Wednesday 31 March 2010

Greek heritage crumbles

HELENA SMITH - Mar 12 2010 14:45

It was the world's first university, where Plato taught, Aristotle studied and philosophy was born. But today it is hard to believe this is one of the Greek capital's ancient treasures -- Plato's Academy is so overlooked it is not even signposted.

"We haven't managed to save the €7 000 such a sign would require," said Nikoletta Divari Valakou, the archaeologist in charge. "And that's because of the economic problems."

The crisis that has gripped Greece, rocked markets and rattled Europe's single currency is now enveloping the country's cultural heritage.

The seat of learning, founded on property the philosopher inherited in 387BC, is not alone. This year antiquities beneath the Acropolis stood under tangled weeds, testimony to the overstretched culture ministry's inability to clean and prune.

Nationwide, some of Greece's greatest glories -- museums, castles and antiquities -- have been closed to the public, from Kastellorizo in the east to Pella, Alexander's birthplace, in the north. Like the desolate tourist shops alongside them, the ancient sites are devoid of holidaymakers, symbolic of the recession engulfing the nation.

"Where will the ministry find the money to complete rescue work on the monuments and sites that are in danger?" asked the Vima newspaper.

The scale of the crisis has not been lost on the governing socialists elected to run Europe's weakest economy after five years of scandal-plagued conservative rule. Unlike his predecessors, the new culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, a friend of Prime Minister George Papandreou, readily acknowledges that although it is by far the nation's most significant resource the sector remains painfully underfunded.

"Culture and tourism represent more than 20% of GDP, a huge chunk of the economy," he said. "We're the first to admit that for far too long culture has been marginalised, that not enough money has been dedicated to it, that we keep our ancient monuments away from the public and close them down."

Few areas embody the fiscal mismanagement that has blighted Greece in recent years as much as culture and tourism. With the exception of the New Acropolis Museum, the capital's biggest cultural success, the domain has all too often been treated as the fiefdom of politicians dispensing favours.

Highlighting the tawdry tales of corruption and incompetence at the culture ministry, a senior official in charge of finances and close friend of the former prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, leapt from the balcony at his home after being linked to wrongdoing.

"We have found funds going to the wrong places in terms of financing new creativity, sports teams, promotion and communication projects," said Geroulanos. "You hear of a shadowy organisation that suddenly got €200 000 and has nothing to show for it ... or permits given for bribes."

The minister, who studied public administration at Harvard and is seen as an architect of the "revolution" the socialists would like to bring to Greece, estimates that at least 60% of his time is now spent "clearing the air of the toxic waste of corruption and bad practice. What we are doing is combating waste and corruption and funnelling saved funds in the direction of necessary healthy projects that are an investment for the future."

But this year, as the cash-strapped government struggles under EU orders to pare the €300-billion public debt and deficit, Geroulanos's €710-million budget has been cut by 10%. The sector has lost out on EU funds, crucial for restoring and renovating monuments.

"Greek culture has lost out because the previous government didn't bother to design an [EU-funded] culture programme," he said. "We are now trying to redirect funds from other ministries."

Morale is also a problem. In the Plaka district below the Acropolis, custodians of wonders dating back to classical times -- including many renowned archaeologists and conservationists -- toil in graffiti-covered buildings in conditions that any other EU capital would consider intolerable.

"There's simply no money," said an archaeologist with more than 30 years' experience. "The lamp in my office blew the other day and I know that unless I pay to mend it, it'll never be fixed.

"I earn €1500 a month and with the cuts the government has announced my salary will drop to around €1300, so I've decided to do nothing because I can't afford it. If it goes on like this, sites will close."

The decline mirrors the descent into chaos of Athens's historic centre, when roads named after Euripides, Sophocles and other ancients were turned into no-go areas, casualties of rising crime, prostitution and drug-running that have gradually killed off businesses.

Geroulanos vows that economic recovery will begin in the capital, starting with Plato's Academy, which will soon be linked by a pathway, he says, to Athens's great cultural gems.

"If we can turn this experience into an opportunity to correct the wrongs of the past and start looking at the things we do in a different fashion, Greece can come out of this crisis much stronger." --

Source: © Guardian News & Media 12.03.2010

See also: Ta Nea, 31.03.2010

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