As is often the case in Greece, archaeological sites shine immediately when the soil is excavated. Thessaloniki, the second metropolis of Greece, recently witnessed the discovery of an important ancient site while building its subway. Currently, there is a disagreement between the authorities, archaeologists and the inhabitants regarding the solution to preserve the past while modernizing their city.
The Thessaloniki Metropolitan Railway (or the Thessaloniki subway) is an underground urban transport system that is under construction in Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece that houses a population of more than one million inhabitants in its metropolitan area . They often describe it as the capital of northern Greece, and the subway is scheduled to house the first driverless subway system in the country.
Construction began in June 2006 and was originally scheduled to end in October 2012, a symbolic date that would coincide with the centenary of the emancipation of the city from the Ottoman regime, on October 26, 1912. In September 2018, the First car of the Thessaloniki subway at the International Thessaloniki Fair. After an October 2019 announcement by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the subway is expected to operate in April 2023.
The 11-year delay in construction became an object of mockery online.
Discovery of “Byzantine Pompeii”
In 2013, an important archaeological site was discovered at the place where the future Venizelos Metro Station will be located. At 5.4 meters deep, a Roman avenue was discovered Decumanus Maximus (later also known as the Byzantine Intermediate Way), along with shops and houses along the old Via Egnatia. A mine of 750 jewels and more than 2700 mortuary objects were also found in other metro stations currently under construction, which indicate the heritage of the Hellenistic and Roman ages. Since then, international archaeological circles called this discovery “Byzantine Pompeii”, as can be seen in the following video:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD6g-H6mvVc (/ embed)
Government wants to move the antiques
After the discovery of antiquities in 2013, the then Vice Minister of Culture, Costas Tzavaras of the Nueva Democracia party, ordered them removed from the site to continue with the construction of the subway. Although initially this plan did not proceed because archaeologists and residents strongly opposed. Then, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris requested and succeeded in suspending and revoking the decision of Tzavaras.
Following the victory that the New Democracy party won in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the dilemma of what to do with antiquities in the Venizelos station again arose. The regional governor of Central Macedonia, Apostolos Tzitzikostas, after a meeting with the prime minister, said:
Όσον αφορά το μετρό της Θεσσαλονίκης, ιδιαίτερα μετά τις αποκαλύψεις της αναδόχου εταιρείας προτείναμε λύσεις από την πρώτη στιγμή ως Περιφέρεια Κεντρικής Μακεδονίας και επιμένουμε στην θέση αυτή ότι θα πρέπει να συνυπάρξουν αρχαία και μετρό. Να γίνει δηλαδή μία στάση – μουσείο, αλλά για να γίνει αυτό θα πρέπει τα αρχαία να αποσπαστούν, να ολοκληρωθεί η στάση του μετρό και στη συνέχεια να επανατοποθετηθούν.
With respect to the Thessaloniki subway, particularly after the construction company's findings, we – as a region of Central Macedonia – proposed solutions from the beginning and insisted on this opinion: antiques and the subway must coexist. That is, create a metro-museum station. But to carry it out, antiques must be removed, construction work on the underground station must be completed and then relocated.
The Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, reacted and said during a press conference that her ministry and the Ministry of Infrastructure had not yet reached a decision and that “when the time came, they would face it.”
To add more to the confusion, the current mayor of Thessaloniki, Konstantinos Zervas, along with local officials, said they are in favor of the removal and relocation of antiques.
One of the main reasons why these opposing opinions exist is that conserving the ruins would require the construction of the central subway station to cease, which would put at risk a € 3.5 billion project co-financed by the European Union. And it occurs at a time when Greece's dying economy witnesses very few important public projects.
Indignation between the public and the scientific community
Opposition politicians, archaeologists and citizens were outraged by the plan to displace the fragile antiquities proposed by the Greek Government.
Students of the history and archeology faculty of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki oppose the government's decision. Additionally, the Christian Archeology Society sent an appeal to the prime minister.
The Byzantinology scholar Paolo Odorico, director of the Center for the Byzantine Study and Modern Greece at the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, paid a visit to the antiques of the Venizelos station in 2013. He argued that the displacement of the Intermediate Way Byzantine would irreversibly destroy the structural authenticity of the antiquities of the monumental collection, a value protected by international and Greek law.
Αυτό που έφεραν στο φως οι εργασίες για το μετρό είναι η βυζαντινή Πομπηία! Το καταλαβαίνετε; Και σκοπεύετε να την ξεκολλήσετε, για να την επανακολλήσετε αργότερα; Τρελαθήκατε; Θα κάνετε τις αρχαιότητές σας Lego; Σκοπεύετε να στήσετε τη βυζαντινή Disneyland; Να μας το πείτε! Και να αναλάβετε τις ευθύνες σας.
What the subway construction procedures brought to light is the Byzantine Pompeii! Do you understand? And they plan to extract and reassemble it later? They are crazy? Will your antiques turn into a Lego game? Do you plan to build a Byzantine Disneyland? Tell us! And assume their responsibilities.
The former mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, also sent a letter to the prime minister on behalf of the newly created “Movement for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Thessaloniki Citizens”. This same citizen movement initiated an online petition called “Save the antiques at the Venizelos station in Thessaloniki”.
Europa Nostra, a pan-European organization that watches over the cultural heritage, recognized advisor and non-governmental ally of the European Union, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, sent a letter to the Central Archeology Council in favor of keeping the antiques in place.
The case before the Central Archeology Council
The decision on the final destination of the antiquities was entrusted to the Central Archeology Council (CAC), an important body that decides the fate of the sites in Greece. Attic Metro SA, the company that builds the subway in Thessaloniki, presented its own study in which it proposed the extraction of antiques. After a 14-hour deliberation, CAC finally approved the company's proposal. Many officials were satisfied with this decision.
Members of the political opposition, such as the former culture minister of the SYRIZA Party, Costas Stratis, had a completely different opinion:
Η γνώμη του Κεντρικού Αρχαιολογικού Συμβουλίου προεξοφλήθηκε από τον πρωθυπουργό σε ζωντανή μετάδοση σ. Παραπέμποντας σε τριτοκοσμικό σουλτανάτο. Σίγουρα πάντως όχι σε κράτος που θέλει να λέγεται σύγχρονο, ευνομούμενο, ευρωπαϊκό.
The prime minister determined in advance the opinion of the Central Archeology Council in a live broadcast, at the International Thessaloniki Fair. (As if we were) a third world sultanate. Definitely not as a state that you want to be considered as modern, favored and European.
There were also online and offline reactions and protests of netizens:
“Και Μετρό και Αρχαία”. Οι Πολίτες της Θεσσαλονίκης έστειλαν μήνυμα.
“Κύριε Μητσοτάκη Κάτω τα χέρια από το σώμα και την ιστορία της πόλης.”#Thessaloniki #skg # ΜΕΤΡΟ # Βενιζέλου pic.twitter.com/Yg2T0TVu6o
– Αλέξανδρος Τριανταφυλλίδης (@tr_alexandros) December 17, 2019
“The subway and the antiques.” The citizens of Thessaloniki sent their message.
“Mr. Mitsotakis (current Prime Minister of Greece), take your hands away from the body and history of the city!”
On Twitter, user Fiogkos cited the city of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to remind the authorities that there is another viable alternative:
Στη Σόφια άλλαξαν 3 φορές τη θέση του σταθμού για να μην μετακινήσουν αρχαία
– PhD (@fiogkos) December 19, 2019
In Sofia, they changed the location of the metro station three times to prevent the movement of antiques
Read more at: https://t.co/KMdLi6CO1G
Στο θέμα του σταθμού # Μετρό της Θεσσαλονίκης… Τα αρχαία μας και τα μάτια σας, ρεμάλια. Μετρό λέμε και δε βλέπουμε, εδώ και τριάντα χρόνια… Τα αρχαία μας όμως είναι πιο σημαντικά! Κανονίστε την πορεία σας ..!
– TO Kathiki (@KathikiMeApopsi) December 21, 2019
Regarding the metro station in Thessaloniki …
Value our antiques, losers. We've talked about the subway and haven't seen it for the past 30 years … But our antiques are more important!
Take your own risks!
The HOT DOC online magazine also launched the following accusations:
Φουσκώνουν, έως τριπλασιασμού, το κόστος του έργου με “κατά χώραν» παραμονή των αρχαιοτήτων, για να αποδείξουν ότι η απόσπαση είναι φθηνότερη και άρα προτιμότερη λύση # αρχαία # μετρό https://t.co/oFBnqcd2XA
– Hot Doc (@hotdoc_mag) December 17, 2019
Antigua Venizelos: Self-fulfilling prophecy, Elgin, CAC and the… contractor.
It took more than three months and more than 300 pages of study to document and present to the CAC the plan of the first Minister on the Thessaloniki Metro and the Old Venizelos.
Increase the cost of the project up to three times so that the antiques remain on-site in order to prove that the extraction is cheaper and, therefore, the best solution.
In a press release, the Hellenic Association of Archaeologists opposed the decision of the CAC and declared that the opinion of the council is a disgrace to archeology, and announced its intention to appeal to international organizations and the State Council.
But despite the fact that the workers of the “Unified Struggle Movement” of the Ministry of Culture identified a study on redesigning the Venizelos station with the conservation of antiquities on-site and it was brought to light, both the Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, and the president of Attic Metro SA, Nikos Tahiaos questioned its existence, and described it as a “supposed solution” or as a “non-existent study”.