Erasing history

The news these days are full of stories of social unrest. Something that has been brewing for a while, as society divides become greater, rather than narrower.
However, I find myself perplexed by the practice of tearing down statues of people who were slave traders or racists, along with their other attributes, for which they were celebrated.

 


History is built in shades of grey: unfortunately human nature is such that the strong often prey on the weak.
Alexander the Great built wondrous libraries in his glorious conquest of the ‘known world’, but also massacred plenty of ‘barbarians’ along the way. In the democracy of classical Athens, there were slaves, who did not have a vote—and neither did women, or foreigners.
The men who hauled blocks of marble to build the Parthenon were not blessed with paid holidays and health care. Should we tear down the Pyramids, because they were built in sweat and blood?
Religions and sects have persecuted, burnt, and tortured people who did not share their beliefs. Should we tear down the churches and temples?
Some of the slave traders were black themselves, preying upon their own kind. And racism is not confined to blacks—many others have borne the brunt of it. Native Americans, Maoris, Armenians, Jews, Tutus, the list is long—anyone who found themselves in the minority in the place they lived in. Human nature.


Here is an anecdote: I recall, when visiting one of the Balkan countries during Communism—I think Bulgaria—being shown around a monument by a local guide. It consisted of a large circle dug into the ground, two stories below. It was open to the sky and, all around the perimeter, stood a row of larger-than-life bronze statues representing workers: one held a scythe, another a plow, a third a hammer, and so on. The whole thing was rather ghastly but, was was weirder still, was that when I asked the guide who was the sculptor who made them, she answered, ‘We don’t know.’
‘How can you not know? This is not antique, it’s recent.’
She hemmed and hawed, then she said: ‘He fell out with the regime, and his name was erased from the books.’
Such a narrow minded way of looking at things.


Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—with more efficient laws, and with reform, not destruction. Thousands of people are slaves still, in the 21st century—and they’re not all black. There’s a huge immigration crisis, worldwide. There are people now, today, who have made fortunes exploiting others, but everyone sucks up to them, because their money gives them power, and they also take good care to make large donations to charities and universities. There are huge corporations operating on the returns of sweatshops and the like.

Is it a solution to stop reading Rudyard Kipling, or showing Gone With The Wind?

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks about all this.

Old Athens

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.

 

German tanks in Athen.

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…

And now…

All images are from Google. Since most are old, it was difficult to attribute credit.