Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!

The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.

Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.

%Gallery-146241%This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.

Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.

At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.

No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.

To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.

The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.

The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.

The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Athens War Museum

Should Greece lease the Acropolis?

lease the Acropolis
Greece has been hit hard by the recession. According to EU figures, it has 18.8 percent unemployment, the second highest in Europe and more than twice that of the United States. Last year it saw its economy shrink by 5.5 percent.

Now former deputy health minister Gerasimos Giakoumatos has suggested a controversial plan to get Greece some quick cash–lease the Acropolis and other famous sights. According to the China Daily, Giakoumatos, who is a minister of parliament and a member of the conservative New Democracy party, said the move would save Greece from bankruptcy.

He said there’s no shame in leasing out Greece’s heritage, and that the real shame is that regular protests against austerity measures keep shutting the sites down. Giakoumatos said the money could go to save the government from having to slash pensions and wages.

Even with the current economic woes, tourism accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP and is worth tens of millions of euros each month. While Giakoumatos’ suggestion carries no weight of law, it may be given some consideration because of the huge amount of money that could be earned.

What do you think of a nation leasing out its heritage in times of trouble? Tell us what you think in the poll and comments section!

Photo courtesy Roger Wollstadt.

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