Athens, Greece – A concrete controversy is raging over the Acropolis in Athens.
Architects and archaeologists say that repaving pathways for visitors on the millennia-old monument with concrete is a barbaric intervention.
“It’s a crime to wound the Rock, because it’s a monument,” architect Tasos Tanoulas told local newspaper EfSyn, using shorthand for the Acropolis, an ancient fortress and temple complex which towers 150 metres above Greece’s capital city.
But Greece’s culture ministry points out that the pathway visitors have used for decades was also made of concrete, and the need to provide access for disabled people to the site acted as a catalyst for the overhaul.
The old concrete pathway was bumpy and uneven, having suffered the wear of approximately 4,000 pairs of shoes a day for 40 years.
An elevator has been built on the northwestern side of the rock to enable wheelchair access.
“We’ve been talking about disabled access to the Acropolis since the 2004 Olympics,” said Yiannis Vardakastanis, president of the Confederation of Disabled People.
“Now we can say that any disabled person in the world who wants to visit the Acropolis can do so.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Acropolis attracted millions of visitors every year [Jason Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Still, the fact that concrete was used again has caused controversy.
“[The pathway] imposes itself aesthetically with its modern appearance and its sheer size,” said Despoina Koutsoumba, president of the Association of Hellenic Archaeologists.
“The scene of a concrete city that we see from on top of the Acropolis has now climbed up onto the Acropolis itself.”
Archaeologist Manolis Korres, who is in charge of restoration works on the Acropolis, told Al Jazeera: “Sometimes people get carried away by prejudices and get hung up on labels. If this material were called something else, it might meet with no controversy.
“Some people imagined a tile floor, and cobblestones would be very nice, but there was never such a thing on this ancient road.
“This road was always bare bedrock and later had grooves to improve traction. It never had tiles. The only choice we had was to heal the damage with a material that looks like rock, and from among artificial materials there is no other that simulates rock than concrete.”
Purism versus tradition
What caused the recent uproar is that rather than simply rebuild the concrete path laid down in 1978, Korres and his team widened it from five metres to 18.
But this, he says, means the path more closely matches what existed on the Acropolis 25 centuries ago.
“This was the building Athenians would file through on major festivals to gather at the altar,” says Korres, pointing to the site’s monumental gatehouse known as the Propylaia, where the concrete pathway begins.
“Thousands would arrive in a day, which is why you needed such a broad gate with five doorways, and a broad pathway.”
“The reason the pathway narrows 40 metres into the site is that that’s where there was a left turn leading to the altar. Most visitors in antiquity went that way,” he says.
The widening of the pathway from five metres to 18 has caused uproar [Jason Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Patches of grooved rock left exposed at the pathway’s edges demonstrate that the new concrete path faithfully follows the ancient one.
And the concrete is reversible, says the ministry, because it has been poured on top of plastic sheeting which protects the bedrock.
“During the great Panathenaic festival, 10,000 Athenians a day were able to enter through this gateway. That’s what it was designed for. We simply never restored it due to inertia,” says Korres.
The broadened pathway is only the beginning of a much larger refurbishment project now under way, which aims to restore what Korres says was architects’ original vision for the Acropolis 25 centuries ago, when Athenian power was at its height.
Whereas visitors must now squeeze along a wooden ramp through one of five doorways in the Propylaia, Korres plans to restore access through all five.
Later, a grand marble staircase will replace a zig-zagging ramp that leads up to the Propylaia from the bottom of the hill.
The shadows of removed stone steps show that Athenians had begun to build this staircase when the Peloponnesian War halted work in 431 BC.
‘A positive progression’
While the debate rages among Greeks and experts, for some visitors the changes are acceptable – and unnoticeable.
“What they have there didn’t feel like it wasn’t in place or that it didn’t fit in. You didn’t really notice it as an eyesore or anything like that,” says Molly, a visitor from Australia.
“I understand why they want to keep things preserved, says Tyler Gates, an American. “But I also think that in the 21st century we are much more inclusive, we want people of all backgrounds and all abilities to be able to participate in our historical monuments and our education. So, I think that it’s a positive progression of society to have accessibility.”
The broadened pathway is only the beginning of a much bigger refurbishment of the Acropolis now under way [Jason Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Korres and the ministry of culture have also been accused of redesigning the pathways to admit more tourists from cruise ships, in an effort to commercialise the site.
But Korres says the restoration is about more than tickets or disabled access; it’s about seeing the Acropolis as fifth-century BC Athens meant it to be seen, something modern people have never experienced.
“Ever since I was very young, the false impression that this entrance offers bothered me,” he says.
“People never entered the Acropolis this way. It is foreign … when I took over the restoration works here, I realised this was something that couldn’t go on.
“It wasn’t the number of visitors [who had access] that concerns me. If it were merely a hundred a day they deserved to see what was here, rather than some idea restorers had in the 1950s.”