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It’s time to rebuild ancient Athens

Visitors to the Ancient Agora swelter in the Athenian heat. Credit: Getty

June 23, 2024 - 1:00pm

Life and a conference took me to Athens recently. Reader, it is true: international conferences are not quite a jolly, but can be jolly good fun. But visiting ancient Athens is ridiculous.

What should be a transcendent journey into the mystery of the ancient world is anything but. As I panted in the scorching sun, looking at poorly signposted clumps of scattered stone, I wondered: why don’t we just rebuild the whole thing?

Take the Agora, once the ceremonial and commercial heart of Periclean Athens. Now, it’s just lumps of rubble and marble in an olive grove. In pounding heat, confused tourists scuttle from shade to shade, quickly ceasing to read the signs. To “discover” archaeologically the ancient Agora, 400 buildings were demolished. What’s left is more akin to postwar Dresden than to ancient Athens. It’s a battle scene with trees, not an educational experience.

You get a better sense of ancient Athens in the nearby old town on the Acropolis’s slopes. Here the shops, narrow streets and pretty buildings with their colourful shutters and awnings are more reminiscent of an ancient colonnade or agora than any pile of clean, white stones in a hot, dry field.

You can also better appreciate the ancient world in one of the city’s jewel-like Greek Orthodox churches. They are, after all, in direct and unruptured succession from the Byzantine Empire. Inside, they are ornate and luridly coloured, kept blissfully cool not by air conditioning but by their height and artfully created currents of air passing through them. This is closer to the real temple experience than shuffling round the outside taking photographs.

The common thread running through these popular places is that they are built, not lying in ruins. All experiences we have of historical places are by definition imperfect. We will never be there in person. So, why not swallow our pride and enjoy a brazen imitation? None of the site’s outlines or stones need be lost. All original materials can be reincorporated into recreated buildings.

Tourists make for two places in the Agora. First, for the Temple of Hephaestus, a remarkably complete ancient temple which survived because the Byzantines were sensible enough to make it into a church. Tourists shelter in its shade and take photos. They also head for the remarkably complete Stoa, or covered market, of Attalos. The Stoa was almost completely rebuilt in the Fifties by the Athenian architect John Travlos. It is, in some important sense, a modern copy. And yet this is where the tourists come for shade, comfort and for a far better sense of the past.

Here, suddenly, ancient Greece comes to life. The heat recedes. The shade and the cool wind rustle through the columns, replicating the civilised pleasures of ancient urban existence. Children lie on the marble floor for the cool. Visitors sit on the step under the fluted Doric colonnade and watch their fellow tourists pass by. Unconsciously, they are echoing precisely the behaviour of ancient Athenians meeting, talking and simply being in their town square. These examples all show that tourists prefer finished buildings to confusing ruins, even if they are rebuilt simulations.

Running contrary to considerations of tourist comfort and comprehension is the religiously ascetic component to “doing the ruins”. If it is this hard and physically unpleasant then in some mysterious way, the wisdom goes, it must be doing us good. This is modern tourism as medieval pilgrimage. From the hardship of the journey flows the virtue of the trip. Would Athens’s thousands of visitors feel cheated if their visit to the ruins was too easy, informative or interesting?

Let’s compromise. The Acropolis can remain white and fake and hard to visit, but we should perfectly rebuild the Agora. Every building, street and colonnade should be restored and plugged prosperously into the surrounding city, filling the whole recreated neighbourhood with shops, specialised museums and detailed immersive experiences so that tourists can really imagine living and being in ancient Athens.

What would Athenians say? Conversations were encouraging. When I asked one what he likes most about the city, he responded: “The old town. You have narrow streets and beautiful old buildings. I feel like I am on vacation. I go there to walk and relax and buy food. I wish Athens was more like that.”

It can be, and city authorities should make it so — for the good of tourists and Athenians.


Nicholas Boys Smith is the Chairman of Create Streets

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Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
25 days ago

You can do video tours of Ancient Athens on YouTube, using computer game simulations from a game like Assassin’s Creed — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgPPP807Pwg&t=10573s

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago

Fantastic idea.now with new 3D technology why not .exact repiicas.i visit Athens every week and I totally agree…

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
25 days ago

A refreshing article indeed..! I can’t totally go with the proposal of rebuilding the agora but I am not against either. Our main problem today, Greeks or ex Greeks, barbarians or ex barbarians and all, is that we lack the agora in its core essence. Those of us living in Athens and the rest of the current Greek “territory”; Greeks, reformed Greeks, wannabee Greeks and Hellenized, ourselves barbaric antagonists competing chaos itself, whatever made any sense in the Grecosphere of the world, seems to be walking in a suicidal period..!

Reusing the building materials of old has always been very normal until the latest centuries’ puritan preservation tendency of a “who knows exactly what” of a past, into an “iconic” scenery..! Meanwhile Greece is kind of rapidly turning into a big scenery as a whole. On one end, farming is almost under persecution from the EU and hardly a choice for younger generations. On the other end of human endeavor, literary studies, the classics, theology, philosophy and the like, may be heading towards a societal ridicule. Here and there and all around the world, wherever a deeper understanding of what is precious is in battle with a globe of glitter glamorous..!

What will prevail..? Tourists facing heat-reality prefer the shade of the narrow streets to the ruins and enjoy the fresh atmosphere in the 10th century chapel of Capnicarea. The old churches surviving in Athens are a miracle that happened in the 19th century, when the great era of modernization landed in recently liberated Hellas and destroyed numerous beautiful churches to make space for bourgeois boulevards..!

Rebuilding the agora from within, seems like a prosperous prospect..! Shall we the precariat proceed prophetically..?

Russell Jurney
Russell Jurney
25 days ago

While the impressions the writer felt in modern Athens are stronger, he mistakes them for ancient. They are as modern as the buildings themselves.Appreciating the ancient world in the same way as he appreciates the modern is so difficult as to be an actual field: Classics. What is more, half of the forum is taken up by the very modern Stoa of Attalos. How do you feel about it? Not so great? 😉 Leave the forum alone, please.