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Athens in the time of cholera

Ioannis Benizelos must have spent many sleepless nights pacing up and down the hayat (open hall) on the upper story of his mansion in the late winter of 1789. He could feel a menacing presence making its way along the muddy streets of Ottoman Athens. This invisible visitor felt like an old, albeit unsought, acquaintance, who tended to arrive every so often accompanied by some formidable friends i.e. hunger, captivity, and fire. The plague was a great evil whose rampages had claimed countless victims in the past. Benizelos was well aware of the disease’s symptoms and terrible consequences, but he had no answer to the most pertinent question: should he panic?

The calm before the storm

At the time, Athens was a fairly prosperous provincial town. It was divided into 36 quarters (enories), each centered around a church or a mosque. The population consisted of 1500 Christian and 400 Ottoman households. A handful of aristocratic families (proestotes) played a crucial role in town administration, alongside the Ottoman authorities. Benizelos belonged to one of the oldest and most respected proestotes families. There were also a few dozen wealthy land and property owners or merchants. The majority of the Athenians earned a living as craftsmen and farmers. The poorest Ottomans labored as cobblers, tanners, barbers or tailors, but most Muslims were affluent landowners who enjoyed a luxurious and peaceful life. 

Patient zero

On the evening of 30 January 1789, one of Constantine Ademakes’ children fell ill and died within a few hours. The proestotes ordered Ademakes to remove himself and his family from the city. There was no proof that the child had succumbed to the plague, but the family had recently arrived from Livadeia, where the disease was known to be present. Ademakes pleaded with the authorities to allow his family to stay in the city since it was winter and the conditions in the countryside would be too harsh. 

When he failed to sway the proestotes, Ademakes took his family to a property north of Athens. In less than a month, Ademakes’ wife, father, mother, mother-in-law, his remaining children and a woman who had taken care of the deceased child had succumbed to the plague. He buried them all…and then died himself. Three days later, a passing woodcutter discovered his body and quickly buried it in a shallow grave.

Give us this day our daily bread

In the meantime, the proestotes congratulated themselves on their prompt response. There was no further evidence of the plague in Athens, but now they faced another serious problem. Last year’s poor harvest meant that there was not enough food; grain had to be imported from the neighboring communities of Livadeia and Thebes. The plague was raging there and the authorities had forbidden the entry into Athens of travelers or traders from that area. For some bizarre reason, though, they allowed Athenians to travel back and forth in order to bring the necessary foodstuffs. 

As soon as a supply of flour reached Athenian bakeries, throngs of starving people gathered outside the stores and fought each other for bread. The bakers were so terrified of the crowds that they sold their goods from the windows and kept their doors shut, lest the mob ransack the store. As winter came to a close, people were so hungry that they set upon the dwellings of the proestotes and the Ottoman authorities and demanded permission to go wherever they desired in search of food. They deemed it was better to die once from the plague (should God will it) than die every day from starvation.

The cluster

Their wish was soon granted. On March 9, a monk at the church of Megali Panagia in the middle of the market (present-day Hadrian’s Library) fell ill and a widow was called in to rub him down. That same night, the monk died. The proestotes visited the widow and asked her if she had noticed any boils or rashes on the monk’s body. She had not, but then she told them that the monk had vomited blood. That was more than enough for the proestotes, who sealed the church and the widow’s house. Within a week everyone at the church (a priest, a monk, and four children) was dead. 

The widow and her three daughters showed no signs of the disease and survived on food sent to them by the authorities. On the 16th day of their quarantine, though, the smallest child came down with the plague. The mother took her family to an orchard outside the city, where the two youngest children died. The neighbors forced the mother (who was by now also sick) and the surviving daughter to flee, but the woman was too sick to walk. The grave-digger who had buried her children loaded her on his mule and took her to the chapel of Saint Marina, where she died (taking another old woman with her).   

The best-laid plans

The disease made a mockery of the proestotes’ containment plans. It spread rapidly and afflicted one or two houses per day. The residents tried to flee to the countryside, where they mixed with refugees from the plague in Thebes and Livadeia. Those who remained in Athens celebrated Easter in a climate of fear and anxiety. They were terrified of approaching each other and did not perform the traditional embrace when the priests proclaimed that “Christ is risen”. Every orchard, monastery, farm, and village around Athens was full of scared people, while downtown streets and marketplaces were empty.


But it was of no avail. The plague followed the hordes of refugees wherever they went. Men, women, children and the elderly suffered in the open air and died in droves. Most of the dead remained unburied for days since the two public grave-diggers could not keep up with the demand for their services. 

While the Christians perished in the countryside, the Muslims suffered within the town walls. They refused to abandon Athens, but they also failed to take any measures to protect themselves. Benizelos claims that this attitude was born out of their belief that whatever happened was God’s will, and he mocked the fatalism that sent them “to enjoy, according to the teachings of Muhammad, piles of pilaff and rivers flowing with milk and honey”. 

The survivors

The disease devastated Athens. At its height, it carried off 30 to 40 people per day, with almost 500 people dying in a single day. It raged until the 20th of June, at which point mortality rates fell to one or two per day, before fizzling out in early August. By then, 1200 Christians and 500 Muslims were dead, and the survivors faced the renewed prospect of famine. Benizelos survived the plague and his urban house survived the ravages of time. It still stands on Adrianou Street in Plaka, a magnificent and extremely rare example of an Athenian mansion from the Ottoman period.

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece
Link to The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

The Survivor – Mentor in Greece

In Athens every corner holds a surprise! In this two-hour walking tour, you will explore an off the beaten track trail in the heart of the city and discover a neighborhood inspired by the architecture of the Cyclades, imperial churches, ancient ruins, and countless spots totally suited to that perfect Instagram picture.

The best art gallery of Athens

By all accounts, Michael Choniates was a remarkable individual. He was born in the town of Chonai in western Asia Minor. His family may have been important locally, but his rise in the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy was mostly due to his personal ability. He studied in Constantinople and Thessaloniki, and in 1182 (while he was in his early forties) he was selected as the new metropolitan bishop of Athens. 

Michael was a gifted and versatile writer of homilies, speeches, poems, and letters, as well as an ardent bibliophile who brought his voluminous library from Constantinople to Athens at a time when no moving companies even existed.  As a pupil of the famous classical scholar Eustathius of Thessalonica, Choniates was influenced by ancient Greek literature and frequently expressed his admiration for the cultural accomplishment of classical Greece. The first speech he addressed to the assembled Athenians was in a classicizing and sophisticated language his flock could not understand. The disjunction between the classical descriptions of the city and the reality he encountered must have been shocking; his correspondence is full of derogatory remarks (“everything from Athens is meager and cheap”). And yet, he considered the Athenians as direct descendants of their famous ancestors and was truly sad when he was forced to flee the town in the wake of the Latin conquest in 1204. 

Choniates’ Athens is now long gone. Four centuries of Ottoman rule and a few post-independence decades of frantic classical idealism resulted in the almost complete eradication of the city’ medieval past…with one notable exception.  

The Little Metropolis

The Little Metropolis (also known as Panagia Gorgoepikoos and Agios Eleutherios) is a small cross-in-square church next to the much more imposing modern cathedral of Athens. Even a casual perusal reveals something quite extraordinary about this building. Most medieval churches in Athens were built with stone, lined with bricks (when funding was available), or rubble (when money was scarce). The Little Metropolis, though, is constructed almost entirely of finely dressed blocks of white Pentelic or bluish Hymettus marble laid in neat courses of the same height. This expensive material was recycled from one or more unknown derelict building(s), which served as a convenient quarry. But even more astonishing is the upper part of the exterior walls, since it is composed of approximately ninety spolia (figural reliefs). There is simply no other building (secular or sacred) anywhere in the world with such a massive use of reused pieces of sculpture.   

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The spolia consist of classical Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sculpture. The wealth of imagery is truly fascinating. There are architectural elements (pilaster capitals, coffers); figural reliefs depicting animals (lions, peacocks, an eagle with a hare), a tree of life, fantastic creatures (sphinxes, lions with human heads), a woman riding on a swan, a naked satyr, a seated Cybele (i.e. an Anatolian mother goddess), Nikes; ornamental reliefs (rosettes, leaves, four or six-petalled roses, laurel wreaths); and epigraphical blocks. There is also a stunning frieze above the main entrance representing the months of the Attic calendar with some of the Athenian festivals that took place during each month alongside the signs of the zodiac. Interspersed among all these beasts, gods, and mortals are crosses; these were added at different times during the Christian era (as evidenced by the diverse types used) to neutralize the evil forces that supposedly resided in the sculptures.

The secret of the arrangement

Whoever designed this church took some care into arranging the spolia in such a manner that they would be as visible as possible. They selected pieces of roughly similar size and made sure to adorn the doors in the most splendid manner; the main entrance is crowned with the spectacular calendar frieze. The two pieces were placed in reverse order though, as evidenced by the rough surface in the middle; in antiquity, the frieze would have begun with the current right-hand block. Most of the ancient blocks were placed along the edges on the upper part of the walls. This arrangement may hold an (unknown) signification, but it is also possible that the placement was determined by structural reasons; the ancient blocks are much sturdier than the later Byzantine slabs, so they were ideal for the structure’s weakest points.  

The tell-tale inscription

When was the church built and who was the commissioner? For the longest time researchers assumed that the building belonged to the period of Michael Choniates’ stay in Athens (ca. 1182-1204), on the assumption that the extensive use of spolia reflected the metropolitan’s interest in classical Greece. In 2005, though, professor Bente Kiilerich noticed a two-line inscription on a large block inserted in the upper western half of the south wall. The inscription consists of a handful of nondescript names (ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝ ΗΡΑΚΛΕΩΝΑΣ ΚΗΦΕΙΣΙΕΥΣ. ΔΩΡΟΘΕΑ ΙΣΙΓΕΝΟΥΣ ΜΥΡΡΙΝΟΥΣΙΟΥ ΘΥΓΑΤΗΡ) and is hardly visible to the untrained eye. In 1436 Cyriacus of Ancona copied this very same inscription during his first visit to Athens. Only he did not find it embedded on the walls of the Little Metropolis but lying about somewhere in the vicinity of the classical agora, hundreds of meters to the west of the church. The conclusion seems inevitable: there was no Little Metropolis before 1436.  

So who built the church? It is possible that the Little Metropolis was commissioned by a member of the Florentine family of Acciaioli, who ruled Athens at the height of the Renaissance. It is also possible that the church was built after the Ottoman conquest of Athens in 1456 to serve as a refuge for the icon of the Virgin Mary from the church of Panagia Atheniotissa (i.e. the Parthenon that was converted into a mosque). The answer may remain elusive, but the little church will long remain a marvelous blend of works of art that encapsulate the city’s long and turbulent past.

King Otto’s Athens - Mentor in Greece - Cultural Routes in Greece
Link to King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

King Otto’s Athens – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

In 1834 King Otto decided to move the capital of his newly acquired kingdom from Nafplio to Athens. His selection was based on emotion instead of reason.

The parrots of Athens

The polykatoikia is the quintessential housing solution in Athens. The term is derived from poly (multiple) and oikia (dwelling). These five-to-seven story buildings seem ubiquitous and serve the housing needs of millions of people who moved into the city between 1950 and 1970. The basic format is a reinforced concrete frame with masonry infill that contains a microcosm of Greek society since its apartments were open and accessible to residents with differing social status. Despite an abundance of negative comments regarding its aesthetics and disastrous impact on the city’s old neoclassical housing stock, the polykatoikia defines the contemporary urban landscape of Athens to such an extent that it has been adopted as a housing ideal by the city’s most exotic newcomers, the feral parakeets of the National Garden.

The parrot of Ctesias

The 5th-century BCE physician and historian Ctesias of Cnidus was the first Greek to describe a parrot: “it has a human voice and language, and is about the size of a hawk; it has a purple head and a black beard. Its body is dark blue, but it is the color of red cinnabar round the neck. It speaks Indian like a human being, but if it learns Greek then it also speaks Greek.” The average ancient Athenian, of course, would not have been familiar with parakeets; the last European species disappeared during the Miocene. But contemporary Athenians are becoming increasingly familiar with their raucous squawking.  

The two species

The first parakeets in downtown Athens appeared in the late 1980s. Two medium-sized species have established breeding colonies: the ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) and the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). The former is native in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while the latter originates from the temperate to subtropical areas of South America. The ring-necked parakeet is green with a red and black neck ring, as well as long tail feathers. It is very noisy and can be taught to speak. The monk parakeet is also bright green with a greyish forehead and breast, almost as noisy as the ring-necked parakeet and equally adept at developing a large vocabulary.

Plumed fugitives

The origin of the parakeets’ breeding colonies in Athens is obscure. These are not typical migratory birds, so the first individuals probably escaped from the sanitary quarantine in Ellinikon, the old international airport west of Glyfada, in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Their territory gradually expanded as they occupied green spaces in densely populated areas across Athens. Their exemplary Mediterranean diet is based on trees that grow all over the city: cypress cones, palm tree dates, almonds, the fruit of the ash tree, and the seeds of the bitter oranges. The climatic conditions are perfectly suited to their needs and the noticeable lack of natural predators only makes their lives that much easier.

Polykatoikia for parakeets

According to the census of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the Athenian parakeet population consists of more than 1500 individuals. All these birds must find shelter. The ring-necked parakeet is an avid searcher of suitable nesting sites, occupying temporary stations until it finds a permanent home. The monk parakeet is more ambitious. This bird actually builds stick nests in a mature tree (or a man-made structure). The nest (which can reach the size of a small automobile) is occupied by multiple pairs, each of which has its own “apartment”, much like the typical Athenian polykatoikia. 

True Athenians

In late 2018, the Greek authorities removed the nests from the National Garden. They had grown so large that their weight posed a danger to pedestrians and the stability of the trees. But the monk parakeets, ever industrious and ever-persistent, are gradually rebuilding their polykatoikia on the pine trees in the middle of the National Garden (near the small zoo). In their diet and nesting habits, these exotic newcomers prove themselves 100% Athenian.

The Secrets of the National Garden - Mentor in Greece - Cultural Routes in Greece
Link to The Secrets of the National Garden – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

The Secrets of the National Garden – Mentor in Greece – Cultural Routes in Greece

The National Garden, is the preeminent green space in downtown Athens. It was designed as the palace garden and occupied an empty field of the city.