For 800 years, beginning in the 6th century BC, the Athenian Agora at the north-west foot of the Acropolis served as the city’s public forum. It is universally considered the cradle of democracy, but it’s not particularly well signposted or promoted. And democracy in Greece today is beginning to look decidedly fragile.
On our last weekend before we leave for the islands we’ve seen police out in force in the city centre, many of them armed with riot shields although there’s not a rioter in sight. And for the past few days the government has been rounding up suspected illegal immigrants in an operation that has been denounced by both local civil rights groups and Amnesty International.
About 7,500 people have been arrested, 2,000 of them found to be without official papers and detained in overcrowded police stations or shipped out to detention centres.
“While Greece has the right to control migration, it does not have the right to treat people in the street like criminals purely because of the colour of their skin,” said Jezerca Tigani of Amnesty.
With breathtaking hypocrisy, the coalition government has named the operation “Xenios Zeus”, which means “god of hospitality”.
With Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, leader of New Democracy, determined to push through the 11.5bn euro package of cuts demanded by the troika, it looks as though the state is already flexing its muscles for the confrontations expected in September, which is crunch time for Greece and Europe.
INSIDE THE AGORA
We found the Agora after going round in circles for a while, and it’s a beautiful space to visit. When excavations were carried out in the 1950s the huge area was planted with native trees, which make it delightfully shady to walk around. We trod the Panathenaic Way, the main thoroughfare of ancient Athens, which cuts through the area from the Acropolis to the city. Along its length in classical times games were held and a great procession in honour of Athena took place every four years.
Down one side of the Agora runs the Stoa of Attalos, the huge building gifted to the people of Athens by the king of Pergamon in the 2nd century BC. It has a vast, airy colonnade where people gathered for discussion, business and trade. Nowadays it houses the Agora museum, displaying excavated objects from Neolithic times onwards. Among items from the age of Athenian democracy are potsherds used in voting to ostracise politicians, and a mechanical lottery devised to allocate public positions. As in so many museums funerary objects tell the stories of generations. Particularly poignant is the grave of a little girl, lovingly buried with her bracelets, ring and toys.
Museums here have been an education to us. An aspect of history that had escaped me is the extent of Greek colonisation around the Mediterranean, and even in Africa and on the Black Sea, from around the 8th century BC onwards. One explanation for this is the occurrence of epidemics and famine in mainland Greece, for which a spate of burials identified by archaeologists provides some evidence. In any event the move had the result of extending trading networks and ensuring Greek domination of the Mediterranean region.
Sicily was the most famous destination of the colonists, and was ruled by the Greeks from around 750 BC, as documented by the historians of classical times, Antiochus and Thucydides. Southern Italy too had a number of colonies.
At the Townsville Writers’ Festival before we left on this trip I met the delightful Lucilla Masciullo, Italian-born illustrator of award-winning Australian children’s books. When she heard we were going to Greece she told me that her father’s village in Puglia was Greek-speaking until very recently. I was surprised at the time, but now it all makes sense.
EVENINGS ON THE BALCONY
We have had some wonderful meals here on the mainland, but the best of all have been in the homes of friends. Our last night in Kalamata, with the Makris and Rapteas families, was a lesson in the close ties between town and country. We ate lamb with rosemary, the ripest tomatoes, fresh salad and melon, and went away laden with health-giving honey, propolis and infused oil from the family farm at Doli, which regularly takes gold at national olive oil shows. Our hostess, a hotel worker, had gone to work that day to find her wages cut by 15%. Her hospitality was undimmed.
The highlight of the whole trip, though, has been a series of evenings in Athens on the balcony of our great friends Savvas and Katerina, with long-anticipated conversations flowing until the early hours. Hard-working and politically active, you would scarcely think they could find the time to entertain but they effortlessly produce a stream of superb dishes: rare seafood delicacies and salads to go with the ouzo, followed by octopus in red wine or stuffed vegetables and figs from the village, everything flavoured with herbs from the balcony garden.
Katerina is director of a hospital psychiatric unit with a phenomenal success rate in treating drug addiction. She recently had her salary cut by 50%. That’s life in Greece today.
These are people whose parents fought the Nazi occupation. They in turn fought the regime of the colonels, and today they are still fighting alongside a new generation against the pauperising austerity measures and the banks that are hell-bent on imposing them.