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