Acropolis: Marbled by Monumental Myths and Stories
“During my first days in the city for fieldwork, I strolled around the small streets in Anafiotika, a Greek island-like neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis. There, I started chatting with a shop owner in his 60s, who was trying to sell his summer linen clothes and straw hats to tourists. When he asked […]
“During my first days in the city for fieldwork, I strolled around the small streets in Anafiotika, a Greek island-like neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis. There, I started chatting with a shop owner in his 60s, who was trying to sell his summer linen clothes and straw hats to tourists. When he asked me how long I was planning to stay and I told him that I will be staying to do some research, he became curious. His first reaction to the topic of my research was to tell me the story of Konstantinos Koukidis.” He’s the one who committed suicide, preventing the Greek flag to not get lost to the Germans during the German occupation in Greece (1941-1944), by wrapping his body in the fabric and throwing himself from the Acropolis hill. Though there are speculations that Koukidis himself did not really exist, but rather became a myth told for almost 80 years now, for the shopkeeper I talked to, this story represents the beginning of the Greek resistance against the Nazis as well as many following movements. “It is one of these stories that often remain in the shadow of an impressive historic monument and the endless queues of tourists in front of souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, ice cream shops and shops selling Greek frozen yogurt. I am certain that on this day in late June 2018, when I was told this story by the shop keeper, thousands of tourists had already passed by the plaque commemorating Koukidis’ act of resistance on their way to climb the Acropolis hill – most likely without even noticing it. I was still at the beginning of my fieldwork and yet the shopkeeper’s story already made me aware of the gap between heroic testimonies of antiquity and heroes of modern Greek history in official Greek historical representation, as exemplified by the Acropolis.”
However, this is not the only story surrounding a fabric – here a flag – and the ancient site. There is another one, a bit less mythologized, as the main protagonists definitely existed: Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas became icons of the anti-fascist resistance during the German occupation in 1941, by taking down the swastika flag hoisted on the hill of the Acropolis. “I really like it cause it’s amazing how a piece of fabric can have such a big meaning of belonging,” states Della, whom I interviewed during a fieldtrip in 2018, when we are talking about acts of resistance and the Acropolis. Glezos himself remained politically active amongst others as the oldest member of the European Parliament for Syriza in 2014 and 2015, at the age of over 90 years. He died in early 2020. Though two popular heroic stories from the beginning of the resistance against the Nazis take place at the Acropolis, they remain marginalized next to ancient heroizations. “We just focused on what Greece used to be and how great it was. (…) This is what we know, this is the case, this is our reality, this is our memory of Greece,” as Antigone states during an interview in 2018 .
The two examples show that myths, defined by the philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes as “a system of communication that traverses the centuries”, were not only used to explain the world in Ancient Greece, but act as a moral guide and orientation for different generations, as young adults like Della or Antigone as well as the shopkeeper in his 60ies are referring to the Acropolis not as an ancient site but as a symbol for resistance during the German occupation (1941-1944) and the following Greek civil war (1946-1949).
Acropolis, a Filter for Past and Current Socio-Political Struggles
When strolling through the chaotic streets of the capital, sensing that there was a period when “Athens grew without a plan”, the Acropolis helps out as main navigation point on the top of the palimpsest like structure of Athens. Attracting roughly 3,5 Million tourists in 2019, queuing all day long during the high season to enter the “cradle of democracy” the ancient site might be the best example for the commercialization of memories at least in Greece. Central point of urban planning in the early 19th century, aiming at constructing “a museum of ancient building-art second to none in the whole world” and of nowadays city marketing of the “rare historical palimpsest”, the Acropolis nevertheless symbolizes the failing, at least the questioning of democracy and acts as a contrast filter raising awareness on ongoing socio-political struggles and all sorts of movements that shape the multicultural city.
The Acropolis illustrates “that we have been through many transitions. It was used as a mosque, as a Christian church, it was used by soldiers to hide equipment there in the Second World War and the Greek civil war. The Acropolis, it’s (…) there are so many things in my head. It started as a symbol of protection. At least the Parthenon was built for Athena, who was the goddess taking care of Athens. Democracy was a great deal and the love for ancient times will always be there. It’s just sad that nowadays we are mostly commercializing Acropolis as a monument that can attract tourists but it’s not for the cause of its original idea,” as Della tries to summarize what the Acropolis represents to her.
On closer inspection, the Acropolis appears more like a huge mosaic than a block of marble. It is shaped by past and current socio-political upheavals, prompting the negotiation of the past beyond official representation of history, rendering imaginations of how democracy could look like.
 Sterniša, Christina (2020): Places of Remembrance of Resistance and Social Movements in Athens. Master Thesis: University of Graz. p. 44.
 Barthes, Roland (2015): Mythen des Alltags. 3rd edition. Berlin. p. 235.
 Bastea, Eleni (2014): Athens, 1890-1940: Transitory Modernism and National Realities. In: Behrends, Jan; Kohlrausch, Martin (Eds.): Races to Modernity. Metropolitan Aspirations in Eastern Europe, 1890-1940. Budapest, New York. p. 127-152/here p. 142.
 Kleanthes and Schaubert cited in Bastea, Eleni (2000): The Creation of Modern Athens. Planning the Myth. Cambridge. p. 219.
Pictures: Acropolis and housing, taken by the author in June 2018 and February 2019
Doctoral Candidate at the University of Graz. Currently living and researching in Greece on Places of Remembrance of Resistance during the German occupation in Athens.
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