Today Athens is a large, bustling city with a population – suburbs included – of over three million. It has its own particular Greek flavor, of course, but it also has many common characteristics with other European capitals: a lot of traffic, pollution, the usual ubiquitous shops, restaurants, cafés, museums, opera houses, theatres, squares and parks.
Athens, however, is a relatively new city, which evolved, in the 19th century, from a regional town of the Ottoman Empire to the capital of the new Kingdom of Greece. After the liberation from the Turks, it was a ruined and semi-abandoned town. But King Otto, the young Bavarian prince sent over by the Allies, declared it a capital, and in 1834 its reconstruction began, under architects Stamatis Kleanthis, Edouard Shaunert and Leo von Klenze, the king’s counsel.
It was then that the neo-classical buildings which even now give the city distinction were erected, starting with the Royal Palace, which was paid for by King Otto’s father, the king of Bavaria, as a personal loan to his son. In 1934, after extensive renovation following two fires (the royal family had meanwhile moved to a new palace), the building became the House of Parliament.
The University of Athens was designed by the Danish architect Hans Christian Hansen and built with financial support from the king, the king of Serbia and various prominent Greeks.
The Athens Cathedral was also initially designed by Hansen, but finished by Greek architect Dimitris Zezos, who added Byzantine aspects. The church was partly built using material from abandoned Byzantine churches.
There were many other public buildings built at that time, as well as private residences.
Fast forward to circa 1917, after the first war, when the following photos were taken by our French Allies.
Cattle at the temple of Hephaestus.
Cooking with a view of the Acropolis.
A neighborhood near the center.
A shopping street with a mosque in the background.
Buying grapes. Some men still wore traditional clothing.
Children playing in the streets of Plaka, beneath the Acropolis.
Coffee in the garden of Zappeion. In the early twentieth century, Athens was still a provincial town of circa 180.000 people.
Constitution Square: The large white building on the right was built in 1842 and since 1874 houses the Grande Bretagne Hotel, where history has been written many times over and which is still today one of the great luxury hotels in the world. In 1888 it was one of the first buildings in Athens to have electricity installed.
One of the main commercial thoroughfares, Stadiou Avenue, in 1935.
During WWII, Athens came under German occupation.
The city suffered great destruction and famine, exacerbated by the civil war which exploded following liberation from the Germans, and which raged until 1949 (my parents always told us this was much worse than the German occupation).
A British soldier in Athens during the civil war.
Children singing carols in the early 1950s. Ill-fitting coats, heads shaven against lice, but at least these two have shoes on.
The ice-cream man. Many years later, a man on a bike pushing an icebox still came into the park where we played when I was a child. I vividly remember our excitement, and the smell of the ice as the heavy lid was lifted, and we bent over the box to make our choice: vanilla or chocolate, on a stick or in a cup. It was a real treat.
This is far from pretending to be a comprehensive overview of the long and complicated history of Athens. I just happened upon these old pictures and thought they gave off a charming aroma of time passing.
Syntagma (Constitution Square) then…
All images are from Google. Since most are old, it was difficult to attribute credit.