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Insight Guides Athens (Insight City Guides)

Insight Guides Athens (Insight City Guides) - Insight Guides It's a pity that informative guidebooks aren't the ones best suited to travel. But I bought this for 2 euro at a remainders shop, having felt guilty that I'd spent so much time in Greek Macedonia without having seen Athens. I'd had the impression that I hadn't seen the "real" Greece. Let's forget that Mt. Olympus is in Macedonia, that Alexander the Great turned Greece into a world empire from his home in Macedonia, and that Paul built some of his first Christian churches in the region, if we're talking about Christian influence on modern Greeks.

Nor is Athens the absolute core of Greek history, judging by its fluctuations in good fortune. It may only be haphazard Continental classicism which kept Athens alive as a city at all.

This exceedingly strange and informative guide from 1995 is laid out much like a textbook and attempts to condense Greek history and culture into approximately 30 pages. It makes me feel marginally better about skipping Athens, since the British editors bang on, time and again, about their unwillingness to review a city so difficult to love, starting with the very first paragraph of the book. A team of British writers and photographers then itemize the caustic, noisy, polluted, architecturally vapid knocks against the place. It is largely a single chapter about modern Greek culture, written by a half-Greek contributor, which alerted me to a level of condensed and vital detail I'd been missing with a more theoretical survey of Greece I'd been reading just before this.

Athens is described as the noisiest city in Europe, with rude people criss-crossing your path, laden with cardboard boxes. This is not the modern Macedonia I saw, where music and sound don't seem to exist, unless it's the buses or one of the many hidden squares with live music. But modern Athens, even more so than modern Macedonia it seems, is mostly a new city of immigrants from Asia Minor. After the Romans left Athens, the city became so insignificant, that one of the French Crusaders became its sole owner, gave it to his son, who lost it to a few Catalan mercenaries whom he owed debts. In what seems to be an ongoing habit, minor European royalty then took it over. That seems to account for 500 years without notable status, made worse by an ill-fated rebellion against the Turks which utterly destroyed and emptied out the city in the 1800s. The number of Athenian citizens by then numbered in the 1000s. It was in fact Europeans who were the ones to insist on making Athens a capital again, and Athens eventually filled in with new citizens, as later politics drove millions of nominal Greeks from Asia Minor, to Athens and Macedonia. Since these new citizens had been living in what is today, Turkey, one wonders if the character of "the artful dodger" under Ottoman dictatorship, as described in the chapter about modern Greeks, has stronger origins in Asia Minor. Not much, apparently, could be done about the urban landscape laid out by German engineers, or the mostly modern buildings built after that anti-Ottoman rebellion destroyed older architecture. It didn't help that "Venetian artillery blew a large part of the Parthenon sky-high."

Lawrence Durrell, who has little to say in praise of the Cyprus landscape, states in one sentence that "Athens was beautiful as usual." Although he was sitting under the Acropolis, I have to wonder if these British guidebook writers made a hash of it. I would like to think that the book is most valuable as a history primer, but here again, I have to wonder at claims that Greeks have the first recorded cookbook and first historical description of some kind of school in the world. The fact that they think British Museums are protecting the "Elgin Marbles" from the Greeks is also suspicious. Here, at any rate, are the interesting historical asides, so that neither you nor I have to carry the book anymore:

-- Athens copied the culture of ancient Crete, which took metal work and culture from the East
-- The Greek Classical Age lasted just 150 years
-- "Real" Athenians were short, dark Ionian sailors, with a reputation for "shrewdness", who eventually fled to Asia Minor
-- Many Athenians and Greeks moved on to Alexandria or Constantinople.
-- Ancient Athens restricted citizenship too much to be called a democracy
-- Pot shards (ostraka) used for voting show that a certain amount of ballot stuffing went on.
-- After Athens beat back a Persian invasion, it collected a defence fund from surrounding city-states and used the money to build monuments to itself.
-- On many occassions, people trapped in the Acropolis surrendered, only to be slaughtered
-- Right to hide within the walls of the Acropolis were the origins of Greek citizenship.
-- Turks storing gunpowder in Propylaia were blown sky high by a lightning strike.
-- The symbolic prizes at the Olympics: first prize "a blameless, accomplished woman", second "a clever woman"
-- Dionysian feasts had musical contests between choirs dressing and acting like goats.
-- The games were abolished in AD 394 by a Byzantine emperor, partly because he objected to the nudity.
-- Homer may have never seen Athens
-- Byron died without heroism, after having been caught in a rain storm
-- Many Greeks have the first name "Byron"
-- Greeks with ancient names or names like "Byron" have no Name Days.
-- Greeks describe their fear of responsibility as "efthinophobia."
-- In Greece until 1995 "the leader is king".
-- It is common to blame political problems on a history of "ksenos daktylos (foreign finger)"