An ancient architectural fragment from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis with an 1805 inscription in Ottoman Arabic (Photo by Fotis Ifantidis; cf. Paton 1927: 7-72; Hamilakis 2007: 98-99).
During the course of a series of studies on the social and political lives of ruins in Greece (cf. Hamilakis 2007), I was, inevitably, often drawn on the most iconic specimen of Greek national imagination, the Athenian Acropolis. I thus soon became aware of two facts: the first is that most tourist guides and official presentations to the site still present to the nearly 2 million visitors per year a sanitized image, a partial, monumentalized façade of only one aspect of the rich social biography of the monument: a version of its classic life, broadly defined. The site was important before classical times, and it continued to be important subsequently, up to the present. Yet, very little of that richness reaches the visitors. Moreover, the site continues to be projected exclusively as a sight, a staged authenticity that is offered to the visitors for almost exclusively visual consumption and admiration. I have elsewhere explored this phenomenon by pointing to this ocularcentric monumentalisation as the outcome of the combined efforts of the photographic and the archaeological (Hamilakis 2001, 2008).
Photo by Fotis Ifantidis
The second fact is that while the site was an arena of contestation since antiquity, today is fast becoming a focal point for renewed social and political discourse, dialogue, and conflict in novel ways and using new media and tactics. Here are some examples; the dispute over the location and appropriateness of the New Acropolis Museum mobilized local residents and activists, some of whom climbed in adjacent balconies to video-record the excavations which, they claimed with some justification, destroyed the archaeological traces of a neighborhood of the late antique and medieval Athens, in order to build the new Museum (these videos can be now found in YouTube). As part of that same, state-sponsored, high profile project, there is another battle raging for the last year or so: it concerns the proposed demolition of two neoclassical buildings in front of the new museum. Both buildings were previously listed as worthy of preservation by the Ministry of Culture-the same department which has now decided their demolition; one of the two buildings constitutes the best example of Art Deco architecture in Athens, and has been declared a historic monument. The official excuse is that the buildings will obscure the view from the new Museum towards the Acropolis. The decision sparked a huge mobilization campaign, mostly through the internet, for the preservation of these buildings. And my final example, the residents of the area around the Phillopapou hill, opposite the Acropolis, have been for the last couple of years or so involved in a bitter dispute with the state archaeological service over the use of that hill, which forms part of the broader archaeological zone of the Athenian Acropolis. The hill is a vital recreation zone for the local residents but one which the archaeological service now wants to bring into its tighter control, prohibiting several activities such as cycling, with the pretext of possible damage to the monuments. The reaction from the residents has sparked a vibrant and dynamic movement which claims that the best guarantee for the safety and preservation of the ancient monuments is not their complete separation from the web of daily life and the contemporary social needs but the love and care of the local residents. The blog of this movement has been a key tool in its attempt to disseminate information fast, and to connect with other groups and movements.
Something interesting and new seems to be happening here; the structures of state archaeology and monument preservation are persistently and ferociously challenged by a new kind of activism; this activism combines conventional forms such as public gatherings, with novel ones such as blogging, internet organizing and art interventions (such as the production of films released on the web). This challenge is not simply a dispute between a state government and aggrieved citizens. These reactions challenge some of the fundamental principles of modernist archaeology, be in Greece or elsewhere: the adoption and projection of a “golden age” at the expense of other periods, the creation of archaeological heterotopias, divorced from the web of daily lives, the production of monumental landscapes, the control of what is deemed visible and what not, in other words, the control of what Jacques Rancière has called, the distribution of the sensible. These movements may not articulate a direct challenge to nationalist, colonialist, or other exclusivist ideologies and regimes, but they do produce an alternative space for debate and dialogue, beyond monolithic narratives.
It is this emerging landscape that our initiative is situated in, and it is with some of these movements that it hopes to communicate and interact. In a fast changing country, where the recent immigrants from the Balkans, Asian and African countries are approaching nearly 10% of its population, and where a robust scholarly and public debate both on its foundational national myths, and on the fate and character of its ancient material traces is currently ragging, there is a strong and urgent need for scholarly and media interventions that will result in an alternative archaeological cultural production: for example, an Athenian Acropolis worth visiting, where the material traces of all aspects of its biography, from the prehistoric, to the Ottoman, and to the contemporary are valorized, and offered for public, multi-sensory experiential encounters. In other words, there is a need for a site that speaks to audiences from diverse backgrounds, and connects, for example, to the lives and experiences of the Muslim residents of Athens as it does to its Christians, or its neo-pagans.
The initial idea was to produce an alternative guide to the Acropolis, in a printed, portable form: in other words, to point to the visitors the material traces of the multi-period, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic life of the site, traces which have survived the archaeological purification since the 19th century, but also encourage them to engage with the multi-sensory materiality of the site. We made the conscious decision to include in our interventions the whole archaeological landscape around the Acropolis, and not simply the hill itself, not only because it forms a unified cultural locus, but also because in the area around the Acropolis the multi-period and multi-cultural material traces have been more fortunate than on the hill itself, which was subjected to a much more thorough process of cleansing. The printed guide is still on the cards, as are other forms of media interventions, but we have decided to start with a photoblog (http://theotheracropolis.com). From early on, I discussed this idea with Fotis Ifantidis, an archaeologist who is now well-known from his successful visualising_neolithic photoblog. Fotis has embraced it and has worked very hard to produce a series of stunning images that can be now seen on our site. The group also includes Vasko Démou, an archaeologist and artist who has recently started doctoral research on otherness and inclusivity in archaeology, taking the Athenian Acropolis, as one of his key sites. The collective is open to others, who share our main convictions and want to contribute, either through scholarly work or through artistic or media interventions.
Below, is the text, we have posted on the website:
“This photoblog is the first stage of a series of projects by The Other Acropolis Collective. We have a background in archaeology, anthropology, or media studies, and we all share a desire to intervene critically in the processes that often result in monolithic and exclusivist archaeological and heritage materialities in the present. Our aim is to produce a range of alternative media interventions which will take the iconic site of the Athenian Acropolis as their centre, their point of departure, or their target (in all senses of the word). This project is a follow-up from a number of other, more conventional academic projects, to do with issues such as the role of the Acropolis in nationalist and colonialist discourses and practices, the social, political, and sensual lives of its ruins, the ways by which the transformative power of archaeological and photographic apparatuses have produced and endlessly reproduced the site/sight of the Acropolis, the tourist experience of the site, and so on (see bibliography for some of these projects).
This project can be seen as the attempt to undermine the monolithic discourse on the Acropolis as an exclusively classical site, by bringing into the fore its other lives, from prehistory to the present (the Mycenaean, the Medieval, the Ottoman, the Muslim, the Christian, the contemporary…), especially through their material traces that still survive, despite the extensive processes of archaeological, but also photographic purification. We draw our inspiration from two concepts: the first is multi-temporality, and the second, multi-sensoriality. We believe that the site and the space around it constitute a unique locale which can re-activate different times, evoke different cultures, and reconnect with diverse and fluid identities. At the same time, we hope to encourage a fully embodied, multi-sensory appreciation and engagement with the materiality of the site, beyond the stereotypical, tourist gaze, or the national pilgrimage. We also favour the re-incorporation of this locale into the fabric of daily life, especially for the people who live around it. We hope that the thoughts and the material generated here will lead to other projects and interventions, some on site, some printed, some virtual, with more immediate a printed, portable alternative tourist guide for The Other Acropolis. We invite you to post your comment, share your thoughts, and if you are an artist or a researcher already working on a similar project, get in touch with us”.
Hamilakis, Y. 2001. Monumental visions: Bonfils, classical antiquity and 19th century Athenian society. History of Photography 25(1): 5-12 and 23-43.
Hamilakis, Y. 2007. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hamilakis, Y. 2008. Monumentalising place: archaeologists, photographers, and the Athenian Acropolis from the 18th century to the present. In Rainbird, P. (ed.) Monuments in the Landscape. Tempus.
Paton, J.M. (ed.) 1927. The Erechtheum. Cambridge, MA and Princeton: Harvard University Press and the American School of Classical Studies.
Rancièrre, J. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum.