.

Today, those who fled or migrated are trickling back to Albania. Loretta, a schoolteacher, has seen them go and return. Although she quotes the official estimates that 20 per cent of the people of Saranda are Greek speakers, the response of the street children confirms local estimates that the figures are higher.

The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greek minority, with their language, culture and Orthodox Christianity, is evidence that Albania may be about to reverse its economic fortunes. Remittances home and returning migrants have brought a building boom to Saranda and the neighbouring villages, with new apartment blocks and hotels along the seashore. Mobile phone users are offered a choice of five operators – two Albanian and three Greek – and day trippers from Corfu are one of the primary sources of cash and foreign currency.

The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greeks is testimony to the resilience and fortitude of this minority throughout the Cold War, when Albania cut all ties with the outside world, becoming Europe's most isolated state and, from 1967, the world's only true atheist state.

Yet, throughout those decades, religion survived in the hearts of the people. Today, new churches, cathedrals and mosques are springing up again. The number of Albanians who are Orthodox Christians is now put at 30 per cent, including ethnic Greeks and ethnic Albanians.

The Albanian people claim descent from the original Illyrians, who populated this part of the Balkans in pre-classical times. One of the most important archaeological sites east of the Adriatic is Butrint, south of Saranda. The largely unexcavated site contains Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian remains, with many important early Christian remains, including an early basilica and one of the most complete early baptisteries built between Venice and Constantinople.

Albanians believe Christianity was brought here by the Apostle Paul, who said he had proclaimed the Gospel throughout Illyricum (Romans 15: 19), and the Apostle Andrew. After the great schism that divided Christianity in the 11th century, southern Albania remained within the ambit of Byzantine Orthodoxy for centuries, and Albania's struggle for independence at the beginning of the last century was identified with the Orthodox Church, which was also seeking independence.

Efforts to organise an independent Orthodox Church of Albania began in 1908 with Fan Noli, a priest who later became a bishop and prime minister. The Church of Albania, which received independent status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1937, survived efforts by the Italians during the second World War to force a merger with Byzantine-rite Catholics in Calabria and Sicily. Under Enver Hoxha’s regime, complete control was imposed and religious persecution began. Archbishop Christophoros died under house arrest, clergy and lay Christians were exiled, jailed, tortured and murdered, and when Albania was officially proclaimed an atheist state in 1967, hundreds of churches were torn down, many more turned into workshops, factories, warehouses, stables, cinemas or clubs, and monasteries razed or turned into army barracks.

Today, however, the Church is claiming phenomenal growth. Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Tirana, a former theology professor at the University of Athens, arrived in 1991 to complete desolation: 1,608 churches and monasteries were destroyed and the number of Orthodox clergy had fallen from 440 in the 1940s to 22. He called together the remaining clergy, re-established a general synod, appointed new bishops and says now that the Orthodox Church of Albania is living in “a resurrection atmosphere”.

Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been built, restored or repaired, the Orthodox Theological Academy of the Resurrection has opened at the Monastery of Aghios Blasios near Durres, and there are new children's homes, diocesan and youth centres, guest houses, schools, clinics, a printing press, and icon studios. The church carries out extensive social work through Diakonia Agapes (Service of Love), distributing food, clothing and medicine.

Greek-speaking villages abandoned in the 1990s are being repopulated slowly, and the Greeks who know this corner of Albania as “Northern Epirus” are no longer seeking union with neighbouring Greece.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 9 June 2006