BMCR 2022.01.11

Vrysaki: a neighborhood lost in search of the Athenian agora

, Vrysaki: a neighborhood lost in search of the Athenian agora. Princeton: ASCSA, 2020. Pp. 276. ISBN 9780876619698 $80.00.


Athens became Greece’s capital in 1833, four years after the end of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) against the Ottoman Empire. It was then suspected that this happened for reasons archaeological rather than political,[1] though by now we would all agree that the one does not by any means exclude the other. For, already in those early days, Greek archaeologists, architects, and intellectuals, as well as politicians, envisioned a large-scale excavation of the site where the Athenian Agora was believed to lie.[2]

As decades went by, however, such ambitious plans failed to materialize, and life went on unchanged in the area until pretty much the 1920s. The site, central to both the ancient and the modern city’s urban grid, was soon identified under two of Athens’ most densely populated neighborhoods, Vrysaki (so named, apparently, from a water fountain in that area) and Vlassarou (of rather uncertain etymology). Owing to the suspected antiquities underground, homeowners in the area were prevented from rebuilding their homes or even repairing them. The influx of thousands of Greek refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s added a further challenge to the authorities, as prices went up and property owners became restless, demanding that either their properties be compensated for or that they be given permission to build new houses on the same plots.

An excavation zone was demarcated in 1925, and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens was granted an excavation permit for the area in 1927, but no actual digging occurred before the early 1930s, when issues regarding expropriation procedures and costs among landowners, the Greek authorities, and the School’s Trustees were eventually settled. Demolition of houses started in 1931 and went on for eight years; 5,000 people residing in the area were relocated. Understanding the magnitude of their endeavor, and the unique opportunity at hand, ASCSA authorities decided to document the houses they had to knock down, thus creating a stunning visual archive of Athens’s urban life in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Sylvie Dumont’s book takes advantage of this archive (primarily of photographs, but also of measurement records, drawings, and charts) in order to revive “a neighborhood lost in search of the Athenian Agora,” as her book’s subtitle indicates. In the words of Kostis Kourelis, who contributes the book’s Foreword, “[b]y photographing, measuring, and drawing the houses they dismantled, the Agora excavators of the 1930s inadvertently built a visual archive of Athens’s vernacular architecture.” As a result, the architecture of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries in Vrysaki and Vlassarou are are now far better known to us than than that of similar periods in other parts of central Athens (from Plaka and the Anafiotika to Psyrri and Metaxourgeio) which were actually spared back then, and survive to the present day having gone—silently and invisibly—through the mass-construction and land-developing fervors of the 1950s and the 1960s, not to mention the gentrification eras of the late 1990s and the more recent 2010s, when most of those areas were being picked over by Airbnb sub-contractors right when the COVID-19 epidemic was about to break out.

The sources and methodology of Dumont’s work are swiftly outlined in the book’s short chapter 1, which also serves as its introduction. In chapter 2, Dumont defines the area excavated, addressing matters of nomenclature, the particularities of the neighborhood’s urban grid, and the local population. Chapter 3 takes a wider look at Athens’s neoclassical city planning, as well as the expropriations’ prehistory, as efforts to clear the area north of the Acropolis had been going on since the 1830s. It reveals how a controlled display of classical antiquities had always been integral to efforts to turn Athens into a modern (as well as suitably modernized) capital city in the twentieth century.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to archaeological excavations on the site of the Agora prior to 1931. Undertaken by the Greek Archaeological Service and the German Archaeological Institute between 1850 and 1900, these earlier projects had confirmed the literary evidence for the whereabouts of the Agora, and encouraged speculation as to excavations’ future potential.

Chapters 5-8 dwell on the complicated and highly contentious matter of land expropriations, evictions, and eventual compensations. Property appraisals invariably took account of the existing houses’ dilapidated condition, itself the outcome of the prolonged waiting period between the state’s decision that the area ought to be excavated and the eventual beginning of actual work on the site. Landowners had the right to appeal to the courts if the indemnities proposed to them were thought to be too low, though even then the increases granted ranged only between 10% and 16%, if an increase was granted at all. Because a representative of the Greek National Mortgage Bank sat on the Evaluation Committee, there was a tendency, according to figures presented in chapter 6, to decrease the value of buildings in order to facilitate mortgaging in general (thus making the work of archaeologists—American and Greek alike—a lot easier, but at the same time undercutting the owners’ efforts at receiving a compensation that seemed fairer to them). Demoralized by a long mediation process and its often unsatisfactory outcome, most homeowners in Vrysaki and Vlassarou felt defrauded by their own government, not to mention the hordes of foreign archaeologists and their army of soft-spoken negotiators. By 1929, more than 4,000 tenants were recorded to reside within the expropriation zone, to whom a great number of store owners and 144 small- and medium-sized businesses must be added; all these faced a severe housing and relocation crisis, for which neither the School nor the Greek State—further incapacitated by the ongoing refugee crisis—were willing or able to do much.

Chapters 9-13 take a nicely focused look at the lost neighborhoods’ urban structure: squares and bridges, a large number of churches (some of them dating as back as far as the seventeenth century), streets, houses (some of which dated to the Ottoman period), and shops (from taverns and wine shops to bakeries, coffee- and pastry shops, and even small factories) are all expertly—as well as heartbreakingly—documented, creating a vivid image of a strikingly pre-modern Athens that was obviously unfit for the novel and archaeophiliac conglomerate that the city was soon to become. Chapter 14 adds to the picture, as it were, by discussing the acute problem of the refugees from Asia Minor, whom the Greek state housed—“temporarily”—in the area to be excavated and allowed to build their own shacks, which made the tasks of land expropriation and relocation of residents even more arduous. Chapter 15, finally, explores briefly the expropriations and further works after World War II.

Dumont’s Epilogue, subtitled “Reflections on a lost past,” limits itself to the author’s personal ties to her project, sentimental as well as professional, and as such fails to settle the questions that the book itself raises: citing the comparable example of Rome, where the attempt to claim the city’s historic center for archaeology led to “disastrous ends with unfairly executed expropriations and the creation of a housing crisis” (p. 221), the author wonders if “such a tragedy” could repeat itself today, only to state that “The answer[s] to [these] question[s] [are] beyond the scope of [her] research” (ibid.), leaving this reviewer wondering why this is so. One of these questions, posed by Greek architect Kostas Biris in 1940, and quoted at length by Dumont in the same page, is worth repeating: “why is it right for the study of an ancient and so-called better period of history to totally destroy the remains of later periods,” through the work of archaeologists “totally blinded by the glow of the glory of the ancient world”? Rather than “reflecting on a lost past,” therefore, this book chooses to dwell on the admirable documentation of what had to go in order for the “glory” of classical Hellas to be re-imaged. And although most of the documentation needed in order to appreciate the plight of those actually inhabiting those two “lost neighborhoods” is provided in the book, Dumont’s approach—though sympathetic—seems rather nonchalant, as if at the end of the day a few destroyed livelihoods was a small price to pay, after all, for a glorious site in the heart of the present metropolis).

The Athenian Agora excavations, however, have long now been discussed, analyzed, and ultimately exposed, not least by the ASCSA itself, as a project of American nationalism[3] alongside a barely disguised effort of Greece to re-Hellenize itself. Like Biris before her, Dumont seems to mourn the long-gone houses and streets of Vrysaki and Vlassarou rather than protest the fate of their inhabitants and their severely disrupted livelihoods. Yet one cannot attempt the former without, at the same time, pausing to consider the latter; and in Dumont’s book the strongest commentaries seem not to be quite straightforward but lurking between the lines—or, in this case, between its splendid black-and-white photographs.

Dumont’s Athens is a site of images forever lost, rediscovered memories, and profound—yet still unacknowledged and suppressed—mourning disguised as nostalgia; a “departed” city, an “Athens that is no longer in Athens,” as Jacques Derrida famously described the Greek capital during his own sojourn here in the 1990s;[4] a place, but also a landscape, and indeed a site, that inspires its visitors (or the people who actually reside or remain in it) to reflect on their own mortality and this persistent state of “mourning that keeps within itself what it loses in the keeping.”[5] Designed as a memento mori rather than a gesture of mourning proper, Dumont’s book offers to the  twenty-first century reader more than its author admits or even perhaps envisaged.


[1] Eleni Bastéa, The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999, pp. 7-8.

[2] Niki Sakka, “The excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: the politics of commissioning and managing the project,” in Dimitris Damaskos and Dimitris Plantzos (eds), A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece. Athens: The Benaki Museum 2008, pp. 111-124.

[3] Y. Hamilakis, “Double colonization: the story of the excavations of the Athenian Agora (1924-1931),” in Jack L. Davies and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan (eds), Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece. Hesperia Special Issue 82:1 (2013), pp. 153-177.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean François Bonhomme, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, New York: Fordham University Press 2010, p. 6.

[5] Op.cit., p. 47.