Thessaloniki and antiquities: A difficult co-existence?

Thessaloniki Metro construction
Thessaloniki Metro construction Credit © Ezkerras
Thessaloniki metro: A project which will be handed on for the convenience of thousands of citizens’ daily lives in future but at the cost of the destruction of the great cultural heritage of the city: its antiquities.*



I am studying the discussion on the “very difficult” problem of the metro in Thessaloniki with interest. Unfortunately, neither the destruction of the antiquities nor the transport solves the problem satisfactorily. The best, most practical and economic solution would be an airlift so that the metro could pass above and the antiquities could remain undamaged below. I wonder why this solution has not been proposed yet.


The problem became more difficult because of an unexpected factor, that is to say when antiquities came up. There is way, though, for test trenches by archaeologists before the building plans for such projects are completed. In this way, there will be no surprises and the ancient findings will become a small part of the entire project and not a bad headache.


However, this problem has deeper roots related with the general mentality of the population and the relevant ignorance of individual, usually, ruins worth worldwide and more frequently in Greece. Government employees, archaeologists and educated people should not be the only ones showing interest. Based on systematic education, one country’s inhabitants could consider all antiquities as their huge national heritage and as a result their natural reaction would be the protection, preservation and co-existence.

Based on systematic education, one country’s inhabitants could consider all antiquities as their huge national heritage and as a result their natural reaction would be the protection, preservation and co-existence


It is probably too late to change a deeply rooted mentality. Many great archaeological sites have been destroyed because of the same “very difficult” problem similar like in Thessaloniki. The list of destructions is long but an example may explain the situation. The worst destruction took place in Thebes. In 1909 the archaeologist named Antonios Keramopoulos discovered the burnt ruins of a prehistoric palace (destruction 1400 BC), which he identified with the known “Cadmus House” in ancient texts. According to tradition, it was the place where god Dionysus, the son of Deus and Semele, was born meaning that when the palace was built, in 2200 BC, it was purified and placed under the protection of these deities. Not only locals laughed with this interpretation of these “poor ruins” but all over Greece, from Athens to Thessaloniki, including politicians, other archaeologists, language teachers and educated people. However, Keramopoulos insisted on the excavation and finally he managed to save the place with the assistance of a treasure with gold jewellery.   


The population of Thebes was almost 2000 inhabitants in the beginning of the 20th century and it would be relatively insignificant to be moved to a more suitable place than the ancient one. In the same way, the village built above Delphi was moved in 1892. Thebes, though, remained there and a small city full of concrete house buildings and impenetrable roads was built just above the ancient settlement destroying a unique archaeological site at the same time. Because Thebes was the first and only city of prehistoric Greece since it was first created by Cadmus in 2200 BC until the end of the Post-Helladic culture, a thousand years later. At its peak, there were 7500 inhabitants in its strong walls surrounding a place of 200.000 square meters whereas Mycenae, the capital of Mycenaean culture, had only 30.000 square meters.


I wonder if even now Greeks have realized the importance of prehistoric Thebes, the city which great Athenian Aeschylus described as “the place where inhabitants speak Greek” (Seven against Thebes 72-3). If Greece had followed the way of co-existence with its ancient heritage, not only the best tradition worldwide had been preserved but also today’s difficulties had been avoided thanks to huge touristic flows which would rise today to 100 million almost every year with draft calculations.



* Sarantis Symeonoglou is emeritus professor of archaeology in Washington University, St. Louis. He is also founder and director of the Odyssey Project  aiming at survey and excavating on the Ithaka island since 1984-present.

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