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The delightful Anafiotika anachronism
Non-ostentatious, quickly-built and modest enough so as to be missed by the law in the 1840s, today fortuitously missed by many high-season tourists fixating on the Acropolis: the Anafiotika neighbourhood, right below the massive Acropolis rock, on its shady, north-eastern slopes, offers a surreal and serene aegean island experience just 1 km from the political (and occasionally literal) battlegrounds of Syntagma Square; this tiny quarter is not-to-be missed by serious travellers.
Its island architecture is an authentic product of builders from Anafi, an island east of Santorini - one so poor and barren that it was a place of exile during the turbulent 20th century. The first two houses (two rooms really) were, allegedly, built by G. Damigos, a carpenter and M. Sigalas, a stone mason, for their families over a few nights, with the fear of police arriving as this was a no-building area, protected since 1834, due to its high archaeological value. When police eventually arrived, the semi-legend continues, they did not have either the desire or the ability to arrest them, due to an old Othoman era customary law which forbid the demolition of newly-built homes. Contradicting laws exist to this day in Greece, and sometimes, as in this case, it turns to be a good thing.
The area on the top of the Acropolis and its slopes is one of the oldest constantly inhabited settlements in the world, with the first findings going back to the 4th millenium BCE, thanks to its commanding and fortified location, the availability of water (at least two sources, famously the Klepsydra (anc. Empedo) source located inside a cave, one of many under the Acropolis. Klepsydra was in constant use until the Middle Ages, but later forgotten, to be rediscovered during a siege in the war of independence ) and its relative proximity to the sea.
Islanders, including the Anafiotes had migrated to Athens almost right after independence (1831) to escape poverty, many islands having been burnt down more than once during the 10 year campaign, and to work as stone masons, carpenters and marble cutters. They got involved in the construction of the royal palace and various mansions between 1840 and 1880, the period during which Athens went from a smallish town (although one with a glorious past and a steadily growing stream of international travellers especially from the 18th century), to bustling capital of the newly independent (from the Ottoman Empire) Greek kingdom. The Anafiotes quickly restored the 17thcentury church of Agios Georgios tou Vraxou (St. George of the Rock) which marks the southern entrance of Anafiotika and rebuilt the church of Agios Simeon at the north end (1874)
They were joined by other Anafiotes from the Exarheia neighbourhood of Athens which had become too fashionable and expensive (nowadays known as the Anarchist quarter) in the late 1890s. In 1922 some refugees from Turkey settled in Anafiotika, following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. As late as 1936 the Anafiotika still resembled a favela, with no electricity or sewage system, nor shops – just a small coffeeshop called Anafi. Kostas Ouranis, a well-known pre-war travel author, who visited in 1931 estimated the then area of the neighbourhood as 200 metres length by 30 metres depth, or 0.6 hectares. For comparisson, the whole area of the old town – Plaka – is 35 Hectares. Ouranis humorously stated that this was apparently a neigbourhood for “Lilliputians” as no house was over 2 metres high (an exaggeration), and that streets went right through people's houses (probably true at the time); still he appreciated the standard of cleanliness at the whitewashed Anafiotika which had reached “manic levels".
In the post-war reconstruction decade of the 1950s, and with an eye to encouraging tourism growth the government demolished a number of houses for archaeological excavation work. Following the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1974, and in the context of controlling development in the old town Plaka which had become 'excessively' touristy (bars, neon lights and advertising signs everywhere) during the pro-business ultra-right-wing military dictatorship), the state started buying some houses so as to preserve and restore them, a sort of love-you-to-death policy towards Anafiotika as a living neighbourhood. Today, just 60 people dwell about forty five remaining traditional homes, of which seven are owned by the state, and the others are protected but only under a highly complex and vague legal framework. Some of the residents are descendants of the Anafiotes, others are artists and intellectuals.
One of the better known inhabitants is Ms Anna Sidiropoulou, originally from Serres in northern Greece, who between 1997 and 2009 single-handedly collected around 38,000 signatures, mostly from tourists, calling for the return of the stolen Parthenon Marbles to Athens. This, sitting on top of Anafiotika and looking at the concrete sea extending to all directions, seems as likely as the Golden Age of Athens returning any time soon.
Sources / Further reading & viewing:
To Eleftheron Vima Newspaper – 25 January 1931, page 1 & 7
To Eleftheron Vima Newspaper – 7 September 1936, p.3
Roxani Kaftantzoglou, Sti Skia tou Ierou Vraxou – Topos kai mnimi sta Anafiotika - 2002 (Ellinika Grammata Ed.)
ERT Archives Documentary (in Greek, no subtitles): http://www.ert-archives.gr/V3/public/main/page-assetview.aspx?tid=0000007364&tsz=0&autostart=0