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  • Athens—Ancient and Modern:Athens in the Twenty-First Century
  • Marina Kotzamani (bio)

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Opening Ceremony of the Athens Olympics of 2004 in the stadium designed by Santiago Calatrava.

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Situated at the Eastern tip of Europe, modern Greece has partaken of both Eastern and Western cultural elements. The presence of an Eastern heritage along with a Western heritage has been notoriously difficult to negotiate for Greeks. In modern times, Greece became a state in 1834, having been under the Ottoman Empire for four hundred years. Since its inception, the modern Greek state has been anxious to claim a position in the European family. To this end it has strongly emphasized its hereditary, cultural, and material connection to ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization. Identifying modern with ancient Greece and establishing continuity between ancient and modern culture has been the most significant ideological project of the modern state and instrumental in forging national identity. This effort has had pervasive influence on all aspects of Greek life from the nineteenth century to the present.

Establishing historical continuity for Greek civilization has also largely involved homogenizing it and purging it of vibrant Eastern elements, primarily those associated with folk and popular arts. A firm polarity was thus put into place in the nineteenth century with the Western heritage, classical Greece, and "high culture" on one side and the Eastern heritage, folk, and popular culture on the other. In spite of ideological manipulation, Eastern elements survived and developed in parallel with, or in assimilation to, official high culture. Contemporary Greek culture then is a hybrid of Eastern and Western elements. Since the 1990s, the arrival of new immigrants in Greece from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa has been reinvigorating Eastern influences in the culture in new ways.

It is easy to ascertain the hybrid character of Greek culture empirically by taking a walk in the historical center of Athens, especially the downtown area surrounding the central marketplace of the city, the Varvakeios. This is the busiest and most vibrant shopping center of Athens, catering to a lower middle- and working-class clientele. The flavor of Eastern elements in the culture is prominent here. One can buy anything at the market area from herbs to a whole lamb, including intestines, or a wedding dress. One can get shoes, clocks, and lamps repaired. Indeed, the area has also traditionally been settled by craftspeople. In recent years, the Varvakeios has [End Page 12] rapidly been turning into a multicultural center with the new immigrants flocking to the area to find work, set up a business, or socialize.

Newcomers to the neighborhood, however, do not only include downtrodden Easterners but also high culture art sophisticates of a Western polish who frequent the art galleries, theatres, trendy restaurants, and bars that moved there over the last decade and continue to grow in number. Obviously these enterprises are on the side of Western "high" culture. The same applies to state institutions focusing on modern and contemporary art, which have recently opened in the wider area extending below the Varvakeios such as the Benaki Museum of Peireos Street, a lively museum housed in a stylish new building, and Gazi, a former gas factory turned into a complex of exhibition spaces.

Besides westward-looking contemporaneity, ancient Greece also has a strong presence in the neighborhood. The entire area around the Varvakeios extends to the south of the Acropolis and the ancient agora, offering stunning views of the archaeological sites. Indeed, the ancient agora of Athens geographically forms almost a continuum with the modern agora. Classical Greek theatre also has pride of place in the neighborhood through street naming. Directly below the Varvakeios, in Psiri, there is a complex of narrow, small streets bearing the names of all the illustrious ancient Greek dramatists. These streets surround Plateia Theatrou (Theatre Square), facing the Varvakeios from the west.

The strong connection between theatre and the agora that existed in ancient times is also in place in contemporary Athens. In antiquity both the theatre and the agora were broadly participatory and popular public institutions where all sorts of exchanges happened, making for great spectacle. This is...


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