Greece – Modern Athens

THE Acropolis is the rock on which the old Athens was built: it is still the pride of the new. No palace or dwelling rests on its summit. That is now sacred to the gods. But from one end of it, which falls off abruptly, you get a fine bird’s-eye view of the new Athens lying on the plain below. The old Turkish city, a reminiscence and bequest of the Athens of the Middle Ages, with its narrow, crooked, dirty streets and curious old houses, clings to the side of the Acropolis; and one inevitably passes through it on his way to the Propylaea unless he takes the carriage-road for a more gradual ascent. The other slope, which rises opposite the Acropolis across the city, is the sheer hill of Lycabettus. The Monastery of St. George remains in undisputed possession of the summit, from which may be had another panoramic view of the city; and, if you go up at sunset, you will see the Parthenon with the sun sinking be-hind it. A few streets slant toward Lycabettus; but the main part of Athens is built on the intervening plain.

Seen from either hill, Athens is a clean, white city, its atmosphere unpolluted by smoke or fog. It is not a great manufacturing centre, a vast mart of trade, but the political, social and intellectual capital of the Greek nation. In that respect Athens holds in Greece to-day the proud position that it once held as the intellectual metropolis of the world, and neither Sparta nor AEgina is longer jealous of its supremacy. It sustains the dignity of the present and the glory of the past with a bright-faced, attractive grace and elegance which make it one of the pleasantest cities in the East. Pentelicus, whose vast quarries supplied the marble for the Parthenon and the Propylaea, still yields its stores for pilasters and facades in the new Athens ; and the use of white or tinted stucco gives to the buildings a clean, smooth surface, which there is no soot to mar.

The new city is laid out with great regularity. The principal streets are broad enough to remind an American visitor of Washington. They are partially macadamized, but not paved. The wind has a free sweep through them ; and the main physical draw-back to residence in Athens is the mud when it rains and the dust when it blows. In November and March the winds frolic with wild lawlessness, and the Hebrew declaration, ” Dust thou art,” is Hellenized to an uncomfortable degree. A waiter stands with a feather duster at the door of your hotel to switch your shoes when you come in; and if you are going to buy a walking-suit, whatever may be your prejudices in regard to color, you will wisely choose one that has natural affinities for free soil. One of the streets is named after AEolus ; but, alas ! he does not confine his attentions to that thoroughfare, nor is he shut up in the “Tower of the Winds,” so called. He celebrated the national fete with a perfect gale. Hats flew about in the air or whirled over the pavement; flags were torn into tatters ; and the only reason for being grateful that you were on land was the fact that you were not on the water. When you have made this reservation in regard to dust, you have little occasion to revile Athens in other respects. It has pure air and a good supply of water. There are open squares, and the palace garden furnishes agreeable shade. There is a lack of shade-trees in many streets where they would be both pleasant and ornamental; but Kephisia Street is beautifully flanked with graceful pepper-trees.

“There is a new Rome,” I said to a friend. “Yes, and how ugly it is ! ” There is a new Athens, too; but it cannot be called ugly. It lacks, to be sure, that picturesqueness, variety, mellowness and general flavor of antiquity which you find in some of the old Italian cities. These square, solid white buildings are a trifle monotonous; but they are relieved here and there by others, such as the Schliemann mansion and some of the new houses on Kephisia Street, in which there is a union of mass and elegance. The old Greek columns are used sparingly in the new city, except in public buildings, where they naturally belong. The new houses are constructed more with a reference to the necessities of modern life than to the worship of the gods. There is generally a small courtyard, often planted with orange and lemon trees, through which one passes to the main entrance. The rooms are high-studded, on account of the summer heat; and the balcony is a common feature. I suspect that modern Athens, for the average resident, is altogether a pleasanter, more comfortable and more beautiful city, as a dwelling-place, than was the old one, except for the wealthy classes. Certainly, they did not have the unromantic convenience of street cars nor the brilliant glare and deep shadows of the electric light; and it is not likely that sanitary regulations were as well attended to. In the old, narrow districts of the city cleanliness is not cultivated so much as godliness.

When it comes to public buildings, the new Athens is naturally dwarfed by the glory of the old. No one comes here to see its modern structures. The royal palace, built by a German architect, has all the dimensions of length, breadth and thickness, but not beauty. The cathedral has none of the charm of the little old Byzantine church by its side. The finest building is the Academy, a gift of Baron Sina of Vienna, and designed by, a Vienna architect. It is built of Pentelic marble, in a style which is historically and artistically Greek and whose classic grace and beauty have been nurtured on this soil. It was designed to be the home of an Hellenic Academy on the plan of the French Academy ; but, though the building is there, the organization is yet lacking. It would be hard, I imagine, for the Greeks to agree as to the men who should fill those vacant chairs, but there are some who would grace them worthily, The University building is not great, but the Greek spirit is shown in throngs of students. Elegant and imposing is the new library building, also consistently Greek in structure. The National Museum shelters treasures of Greek art, and for this is admirably adapted in many respects. Its collections are most of them the result of the modern enterprise and achievements of archaeological science. Then there is a large building used for the Greek National Exposition, not far from the palace, surrounded by grounds which furnish a favorite promenade for Athenians.

The wonder is, not that Athens has so little to show in the way of modern buildings, but that it has so much. The growth of the city has been remarkable. Sixty years ago it was a small village of not more than three hundred houses, and devoid of even the ordinary comforts of civilized life. Today it is a city of one hundred and twenty thousand people. It has broken away from Oriental trammels and cast in its lot with European civilization. Its university is conducted by a body of professors, most of whom have been educated in Germany and who follow German methods. The students do not have, however, that thorough preparation which German students bring to their university studies. The work of teaching them is, therefore, more elementary than it should be in a university.

Athens has three theatres of good size for winter use, and a small variety theatre and several out-of-door summer theatres. Every winter there is a season of French and Italian opera. In the Old Theatre plays are given in Greek, mostly translations from the French. Occasionally there is a native production, usually a patriotic play, in which the actors appear in the short-skirted fustanella dress which the Greeks adopted from the Albanians. I have seen an act from Antigone given as a prelude to one of these national fustanella plays. The contrast in style was striking enough, but both were essentially Greek.

In painting and in music Athens furnishes no ground for comparison with the great capitals of Europe. It has not had the wealth to command them, and has more wisely devoted its slender means to unearthing and sheltering the treasures of plastic art buried in its own soil. It has not even money to do this thoroughly, and must depend for some time to come upon foreign aid and cooperation in this field. But Greece has one resource which is steadily enriching her : it is the patriotism and liberality of wealthy Greeks, some of whom have made their wealth abroad and who have reared and endowed public buildings of Athens. From this source we may expect more for Greece in the future. Even the prisons have been the subject of private generosity; and I had a call from a gentleman in Athens who came to consult me in regard to plans for a new reformatory which a benevolent man had offered to the government. The new Conservatory, or Odeion, in an unpretentious building, is conducted by a Greek graduate of Munich, and with some German instructors on its teaching force. It is likewise assisted by private benevolence. The piano is a favorite instrument in Athens, and tyrannizes over the education of young ladies there as elsewhere. There is a fairly good choral society, but no local orchestra. A Handel oratorio or a Beethoven symphony would be out of the question in Athens for the present.

With the exception of the music at the Russian Church, and an occasional chorus at the Cathedral, there is no ecclesiastical music worthy of the name. The droning of the priests in the temple and the monotonous bacchanals in the wine-shops, are any-thing but grateful to a European ear.

The monuments of Athens, with its temple-crowned Acropolis and the rich treasures of its museums, constitute the chief attraction for the stranger, when joined to the grand old hills and the wine-dark sea. But to an American who settles down here for six months it is scarcely less interesting to note the progressive spirit and the enterprise which are constantly finding fresh expression in the modern Athens, and to see the life of the old-new nation struggling through pain and sorrow into new importance, — I wish I could say into new power.