Anarchy and Art in Athens
After our first day of exploring the ancient ruins and flea markets of Athens, it was time to buckle down and see the best museums the city has to offer. Although, being a Sunday, a leisurely brunch was the first thing on the agenda (and very culturally appropriate if I might add – Greeks love to spend hours drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with their friends!) Kolonaki (which means “Little Column”) is the area of Athens to go for brunch, so we did as the locals do and headed there. Throughout the windy streets of the neighbourhood, the tables of the charming cafés and restaurants spill out onto the sidewalk, almost begging you to stop by and devote a few hours to cappuccinos and giggles. The whole feel of the area is reminiscent of the finest areas of New York or Paris.
As fate would have it, just as we arrived, a table for two in prime real estate opened up like magic.
A cappuccino and Greek yogurt parfait drizzled in honey for me and a cheesy omelette and extra bread for him.
The first smell of coffee in the morning never ceases to make me smile.
Caffeinated and excited, we were ready to explore.
Starting with a stroll through the graffiti-covered Exarchia. Very few tourists wander into this neighbourhood, due to its reputation as being the most dangerous part of Athens. This area is the city’s most anarchist-friendly district and was the ground zero for a series of riots that shook Greece in 2008, after Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed here by police. Since then, Exarchia has become a gathering place for anti-government protesters, a group that has only grown larger and angrier as Greece’s political and economic problems have worsened.
Exarchia, with its half-dilapidated buildings and spray-painted walls, clashes with the postcard version of classical Athens. However, it has become a neighbourhood saturated with some of the most stunning graffiti I have ever seen. The vast majority of it is political — subtle graffiti like “F*ck the Capital,” or “We hate the Police” — and there are countless memorials to Grigoropoulos. Close to Athens Polytechnic, the area is mostly made up of left-leaning students and Professors who pop in and out of the various bookstores selling titles along the lines of “LSD, Marijuana, Yoga & Hypnosis”.
While walking around I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between the fights of left-leaning youths and intellectuals all around the Western world.
Our walk brought us right to the National Archaeological Museum.
An essential visit, the National Archaeological Museum boasts the finest collection of Classical Greek art in the world. There are over 11,000 objects in here from traces of monuments at the end of the Peloponnesian War to others at the start of the Spartan dominance. Impossible to spend less than a couple of hours in, you can see evidence of all Greek history from Aristotle, Rome’s Civil War and the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium.
Let me show you around!
The museum’s most celebrated display is the Mycenaean Antiquities. Here are the stunning treasures that Heinrich Schliemann found during his 1876 excavations of Mycenae’s royal tombs. The funeral mask of a bearded king (once thought to be Agamemnon but now known to be much older), a splendid silver bull’s-head libation cup, and 15th-century BC Vapheio Goblets are all part of these antiquities.
And so much gold jewellery it shall make your mouth drool.
Unfortunately, no matter how much I may love you, I won’t be bringing any souvenirs of this calibre back from Europe.
I was especially fascinated by the Linear B tablets, whose script has been proven to be the first form of Greek writing. In 1900, Arthur Evans recognised and named the script in the palace of at Knossos in Crete, which was occupied by the Mycenaeans after 1450 BC. But the language of the Linear B texts was not read until 1952, when the British architect Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B and showed that the tablets were written in an early form of Greek, earlier than that of the Homeric poems.
They (very cleverly) figured out that Linear B is a syllabic script, meaning that each symbol corresponds to a certain syllable. It consists of approximately ninety syllabic signs, ideograms (every picture denotes a concept) and numerals. They also (just as cleverly) realised that all the clay tablets they had found at the palace were merely administrative documents such as lists, inventories, and tax forms.
I never thought I would get so excited upon seeing a grocery list!
Dramatically positioned in the centre of the next room is this bronze statue of a horse and young jockey (known as the “Artemision Jockey”) which was retrieved in pieces from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision and then reassembled in 1971.
To commemorate their 150th anniversary, the Museum is currently presenting a year-long exhibition titled “Odysseys”. Made up of one hundred and eighty-four works, the exhibit seeks to “give an account of the adventurous journey of man through time considered from an abstract and symbolic perspective that draws its inspiration from the Homeric Odyssey.”
Some of my personal highlights from the collection included: a bronze statue of Poseidon from the sea region of Livadostra in Boeotia, about 480 BC (left); a fragment of a Neolithic vase from the settlement of Arapi in Thessaly, 5300-4800 BC (center); and this rather colourful and over-the-top costume, it’s dates I unfortunately forget!
I also loved the sculpture of Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (right) from Delos, about 100 BC.
Moving upstairs you come to a rather impressive skeleton collection (does anyone else ever feel like you have invaded someone’s privacy by taking a photo of their skeleton???) and equally as impressive pot collection (of which I enjoy especially because I don’t worry about their privacy rights!)
Among the treasures of the pottery collection are six Panathenaic amphorae (large, ceramic vessels) presented to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. They contained oil from the sacred olive trees of Athens and it is believed that winners might have received up to 140 of them!
The rest of the museum consists of exquisite sculptures, pottery, jewellery, frescoes and artefacts found throughout Greece. I would, of course, love to tell you about each and every piece; however, I suspect you might have some other things to do this week!
It would definitely take several visits to appreciate the museum’s vast collection, but you can see the highlights in a half-day. I am terrible at keeping to a schedule, so if I had been on my own I would have most likely stayed until they kicked me out. But, alas, Tristan is far more practical and punctual, so he had dragged me out of there and plonked me in an Uber before I had time to protest.
Not that I had anything to complain about, we were racing through Athens to even more fantastic collections of art.
But we shall continue those Athenian adventures tomorrow!
Photos by Jenny Heyside and Tristan Marsh