Athens is more than Acropolis. Athens is the past. Athens is the present. And in Athens we see the shadow of the future. These are my observations and thoughts from walking around Athens three days in March.
I enter a Greek Orthodox Church to join the morning prayer with the locals. The smell of incense. The high ceiling lit by only a single candelabra in front of the alter room. The crucified Jesus barely visible through an opening. The high pitched chants of the choir. Kyrie Eleison. Golden stars on calm blue reflecting the scant light from the morning daylight filtered through the stained glass windows high in the walls.
I step aside to not interfere but end up blocking a determined woman on her route between icons that need to be kissed. I step forward to take a seat on a bench in the back but are directed to a seat on the other side of the aisle, with the men, by a firm look from a man at the entrance. I join a quiet congregation of a handful men and double as many women. They women follow the prayer in their books. The men sit in quiet contemplation.
I pray for peace in Ukraine.
All except me know when to stand and when to cross themselves. The greek cross, from right to left. A grey haired man in purple robe stands at the entrance to the alter room with his back to us. Chants in a lower pitch. More Kyrie Eleison. The congregation recites firmly what must be a confirmation of faith.
Half an hour and we leave the church each our separate ways to fulfil our tasks for the day. Reassured that there is a God and it all makes sense.
Merchants and beggars
I go to the market. It is Friday. Fish and fruits of the sea laid out on display. The men work efficiently, systematically. They are proud of what they offer. Squid, octopus, tuna. Shellfish and shrimps. A great variety of fish. The meat section is busy with men carrying meat from trucks, cutting and putting on display. Goat, sheep, cattle. Chicken. Heads and feet as well as expensive cuts. Leftovers go in the meat grinder.
I see the flag of the European Union next to the flag of Greece. Money invested in impressive architecture and infrastructure. I see people sleeping on the street, beggars. I see derelict houses, remnants of a close, not so glorious past, right next to thriving businesses with a bounty of local and imported goods on display.
Later I visit the Ancient Agora. What was once the main hub of the city is now a quiet place for contemplation, mostly for tourists. I walk along the Panthenaic Road that leads from the main gate of the ancient city to the acropolis. I imagine a young man marching on the way to battle or home from battle with the city watching from the stoa, conveniently reconstructed. The conflicting thoughts and emotions. How sweet and proper it is to die for your country. The price of freedom. Democracy.
Yesterday, unions had called for a general strike to protest against the shortcomings of the safety of the public transportation. I watched the demonstrations from Lycabettus, the hilltop just north of the city that offers a magnificent view. I see crowds gather in front of the parliament and outside the technical university. I see the police on mopeds and in trucks creating a perimeter. I hear sounds of teargas and see the flashes and the smoke. A few hours later when I pass the Constitution Square, all is calm. The gear of modern day riot police is not that different from that of a hoplite. Angry citizens protesting today not unlike citizens marching across the agora 2500 years ago.
Philosophy and science
I walk the uncovered grounds of Lyceum, the school of Aristoteles, the founder of empiric science. Observing, naming, formalising the world. I wonder over the Antikythera Mechanism, the first computer. How annoying it must have been that the world is not perfect. The cycle of the moon is 29.5 days, approximately. The length of the year is 365.25 days, approximately. Over 19 years, the patterns repeat, almost. The motions of the heavens are not perfect circles. How thrilling it must have been to create a device that cracked the riddle, a device that could predict solar and lunar eclipses. Omens of religion claimed by science.
The story of the past is also a story of modern Greece. How Greece rebuilt an identity after 400 years of foreign rule. How Greece took control of its relics from the past. Now new generations of Greeks create their future. While some things stay the same, the gears of the heaven are always in motion and never quite repeats.
Today is my last day in Athens. Tomorrow I head north, to Thesalonikki, with a detour to Meteora.