The Usonian Interviews, No. 11: Bruce Clark on his new book, "Athens: City of Wisdom"
A new narrative history of the city, from antiquity to present
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with historian and journalist Bruce Clark about his new book, Athens: City of Wisdom, which tells the sweeping history of Athens from antiquity to present.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: For various reasons, Athens has occupied a preeminent place in the imagination of historians. What inspired you to write this book and what distinguishes it from other books on the same subject?
BRUCE CLARK: The first thing to say about Athens is that it was the location of some of the supreme moments in human achievement—whether we’re talking about drama, or poetry, or philosophy, or sculpture. Those achievements were very heavily concentrated in one century, the fifth century BC. To some extent, Athens has been living in the shadow of that century ever afterwards. One of the things I’m interested in is how societies and states refract and interpret their own past. Since that glorious century, Athens has been all manner of things. It’s been a university town, a playground for the Romans, as well as a modestly flourishing Byzantine Christian town. In the early years of Ottoman rule it was likewise a relatively small town, and in modern times it’s become a megalopolis and the biggest city in the southeast Balkans. But throughout these phases, Athens has been living in the shadow of that supreme moment of human achievement.
On a more personal level, what inspired me to write the book is that in a peripatetic career, Athens happens to be a place that I’ve come back to again and again. I lived in Athens as a penniless 17-year-old for six months, and I spent four years in my 20s as a young reporter in Athens. I came back to Athens on various journalistic assignments in subsequent decades. I’ve been observing it long enough to see some changes in the urban landscape of Athens. That inspired me to look at the place over a much longer timeframe. To ask the questions—what are the permanent abiding characteristics of Athens and Attica? How has the environment of Attica interacted with the people who live there? And vice versa?
TU: You mentioned earlier that Athens is a city constantly reflecting on its past. Can you elaborate on that idea?
BC: Every succeeding generation of people, whether they were visitors or the permanent population, has had to interpret that past in a different way, and also relate its present-day reality to the past in a certain way.
Roman Athens was a phenomenon that lasted a long time. The Romans were absolutely fascinated with Athens. Whether we’re talking about Augustus, or Hadrian, or any of those Roman emperors, many of them had been educated, either literally in Athens, or at least they had a very Greek-oriented education. They developed a vision of Athens with an almost utopian admiration for the achievements of ancient civilization. They brought the architectural styles from Athens to Rome. They saw Athens as a fount of sophistication, and cleverness of thoughts, and cleverness of design. Of course, they left out the democracy bit.
Even very late in the Roman era, when the Empire was severely threatened by barbarian invasions, the role of Athens as a place of learning where people from all over the Eastern Mediterranean sent their sons to get an education continued, and remained very significant, right into the fourth, even fifth centuries [CE]. Athens was a kind of rowdy university town where students used to run riot.
We should remember that as a pilgrimage center, Byzantine Athens was quite significant. There was a cult of the Virgin Mary located in the Parthenon. We’re not totally sure what the focal point of that cult was, whether it was an icon or a mosaic, or simply the mysterious presence of the Virgin Mary flickering around the columns, which were said to emanate this sort of mysterious light. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Athens was a respectable second to Constantinople as a center associated with the presence of the Virgin Mary.
The greatest figure in Byzantine Athens was a certain Archbishop Michael Choniates. He was an educated product of Byzantium, and he was at first very fed up at being assigned to this boondock provincial place. But over time, he developed a tremendous attachment to Athens. On the one hand, as an educated Hellene, he had enormous respect for ancient Greek literature, but as a Christian, he was convinced that the cult of the Virgin Mary and the central figures of Christianity were vastly superior to the twelve gods of the ancient Greek religion. He produced interesting essays in which he wrestles with this paradox that the true Virgin has replaced the false Virgin [Athena], as he put it. He had to fuse all those conflicting sentiments, and it’s quite interesting to read how he does that.
TU: This year, 2021, marks the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution which led to the creation of the modern Greek state. How did independence change the character of Athens?
BC: What I see in the period of King Otto [1832-1862], the so-called “Bavarian period,” is that there was a great contrast between top-down development where the Bavarian or Teutonic masters of Athens imposed their own vision on the place, epitomized by the Royal Palace, a great barrack of a building, not especially elegant, but designed by German minds as a way of preserving the Bavarian order. The layout of Athens also had a distinctly German flavor to it.
You had these great top-down projects, but you also had the much more spontaneous development of Athens as a place where ordinary people lived and crowded in from other parts of Greece, and they developed their own settlements. One location, in a sense, epitomized the more spontaneous development of a settlement in Athens—the tiny settlement of Anafiotica, on the slopes of the Acropolis.
This had been a place where Ottoman workers and slaves had lived in late Ottoman times. It was taken over by workers from the Cycladic islands who came in to work on the royal palaces. They refashioned these small houses to their own purposes, and made them appear a little bit like an attractive village from the Cyclades. And in particular the island Anafi, a tiny island in the middle of the Aegean, was where quite a number of those workers came from.
To this day, you can walk around Anafiotica and feel that you are in a lovely copy of the whitewashed, meandering settlements in the middle of the Aegean. That was not part of anybody’s plan. On the contrary, there was resistance from the authorities to the emergence of Anafiotica as a sort of de facto settlement for workers.
But nonetheless, the people involved were practical, skilled craft workers and they built houses adapted to their own needs. As a very broad generalization, in Athens there was a great contrast between top-down projects that were sometimes heavy-handed in the inspiration and in the execution, and then the more spontaneous emergence of settlements that were adapted to the needs of the people involved.
TU: Over the course of your career, you’ve accumulated a huge wealth of information about Athens. Did you discover anything new or intriguing about the city’s history that was new to you?
BC: The most interesting things concerned the periods of Athens that are least studied. In particular, Ottoman Athens, there has been all kinds of things that have remained obscure. But what we do know is very interesting. The patron saint of Athens, Saint Philothei, was a very real person, a female member of a prominent Athenian family, who was a philanthropist and had ran orphanages, or places where women in particular could take refuge. This became controversial because she would take in women who had converted from Islam. Over time, she made herself unpopular with the Ottoman authorities, but also with the menfolk of the Greek Christian community as well. She was obviously a woman of great courage. Somebody who knew how to sort of deal skillfully with authority, as long as that was possible.
And then, you know, looking at sort of some of the Ottoman travelers to the city as well, the most famous being Evliya Çelebi, probably the most famous travel writer of Ottoman times in general. He had a very curious and creative way of interpreting the monuments of Athens. He imagined the philosophers of Baghdad and ancient Greek philosophers in dialogue in Athens. Obviously, a bit of anachronism there, but he interpreted the landscape of Athens through his own sensibility, which was both deeply Islamic, but also highly respectful of ancient Greek civilization. He was absolutely dazzled and enthralled by the Parthenon and by the Parthenon frieze in particular.
TU: What do you hope that readers will get out of Athens: City of Wisdom?
BC: I hope that they will understand better that Athens has been an evolving reality over 3,000 years, and not just one flash of brilliance. In a sense, it has been evolving in the shadow of that one flash of brilliance. But the evolution itself has been very interesting and worthwhile. If you go to the Acropolis now, and buy a sort of standard guidebook about the Acropolis and the Parthenon, you will read about 50 pages about Periclean Athens, and maybe one paragraph about the fact that the Parthenon was an important center of monotheistic worship for more than a millennium, certainly longer than it was devoted to the ancient Greek religion. To understand the evolving role of the Parthenon, you certainly have to take into account its role as a very significant Greek Orthodox place of worship, then Roman Catholic, then a mosque—all these things are part of the life of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and they should be understood and appreciated.
TU: What do you see as the immediate future of Athens?
BC: The future of Athens is both exciting and precarious. And it is on quite an ecological knife’s edge as a thirsty city of 4 million people; the rivers that once watered Athens have been covered up to a large extent. We saw the terrible fires on the outskirts of Athens in August , and fires and floods go together. As mountains are eroded, they become more prone to flooding.
Athens is also in danger of breaking into four or five different cities. You have the northern and eastern suburbs where people are enjoying the pleasures of suburban living and shopping, to which the wealthy are fleeing. Then you have the coast, which according to certain plans will turn into a kind of Miami or Dubai with those skyscrapers and shopping malls and then you have the much poorer districts on the western side. And then there is a central district with the antiquities beautifully displayed. But also some very poor and failing districts in the center.
So you ask yourself, do these disparate places form any kind of coherent unit? That’s a real dilemma for the future of Athens. But I love the creative responses to the reality of multiculturalism. I’m intrigued by the fact that Greek youngsters are listening to Nigerian rappers or enjoying Greek-Japanese fusion food and I find spontaneous cultural fusion is at its best something really quite joyful and exuberant and inspiring. Cities are, by definition, the places where people find creative solutions to the dilemma of living together. And I see plenty of evidence of that creativity happens, which is on the encouraging side.
Bruce Clark is a veteran international-news reporter and writer who has worked for Reuters, The Times, the Financial Times and the Economist. He has been posted as a correspondent in France, Greece, Russia and the United States. His latest book, Athens: City of Wisdom, is a narrative history of one of the world’s oldest cities. It is based in part on his personal experiences in Athens over many years as a fluent Greek speaker and student of Hellenism. He is also the author of Twice A Stranger – a prize-winning account of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, and An Empire’s New Clothes – a reflection on Russia during its post-communist transition. His interests include textile history, Scots-Irish history, and the shifting role of religion in society. Originally from Upperlands near Maghera in mid-Ulster, he studied Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge and has a diploma in modern Greek. Apart from English and Greek, he is fluent in French and Russian and reads German, Dutch and Italian. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1958 and is currently based in the Northern Irish village of Rostrevor.