I. From Omonoia to Piraeus
Aristophanes, Knights, 813-819 (sausage-seller speaks)
“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”
ὦ πόλις Ἄργους κλύεθ᾽ οἷα λέγει. σὺ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζεις;
ὃς ἐποίησεν τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν μεστὴν εὑρὼν ἐπιχειλῆ,
καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἀριστώσῃ τὸν Πειραιᾶ προσέμαξεν,
ἀφελών τ᾽ οὐδὲν τῶν ἀρχαίων ἰχθῦς καινοὺς παρέθηκεν:
σὺ δ᾽ Ἀθηναίους ἐζήτησας μικροπολίτας ἀποφῆναι
διατειχίζων καὶ χρησμῳδῶν, ὁ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζων.
κἀκεῖνος μὲν φεύγει τὴν γῆν σὺ δ᾽ Ἀχιλλείων ἀπομάττει.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5
“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”
ἔπεισε δὲ καὶ τοῦ Πειραιῶς τὰ λοιπὰ ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς οἰκοδομεῖν（ὑπῆρκτο δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πρότερον ἐπὶ τῆς ἐκείνου ἀρχῆς ἧς κατ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν Ἀθηναίοις ἦρξε）νομίζων τό τε χωρίον καλὸν εἶναι, λιμένας ἔχον τρεῖς αὐτοφυεῖς, καὶ αὐτοὺς ναυτικοὺς γεγενημένους μέγα προφέρειν ἐς τὸ κτήσασθαι δύναμιν（τῆς γὰρ δὴ θαλάσσης πρῶτος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ὡς ἀνθεκτέα ἐστί）, καὶ τὴν ἀρχὴν εὐθὺς ξυγκατεσκεύαζεν. Καὶ ᾠκοδόμησαν τῇ ἐκείνου γνώμῃ τὸ πάχος τοῦ τείχους ὅπερ νῦν ἔτι δῆλόν ἐστι περὶ τὸν Πειραιᾶ
The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.
The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.
Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?
It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.
The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.
This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).
I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.
The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.
Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.
The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.
To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.
Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.
Continue below for parts 2-4
II. The Hetioneian Gate
Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 37.1
“They introduced two laws into the Council, with orders to pass them; one was to give the Thirty absolute powers to execute any citizens not members of the roll of Three Thousand, and the other prohibited admission to citizenship under the present constitution for all who had actually taken part in the demolition of the fort on Eetioneia, or in any act of opposition to the Four Hundred who had instituted the former oligarchy; in both of these proceedings Theramenes had in fact participated, so that the result was that when the laws had been ratified he became outside the constitution and the Thirty had authority to put him to death.”
νόμους εἰσήνεγκαν εἰς τὴν βουλὴν δύο κελεύοντες ἐπιχειροτονεῖν, ὧν ὁ μὲν εἷς αὐτοκράτορας ἐποίει τοὺς τριάκοντα, τῶν πολιτῶν ἀποκτεῖναι τοὺς μὴ τοῦ καταλόγου μετέχοντας τῶν τρισχιλίων, ὁ δ᾽ ἕτερος ἐκώλυε κοινωνεῖν τῆς παρούσης πολιτείας, ὅσοι τυγχάνουσιν τὸ ἐν Ἠετιωνείᾳ τεῖχος κατασκάψαντες, ἢ τοῖς τετρακοσίοις ἐναντίον τι πράξαντες ἢ τοῖς κατασκευάσασι τὴν προτέραν ὀλιγαρχίαν: ὧν ἐτύγχανεν ἀμφοτέρων κεκοινωνηκὼς ὁ Θηραμένης, ὥστε συνέβαινεν ἐπικυρωθέντων τῶν νόμων, ἔξω τε γίγνεσθαι τῆς πολιτείας αὐτόν, καὶ τοὺς τριάκοντα κυρίους εἶναι θανατοῦντας.
Demosthenes, Against Theocrines, 66-67
“Whereas we, thanks to this god-detested fellow, have been deprived of our citizenship in that state in defense of which Aristocrates, son of Scelius, the uncle of my grandfather Epichares, whose name my brother here bears, performed many glorious deeds, when our country was at war with the Lacedaemonians. He razed to the ground Eetioneia, into which Critias and his faction were about to receive the Lacedaemonians, destroyed the fortress raised against us, and restored the people to their country, incurring himself dangers not like those which we are incurring, but dangers in which even disaster is glorious; and he put a stop to those who were plotting against you.”
ἡμεῖς δὲ διὰ τοῦτον τὸν θεοῖς ἐχθρὸν ἀπεστερήμεθα ταύτης τῆς πόλεως, ὑπὲρ ἧς Ἀριστοκράτης ὁ Σκελίου, θεῖος ὢν Ἐπιχάρους τοῦ πάππου τοῦ ἐμοῦ, οὗ ἔχει ἁδελφὸς οὑτοσὶ τοὔνομα, πολλὰ καὶ καλὰ διαπραξάμενος ἔργα πολεμούσης τῆς πόλεως Λακεδαιμονίοις, κατασκάψας τὴν Ἠετιώνειαν, εἰς ἣν Λακεδαιμονίους ἔμελλον οἱ περὶ Κριτίαν ὑποδέχεσθαι, καθεῖλε μὲν τὸ ἐπιτείχισμα, κατήγαγε δὲ τὸν δῆμον κινδυνεύων αὐτὸς οὐ τοιούτους κινδύνους, ἀλλ᾽ ἐν οἷς καὶ παθεῖν τι καλόν ἐστιν, ἔπαυσε δὲ τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας ὑμῖν.
After passing the Larissa railway station (in operation from 1904 to 2004), also called “immigrant” station (a key transit point between war fronts, migrations and huge demographic changes yet largely unnoticeable now, there’s a coffee shop, repair garages), you reach the Hetioneian Gate, the remains of which were excavated by the French School of Archaeology in the end of the 19th century. The history of the gate is closely connected with the Themistoclean Wall, though the name itself refers to a small tongue of land, the first bay left of the inlet in the central port of Piraeus.
Details about the gate remain a bit scattered, but after the destruction of the wall around the Acropolis in 480–479 BCE, these walls of Piraeus play an important role in the history of ancient Athens (see Thuc. 1.90), beginning with the diplomatic games of Athenian statesman Themistocles that kept Spartans away until the walls had been built high up enough. What follows from this is centuries of turmoil around these walls, connecting the city to the sea (Piraeus is at a distance of 7–8 km from Athens), drawing opposition from Sparta and Peloponnesian allies, and more than once destroyed. After the walls were finished in 457 (with subsequent amendments), it literally rendered Athens unassailable (for the time being, as we know).
It is not my place here to discuss the long history of Greek warfare, but it should suffice to say that the walls were central to a number of conflicts in Athens, and paramount during the Peloponnesian War (this is a field of study in itself and it would fill an entire page to add all the Thucydides references available), Pericles based his military strategy (until his death ins 429 BCE) around the walls, but the Athenians were eventually defeated by Sparta in 404 BCE and as a part of a capitulation agreement, the walls were destroyed (see Xen. Hell. 2.2.19-23 and Plut. Lys. 15.4). But the reconstruction begins shortly afterwards: By 395 Athens was strong enough to enter into the Corinthian War against Sparta and the long walls were rebuilt again between 395–391, under Athenian general Conon (see Xen. Hell. 4.8.9). During the 4th century the walls were put to little use, and were still standing by the 1st century BCE but during the Siege of Athens and Piraeus (87–86 BCE), Roman general Sulla destroyed the long walls. Inhabited, according to legend, since the Minyans (first wave of Proto-Greek speakers in the 2nd millennium) roamed the Attica, after the destruction of Athens by the Romans, the port-city would lie dormant for many centuries.
But let’s return to the Hetioneian Gate, if only because of the crucial role it would come to play in the struggle for democracy in Athens—past and present. Named after Hetion, a mythological hero who is said to rule the Piraeus (according to Stephan of Byzantium, 6th century CE), the area extends now from the port all the way to Larissa railway station, and the ancient gate that connected Athens to Piraeus through the Long Walls, was a major fortification work (double door, 3.70 m wide, between two towers about 10 m diameter, protected by a waterfront and a wide dug trench) at the time, not without its complications.
Oligarchs made a failed attempt to build a fortress there (see Thuc. 8.90-92), but the fortifications and the walls were destroyed after the victory of Lysander (see Xen. Hell. 2.2.23) and eventually rebuilt with Persian help under Conon (see Xen. Hell. 4.8), so that the current ruin, dates back to the Hellenistic era and not to the Themistoclean wall. Strabo found nothing in the area but a settlement around the harbor, and the port disappeared from history, and even lost its name; it was used sporadically by pirates roaming the Aegean or as a base for the Byzantine fleet. Then it came to be known as Porto Leone of the Franks after 1318, and “Asian Port” since the Ottoman occupation in 1456, but its resurrection took place only in the 19th century with the Greek republic.
We learn from later sources (Aristotle and Demosthenes above, but also Plutarch) that the walls and the gate were not only a matter of foreign policy, but political walls that divided 5th century BCE Athenians between radical democracy and oligarchy: Key allies were discontent back in Themistocles’ day with the growing strength of Athens, and Thucydides tells us (Thuc. 1.107.4) that in the mid-5th century, “Secret encouragement had been given them by a party in Athens, who hoped to put an end to the reign of democracy and the building of the long walls.”
So that from that point onwards, the walls and the Athenian democratic project were identical. In the minds of Athenian oligarchs, the city walls made the city too dependent on the navy, and therefore, would make the demos too powerful. Some of the oligarchs were even ready to turn the city over to the Spartans, in order to crack down on democracy. After the defeat in 404 BCE a pro-Spartan oligarchy is installed in Athens, known as the Thirty Tyrants, as the sole body of government. They stayed in power only for 8 months, but in the course of which thousands were killed, expropriated and exiled, led by Critias and Theramenes. The particulars of their tyrannical government were amply described by Aristotle (Aristot. Const. Ath. 35).
Not unlike modern tyrannies (exposing the antinomies of democracy, then and now), the Thirty chose 3000 hand-picked Athenian loyalists to share power in the regime, but the list was constantly revised, and even loyalists were purged, such as Theramenes who was forced to drink the hemlock, since Critias considered him a threat to the oligarchy’s power. Because Critias had been a pupil of Socrates, this caused Socrates to be associated with the Thirty (something that might have had an influence in his death sentence).
And there’s an important point to be made here: Hannah Arendt insisted once that it was in fact the traumatic experience of Socrates’ unfair trial and death what affected Plato in his youth in such a way that caused him to turn away from politics, and to conceive of philosophy as a solitary activity, away from human affairs. I will further elaborate on Arendt and Socrates in a different essay, but it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this subtle distinction in the later configuration of the Western tradition and its implications in our modern political life, in which liberalism wants to ‘free’ us from politics, which seems to me, radically opposed to the agonistic model of persuasion politics that was characteristic of the polis, not without being aware of its infinite shortcomings.
At the very end of this long history of walls (we are still writing the history of walls in the US and Europe in 2019), the long walls were destroyed (some 17th century maps depict them, apocryphal), and Piraeus was too haphazardly overbuilt to have left much for us to see. Yet after its grandiose emergence from the oblivion of history (there was a town plan for Piraeus as a modern city drawn by German architects in 1834), the port-city that once led to the Acropolis was soon to become the capital of other exiles. In 1922, after the catastrophe in the Asia Minor that culminated with the surrender of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the symbolic end of the Greek presence in Asia Minor, the Greek refugees that poured into Greece arrived in Piraeus, and there were refugee camps in the entire area, from the Larissa station, to the Hetioneian Gate to the port warehouses. Piraeus was now a checkpoint of bad luck: Where one either arrived from the war, or from where one escaped to America. Many years later, the picture was more or less the same: the Greek refugees that arrived from Turkey continued arriving for decades to come, and were later replaced by others, arriving from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and different parts of Africa, and more recently, by Syrian refugees arriving once again, from Turkey.
George Seferis, In the Manner of G.S. (1936)
What do they want, all those who believe
they’re in Athens or Piraeus?
Someone comes from Salamis and asks someone else whether he comes ‘from Omonoia Square?’
‘No, from Syntagma,’ replies the other, pleased;
‘I met Yianni and he treated me to an ice cream.’
In the meantime Greece is traveling
and we don’t know anything, we don’t know we’re all sailors out of work,
we don’t know how bitter the port becomes when all the
ships have gone;
we mock those who do know.
Τι θέλουν όλοι αυτοί που λένε
πως βρίσκουνται στην Αθήνα ή στον Πειραιά;
Ο ένας έρχεται από τη Σαλαμίνα και ρωτάει τον άλλο μήπως «έρχεται εξ Ομονοίας»
«Όχι έρχομαι εκ Συντάγματος» απαντά κι είν’ ευχαριστημένος
«βρήκα το Γιάννη και με κέρασε ένα παγωτό».
Στο μεταξύ η Ελλάδα ταξιδεύει
δεν ξέρουμε τίποτε δεν ξέρουμε πως είμαστε ξέμπαρκοι όλοι εμείς
δεν ξέρουμε την πίκρα του λιμανιού σαν ταξιδεύουν όλα τα καράβια•
περιγελάμε εκείνους που τη νιώθουν.
From the field research of Heterotopia, we learn much about the now opaque history of refugees from the Asia Minor in Piraeus: They were not considered to be real Greeks and were subject to much discrimination (a long-lasting feature of life in Greece), something often recounted with bitterness by elderly refugees who slowly began rebuilding their lives later on in Nea Smyrni, a southern suburb of Athens near Palaio Faliro.
But back in Piraeus at the time of the catastrophe, the sleepy district of Drapetsona, west of the port, created in the 1830s for people who moved from the islands and settled around the Saint Dionysius Church (1803) grew rapidly with the refugees and they soon became part of a novel dynamic of industrialization (Piraeus has been traditionally an industrial area and has been of little interest for the Athenian bourgeoisie, despite its proximity to the sea), turning into laborers, and taking active part in the dynamics of the Greek political left (Giorgos Kritikos writes about the impact of refugees in the shift from the liberal to the newly formed communist party in Greece in the 1930s). The Ankara agreement in 1930 that pardoned Turkey’s debts towards expropriated Greeks, together with the global recession, left them destitute in Greece, in search of new directions.
The Greek state never viewed leftist politics favorably (a trend that continues to this day, specially reinforced in the last general election in 2019 with the rise of traditionalists to power again) and certainly eyed communism with suspicion. What follows from here (not exclusive to Drapetsona but quite remarkable in this case) is a long history of antagonism between the working classes of Piraeus and the political establishment. As a result, the social history of the area has been largely erased from public memory, since neither the stories of refugees nor radical politics sit well with the official historiography of a state built on a European myth of antiquity and continuity.
But what follows from here is not just antagonism, but a long history of oppression and violence: The labor movement turned into a Nazi resistance movement during WWII (the history of the Nazi occupation of Greece, no less than the Peloponnesian War, is long and complicated and must be left to experts), but it was Piraeus that became the Nazi’s priority target after Thessaloniki, and people suffered the brunt of the occupation. Some 30,000 people died from starvation only in the Athens-Piraeus region, and Keratsini, a bordering district also in Piraeus, was the site of summary executions of dissidents.
The area called Vourla (where the Saint Dionysius Church is), had been a licensed prostitution zone until 1940, and what had been once a gigantic brothel was turned into a prison during the German occupation. The post-war Greek government is something that would require pages and pages to explain, foreign conspiracies and intrigues, a collaborationist government, a broad coalition of communist and leftist factions, and the subsequent Western interventions, part of the larger Cold War. But during the Civil War (the result of this turbulent atmosphere of the postwar), 1947–1974, the Communist Party was outlawed and the prison remained in use by the government until the 1970s, as many communists resided in the area.
One of its most famous prisoners was Manolis Glezos (born 1922), who climbed on the Acropolis on May 30, 1941, and tore down the Nazi flag that had been there since the Nazis entered Athens on April 27. This goes on to show two things: First, that the arrival of the refugees from the Asia Minor would change the political landscape of Greece forever, and second that the political divide between liberals and communists that defined the early years of the 20th century would endure and split Greece across political lines, to this very day.
But the way these conflicts are played out today is of course completely different, after the global rise and fall of the new left, and the return to (the most) conservative politics, hand in hand with reckless economic liberalism. “There’s no homeland for us proletariats” is scrawled on the wall of an empty square, indicative of the industrial exodus from Drapetsona. Factories lost momentum already in the 1970s and demolitions begin in the 2000s prior to the Olympics.
The impoverishment in the area remains, and Drapetsona is across from the bay but still cut off from access to the sea, and a project for a first park in the area was launched in 2019, using a 20-hectare plot that belonged to a former factory. A kind of new ruin tourism discreetly arrives, as the gentrification of AirBNB Athens (and the Golden Visa program, aimed at wealthy foreigners) expands exponentially towards the suburbs, and upscale cafes with stunning views of the derelict port begin to appear in between dilapidated apartment buildings and lonely playgrounds. Piraeus was also one of the key areas in the spread of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn (now out of politics) and racial tensions were a matter of course, with several incidents of violence reported.
It’s still very hard to be a refugee in Greece today. While hordes of tourists (Greece is one of the most popular touristic destinations in the world), depart from Piraeus to the Aegean islands via ferries, the southern Aegean is engulfed for years now in a dramatic refugee crisis, with overpopulated camps, police violence and the blind eye of the European Union. Soon, many of them will arrive in Piraeus, to languish in bureaucratic limbo, and now also to face a new wave of violence from the Greek state – refugee squats in Exarcheia have been vacated, new restrictions have been imposed on new arrivals and the expanded powers and militarization of Greek police, together with ambiguous laws, will only translate into widespread human right abuses, according to international experts.
It’s important here to put ourselves in a position in which the classical world isn’t some empty historical concept, or identical with Europe. Instead, the Near East (Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Syria), is one of the most volatile and violent regions in the world, suffering under the yoke of hundreds of years of colonization, war, cultural expropriation and foreign interventions. With the current erosion of the Western, liberal democratic project, it’s only predictable that its historical fault lines would break first.
It would be fraudulent at this point to try and extract here political lessons from the ideology of the Athenian “Metics” (see Ps. Xen. Const. Ath. 1 and Rebecca Futo Kennedy for a detailed discussion) as it concerns notion of citizenship, and what we are dealing with here is closer to the “Homo sacer” figure in Roman law, a person outside of the law, who can be killed by anybody and who is deprived of all rights and functions in civil religion (mere biological existence, according to Agamben).
Nevertheless, as the recent refuge crisis loomed in Europe, Laura Swift brings up a lesser known play of Euripides, Heracleidae (first produced around 430/429 BCE, at the height of the war), telling the story of how Athens protected the children of Heracles, who were being persecuted by the Argives and driven from the Peloponnese, and they receive protection under king Demophon at the risk of Athenian lives. Athenian hospitality is tested when they learnt that the children must be sacrificed in order to defeat the Argives and the king is faced with prospect of a civil war (never mind that Macaria, one of the daughters, is sacrificed voluntarily) but with the death of Eurystheus (by the Athenians) both the city and the descendants of the Heracleidae are then protected by his spirit.
IV. The Exile of Themistocles
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.137.4
‘I, Themistocles, am coming unto thee, who, of all the Grecians, as long as I was forced to resist thy father that invaded me, have done your house the maniest damages; yet the benefits I did him were more after once I with safety, he with danger, was to make retreat. And both a good turn is already due unto me,’ (writing here, how he had forewarned him of the Grecians’ departure out of Salamis and ascribing the then not breaking of the bridge falsely unto himself) ‘and at this time to do thee many other good services, I present myself, persecuted by the Grecians for thy friendship’s sake. But I desire to have a year’s respite that I may declare unto thee the cause of my coming myself.’
ἐδήλου δὲ ἡ γραφὴ ὅτι ‘Θεμιστοκλῆς ἥκω παρὰ σέ, ὃς κακὰ μὲν πλεῖστα Ἑλλήνων εἴργασμαι τὸν ὑμέτερον οἶκον, ὅσον χρόνον τὸν σὸν πατέρα ἐπιόντα ἐμοὶ ἀνάγκῃ ἠμυνόμην, πολὺ δ᾽ ἔτι πλείω ἀγαθά, ἐπειδὴ ἐν τῷ ἀσφαλεῖ μὲν ἐμοί, ἐκείνῳ δὲ ἐν ἐπικινδύνῳ πάλιν ἡ ἀποκομιδὴ ἐγίγνετο. Καί μοι εὐεργεσία ὀφείλεται （γράψας τήν τε ἐκ Σαλαμῖνος προάγγελσιν τῆς ἀναχωρήσεως καὶ τὴν τῶν γεφυρῶν, ἣν ψευδῶς προσεποιήσατο, τότε δι᾽ αὑτὸν οὐ διάλυσιν）, καὶ νῦν ἔχων σε μεγάλα ἀγαθὰ δρᾶσαι πάρειμι διωκόμενος ὑπὸ τῶν Ἑλλήνων διὰ τὴν σὴν φιλίαν. Βούλομαι δ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν ἐπισχὼν αὐτός σοι περὶ ὧν ἥκω δηλῶσαι.’
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.138.6
His bones are said by his kindred to have been brought home by his own appointment and buried in Attica unknown to the Athenians, for it was not lawful to bury one there that had fled for treason. These were the ends of Pausanias the Lacedaemonian and Themistocles the Athenian, the most famous men of all the Grecians of their time.
Τὰ δὲ ὀστᾶ φασὶ κομισθῆναι αὐτοῦ οἱ προσήκοντες οἴκαδε κελεύσαντος ἐκείνου καὶ τεθῆναι κρύφα Ἀθηναίων ἐν τῇ Ἀττικῇ: οὐ γὰρ ἐξῆν θάπτειν ὡς ἐπὶ προδοσίᾳ φεύγοντος. Τὰ μὲν κατὰ Παυσανίαν τὸν Λακεδαιμόνιον καὶ Θεμιστοκλέα τὸν Ἀθηναῖον, λαμπροτάτους γενομένους τῶν καθ᾽ ἑαυτοὺς Ἑλλήνων, οὕτως ἐτελεύτησεν.
For the end of this journey of Heterotopia Piraeus, I would like to propose a para-fiction concerning Themistocles (in the spirit of the project’s focus on oral histories), who after all is one of the main characters in the history of Piraeus, when he persuaded Athenians to fortify the city after 478 BC (see Diod. 11.40.1) and began the long history of the Themistoclean Walls, as it intertwined and overlapped with democracy, war and peace. What we hadn’t heard until now was of his subsequent exile (see Thucydides above): His rise to power had been unlikely given his non-aristocratic background, and along the way, had met much opposition, from his rivalry with Aristides over the love of a boy (see Plut. Arist. 2), being stripped of his general rank (see Diod. 11.27.3) and ultimately he would go into exile after being ostracized around 472 BCE (see Diod. 11.55). He would first live in exile in Argos, but pursued by the Spartans, he fled in the opposite direction of the refugees, from Greece to the Achaemenid Empire, and enlisted in the service of King Artexerxes, and became a governor of Magnesia in the Asia Minor. It is said that either he died of natural causes in 459 BC (Thucydides) or that he committed suicide by drinking poison (Plutarch, never a big fan of Themistocles).
Thucydides tells a legend that his bones were transported to Attica and secretly buried in his native soil, for it was illegal to bury a traitor—some maps show this grave to be in the vicinity of Eetioneia in the Piraeus. Let’s imagine for a moment that long after his death, Themistocles, transformed into a hero (for there’s nothing but illustrious accounts of his life, as in Lys. 2 42, Lys. 30 28 and Plat. Theag. 126, where he sits among the lawgivers Solon and Pericles), returns from the underworld with the help of Orpheus, and visits modern day Piraeus for an afternoon stroll to locate his apocryphal tombstone, long pulverized in the 19th century.
Aghast at the sight of the dilapidated town, Themistocles reaches the Hetioneian Gate and proceeds towards the harbor, where he encounters the last two stations of Heterotopia. At the Krakaris Conveyors Belt, completed in 1927 and used to transport cargo at the now abandoned factories, there is only a ruin of the structure. Themistocles finds there a monument indicating his own grave, but being hesitant, after consulting the books of Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus and even his archenemy Plutarch, he concludes that the grave is false and perhaps a machination of Aristides. But now he is more interested in finding out who is the archon in charge of Piraeus in present day.
Turning around, the answer comes in the form of the acronym on the incoming trucks, COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company). In 2009, after the financial crisis, the management of the Port of Piraeus was sold to the Chinese state-owned company for 35 years. The “One Belt, One Road” scheme announced by China in 2014, designated Piraeus as a key bases for the expansion of its new silk road, connecting China with the rest of the world. And of course nothing could deter the Chinese from their plans, except the sloppiness of Greek bureaucracy as Themistocles knew from the oligarchs’ rule, and at the time of his visit, plans to preserve the conveyor belt and turn it into a cultural facility were halted and COSCO had demanded its demolition.
Today it’s no longer necessary: A few months after his visit, an earthquake in Athens destroyed the structure, and more recently, the neoliberal Greek government welcomed the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and sealed the fate of Piraeus for good (in recent times Kenya surrendered its key ports to China after being unable to pay enormous debts, a fate that could easily befall Greece). Themistocles wondered when did the Thirty Tyrants return? What happened to the laws, to the legislative assembly, to the poets and the tragedians?
The poet Cavafy answers: “Why then such inactivity in the Senate? / Why do the Senators sit back and do not legislate? / Because the barbarians will arrive today. / What sort of laws now can Senators enact? / When the barbarians come, they’ll do the legislating.” Dusk is approaching fast, and a tired, confused Themistocles ends his journey at the Silo (the last stop of Heterotopia), Piraeus’ most prominent landmark, completed in 1937, and once upon a time called “a turning point in the progress of the Port of Piraeus”, according to the Greek dictator Metaxas, an admirer of Hitler.
So much has changed in the area from the time Akira Takayama opened his Heterotopia project in May 2017, to the visit of Themistocles, only two years later. The Piraeus Cultural Coast project that aimed to redevelop the Silo into a museum, part of a complex with other cultural facilities, has languished for years, and the new government (called centrist by many, but incorporating many extreme voices from the right) is unlikely to proceed with it. The refugees are nowhere to be seen in Piraeus, as Greece leaves behind a period of austerity measures and prepares to become the Florida of Europe, attracting hordes of both investors and tourists, to a country still shaken by political and economic uncertainty.
In this new country, ruled by an invisible archon, there’s little time for persuasion and the likes of Critias’ loyalists, seem very much in the picture: “We have a junta, don’t you understand?”, yelled riot police at a man unlawfully arrested and beaten in Exarcheia, while groups of protesting students clashed with the authorities over the shutdown of the Athens University of Economics and Business, in order to prevent protests and clashes around an annual march to mark the student revolt in 1973 (a key event in the restoration of democracy in Greece). The mayor of Piraeus said recently that the area is set to receive a huge makeover with major investments, and highlighted the rising interest in property.
Western analysts can’t help but wonder whether China’s investment in Piraeus isn’t but a Trojan Horse for Europe? Meanwhile in Greece, the Chinese leader received praise for its support of Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum. Across from the Aegean, in the Asia Minor, a tyrannical Turkish government rules over the entire Anatolia with full control of the refugee flow towards Greece which it uses regularly as a tool of geopolitical punishment, while seeking oil stakes in Cyprus, invading Syria, trespassing international waters and skies, and threatening with bold expansionism.
Overwhelmed with this state of affairs, and still somewhere around the Eetioneia, Themistocles has made up his mind at last; since he still has got time in his hands before returning to the underworld, there’s no point in staying in Greece under the oligarchy, so he leaves for the lesser known port of Lavrion, to board one of those new ferry lines to Çeşme (the ancient Greek Kyssos), and from there perhaps walk to the famous Smyrna. After all, he landed once in either Miletus or Ephesus, when he was fleeing an unfair trial under the Spartans, so he may be able to find it easily, or even the old Magnesia, where he’s said to have died, in present day Aydın.
The second leg of the journey was the condition from Orpheus in exchange for his return to earth; he was to find the violin (and bring it to underworld) of a musician who had drowned in the Aegean three years ago, trying to reach fortress Europe – only his violin case was found with some notes; he had been sacrificed to the Mediterranean sea, one of the largest mass graves in the world today. But Themistocles still had some time to complete his mission. Upon his arrival to Izmir from Çeşme, exhilarated, he felt lightheaded, and resting by the corniche in Pasaport, for the first time he longed to die; as he murmured to himself:
A little farther and the sun will cease.
the dawn ghosts
blew on dry shells.
The bird sang three times three times only.
The lizard on the white stone
staring at the shrivelled grass
there where the snake slid by,
Black wing draws a deep score
high on the vault of blue –
see there: it’ll open.
Birth pangs of resurrection.
Λίγο ακόμη και θα σταματήσει ο ήλιος.
Τα ξωτικα της αυγης
φύσηξαν στα στεγνα κοχύλια·
το πουλι κελάηδησε τρεις φορες μόνο·
η σαύρα πάνω στην άσπρη πέτρα
κοιτάζοντας το φρυγένο χόρτο
εκει που γλίστρησε η δεντρογαλιά.
Μαύρη φτερούγα σέρνει ένα βαθύ χαράκι
ψυλα στο θόλο του γαλάζιου –
δές τον, θ᾽ανοίξει.
(George Seferis, Summer Solstice, XIII)
Note: Piraeus Heterotopia ran from 2–14 May, 2017, as a part of the Fast Forward Festival 4, Onassis Stegi. The project, although dormant, is still accessible.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based on the Princes Islands of Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.