[MGSA-L] Thessaloniki metro: Ancient dilemma for modern Greece

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Tue Mar 19 15:36:20 PDT 2013


Thessaloniki metro: Ancient dilemma for modern Greece

By Giorgos Christides

Rather than joy and excitement, the unearthing of what an academic called
"a Byzantine Pompeii" at the heart of modern day Thessaloniki, Greece's
second city, has caused bitter controversy in a country clutching at
economic straws.

We realise how important the find is, but it is impossible to keep it
there... We are not willing to wait forever”
Instead of sealing off the ruins, the backers of a key rail project being
built at the same site are threatening to have them removed within weeks.

Six metres below ground, archaeologists found what they say exceeded even
their wildest dreams: the commercial heart of the ancient city below the
commercial heart of the modern one - marked by a crossroads built by Caesar
Galerius in the 4th Century and reconstructed two centuries later, when
Thessaloniki had become the second city not of a nation-state, but of the
multinational Byzantine Empire.

Descending the staircase to reach the closed-to-the-public dig site, you
can see an incredibly well-preserved marble-paved road, complete with the
remains of what used to be shops, workshops and public buildings and
spaces. The road is still visibly etched by the passing of carriages, while
the accompanying archaeologist even points to a marble block showing the
markings of a noughts-and-crosses game, presumably carved by children
playing in the open air market 17 centuries earlier.

Archaeologists and city authorities dream of a metro station combined with
a subterranean museum, that will become a major tourist attraction and a
constant reminder of the city's glorious past - a past lamentably hidden
today by decades of anarchical construction and disastrous city planning.

Continue reading the main story

One of the central features of the ruins is a 76m section of the city's
main paved road (decumanus) which was found in excellent condition
Continue reading the main story
Engineers with the company implementing the metro project, Attic Metro SA,
however, say the two cannot exist together.

Keeping the ruins would mean scrapping the central subway station - and
jeopardising the entire 3.5bn-euro (£3bn) EU-co-financed project - one of
the few major public works under way in Greece's moribund economy.

It is scheduled to be complete in 2016, missing the initial target by at
least four years. The main 9.6km (six-mile) line is meant to transport
250,000 passengers daily, decreasing traffic congestion and air pollution.

Founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon; named after his wife, the
sister of Alexander the Great
Under Romans, became key commercial and military centre, serving briefly as
capital of all Greek provinces
Major early centre of Christianity, which was founded in the city by St
Paul the Apostle. Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians, written in AD
52, is the first written book in the New Testament
It was the second city of the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople, and
the most important imperial urban centre in Europe, with a population
exceeding 100,000 in the 14th Century - larger than London's

Following centuries of Ottoman rule, it was annexed to Greece in 1913
Attiko Metro SA is armed with a decision by Greece's Central Archaeological
Council, authorising the transfer of the finds to another area. But
removing a road complex from its original position is considered by some
archaeologists to be tantamount to destroying it.

"Moving it would be catastrophic. A road is not a portable monument. It
would lose all reason for being," the director of the Thessaloniki
Archaeological Museum, Polyxeni Veleni, told the BBC.

'Impossible to keep'
Stratos Simopoulos, Greece's secretary general for public works, says there
is no alternative.

"We realise how important the find is, but it is impossible to keep it
there. Everything else is hot air. I respect the archaeologists, but I ask
them to respect our expertise as well", he told the BBC.

Mr Simopoulos adds that he is determined to follow the archaeological
council decision and remove the road.

"The debate can go on for some weeks, but if a practical alternative is not
found by then, we are not willing to wait forever. Politics is not only
about consensus, but also about collisions," he said.

Continue reading the main story
Start Quote

Moving it would be catastrophic. A road is not a portable monument. It
would lose all reason for being”

Polyxeni Veleni
Director of Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum
About 450 workers demonstrated this week after being laid off, because the
project is stalling.

Any further delay would certainly mean more gloom for the area's
shopkeepers, already suffering not only from the country-wide recession,
but also from the barricades and noise driving customers away.

Mauricio Serra, an Italian who moved to the city in 2004, owns an optics
shop at Venizelos Street, a few metres from the main dig site. He is
visibly agitated when asked about the issue.

"We have been plunged into financial trouble for six years already. The
project must be completed as soon as possible," he told the BBC.

Despina Makropoulou, the head of the Ninth Ephorate of Byzantine
Antiquities and of the excavation, insists it would be a crime to remove
the antiquities.

"It is self-evident that we should preserve and showcase the finds for
current and future generations," she says.

According to her, this makes even financial sense.

"In Greece, we are not in the business of making cars," she told the BBC at
her office, housed in the courtyard of the magnificent 306 AD Rotunda of

"Our heavy industry is culture, the heritage of our ancestors. We must be
proud, but also worthy of this heritage."

Continue reading the main story
Thessaloniki metro

3.5bn euros (£3bn)
Completion date: 2016-2017 (slipped from 2012)
13 stations
9.6km (six miles) of line
18 state-of-the-art driverless trains
Source: Attiko Metro SA

Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris sounds remarkably calm, and confident
that human ingenuity will solve the dilemma.

"In our age, nothing is technically impossible," he said.

"And not everything can be measured by money or time. The city needs the
subway, but it also needs its heritage."

The City Council, despite having no official say in the matter, will vote
on a resolution requesting that the Central Archaeological Council rescinds
its decision to remove the finds.

The mayor is confident that the scientists at the city's Aristotle
University and Technical Chamber will come up with a solution that has
escaped the subway project engineers.

The fate of a road walked by Roman soldiers, Byzantine merchants and
Christian saints, hangs in the balance.

June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com
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