After more than 3,000 years, can a city still hold any secrets?
I almost blushed as I put the question to Elena Korka, Greece's director of antiquities. I was sitting across from her overloaded desk at the Ministry of Culture. I never expected that her answer would lead me to the home of the city's ancient dead.
From almost the minute the modern, independent Greek state was founded in 1830, and set upon restoring the magnificent mountaintop that is Athens' Acropolis, the city has been giving up its secrets dig by dig. The process accelerated this decade, when Athenians - suffering from decades of unfettered sprawl and nearly absent city planning - used the impending 2004 Summer Olympics for two opportunities: a chance to host an international event, plus an occasion for massive urban renewal.
All through the city, shovels began unearthing the past in the name of moving forward. This is a constant in Athens, Olympics or not. Korka's officially called Greece's director of prehistoric and classical antiquities. It's the legacy of being an Athenian, any Athenian.
This process of revealing the city's secrets, which are also a part of civilization's heritage, even has its own mantra. In Korka's recitation: "Remove the material. Determine if it's worthwhile. Photograph it. Map it. Then allow modern life to continue."
So my question to Korka was not about the secrets Athens was yet to give up. My question, which I feared was silly on its face, amounted to: After all this time, does Athens have ancient secrets that tourists don't know about? Travel secrets.\\
"Oh, yes," she said. "One of the most special places in Athens is a place that tourists often do not visit ... It's called the Kerameikos, and it is the ancient graveyard of the classical Athenians. When you walk through it, and go by the graves of these people - in the center of Athens - there is a certain atmosphere. It's dry, open. Lovely. See for yourself ... You can walk there from the Acropolis, and when you come down you can walk through another place more travelers to Athens should see - what you would call, from your question, a secret. It's the ancient Greek agora, the market."
The ancient market is different from the nearby Roman agora, built in the first century B.C. after the Romans conquered the city\. The Roman area is basically an extension of the Greek agora, which is emptier in both recognizable monuments and tourists.
"The ancient Greek agora was the civic, political and commercial center," Korka explained. "The Romans built big buildings, but Athenians were rather simple. What they built for the center of their civic life was mostly in the spirit of the person who played a role in that life - it was about the possibility of the individual, a very human notion. When you're walking through these areas and you see all that's there, remember that notion. That is the cradle of democracy."
Athens' port is super-busy, a trading post enriched since the Olympics by about US$4.4 billion U.S. New roads have eased the once-constant choke of vehicles. Olympics by-products abound: a spiffy airport; two new subway lines that join an updated old one for swift mass transit; a trolley line that links downtown to the beach=.
A lot of private investment followed all this, and so did visitors; after the Olympics, tourism in Greece was up more than 300 percent.
Nowadays, Athens has a buzz that tells you something's always going on. The city is a natural mix of hip late-nighters and classical statues of gods who watch over them as they shop the high-end and hilly district of Kolonaki, or stream through Psiri's twining network of shops and tavernas, or seek the best souvlaki in bustling Monastiraki. Modern life, as Elena Korka noted, continues.
As soon as I strolled into the ancient Greek agora, I understood what Korka was saying: I was suddenly one of only a few people around.
The agora's ancient spots are mostly foundations. But for three major buildings, you have to use some imagination while exploring. Socrates philosophized here, St. Paul converted people to Christianity here, and just about everyone considered the place the city center for about 850 years, beginning in the sixth century B.C. It's actually been occupied since 3000 B.C.; when excavations began in 1859, modern buildings were raised to uncover it.
Markers label what once stood in certain spots, such as a long, fencelike structure, the base of a long-gone monument. It's essentially an ancient newsstand, the markers told me, where public notices were posted.
The best way to orient yourself is to enter the restored stoa, a long, colonnaded building, that stands to one side. It's the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, an imposing building amid the ruins and now the agora's museum, with pottery and sculpture and information.
The Church of the Holy Apostles also stands - an 11th-century building with lots of stone masonry. But the must-see building, on a hill to a far side of the agora, is a Doric-columned temple that is among Athens' best preserved and most visible. It's called the Theseion; its full name is the Temple of Hephaistos. Construction began in 449 B.C., part of a building program overseen by Pericles.
The temple was dedicated to two gods, Hephaistos (the mythical god of fire, metalworking, stonemasonry and sculpture) and Athena (goddess of wisdom and war and patron of the city). When I walked around the temple - visitors cannot walk past its columns and onto the temple floor - I was struck by its age and continuing grandeur.
It's a few minutes' walk to the ancient graveyard, the Kerameikos, where Athenians began burying their dead in the 12th century B.C. Kerameis in Greek means "potters," and the cemetery neighborhood housed artisans who made many of the vases exhibited today.
In the small museum at the cemetery's gate, off Ermou Street, I got a sense of the cemetery layout and discovered that its ground contained the remains of the city's wall and the foundations of its two great gates, entries for official processions and everyday visitors.
I took my time walking the pathways. The cemetery sits on a slope lower than the rest of the neighborhood, and once you're inside, it envelops you. Spending a little time with the Athenians of 3,000 years past was calming, inspiring.
After more than 3,000 years, can a city still hold any secrets?