Temple Site Caught in Crossfire

Forty years after the culture ministry first decided to preserve the siteof a 5th-century BC shrine to the hunter goddess Artemis, the local propertyowners are still waiting for their compensation money and a group of Metsresidents is adamant about keeping developers away

Athens News

A FEW metres above Ardittou St, with an unimpeded view of the Acropolis and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, stands one of Athens' most disputed property lots - caught in the usual dilemma of how to best deal with the capital's bountiful ancient heritage.

For over 40 years, generations of archaeologists have sought to preserve what was once the site of the Temple of Artemis Agrotera (the Huntress), considered a place of initiation for the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries and of remembrance for the 490BC Battle of Marathon.

Three excavations conducted since 1897 in search of the Ionic temple - incorporated into a 5th-century AD Christian basilica and destroyed in 1778 by the Turks for use in Athens' defensive fortifications - have yielded pediment fragments, votive vessels, the suspected remains of the church apse and a number of early-Christian graves. More complete pediments are currently in Venice and Berlin. In 1962, a row of stones on the site's outer corner was discovered during the construction of Ardittou St, but not all experts agree that this was part of the 5th-century BC temple foundations.

Deadlock on all sides

Years of debate over the site's historical value have failed to break the deadlock between the culture ministry, the owners of the 1,158 square-metre lot, and a group of local residents seeking to keep the site free of construction.

The owners, who have been paying taxes on property rendered useless since the land was first put up for expropriation in 1964, want the ministry to compensate them, or lift its restrictions. The local initiative of Mets residents agrees that the owners should be paid, but fears that releasing the site would immediately attract real-estate developers.

As for the ministry, it considers that the temple no longer exists as a monument, and appears to lack the money to purchase the entire site. A session of the ministry's top archaeologists - the Central Archaeological Council, or KAS - has been called to decide what to do with the site.

Lobbying for park space

Pointing to a succession of prior council decisions on Artemis Agrotera, the Mets initiative argues that the area's importance is well established.

"The Central Archaeological Council has already called for this site's expropriation seven times," says Iosif Efremidis, an architect and member of the Mets initiative. "This area constitutes a monument... It is the sole remaining temple site on the southeast banks of the Ilissos River."

The Mets initiative wants the site expropriated, cleaned, excavated and opened to the public as an archaeological park. Members of the group have created a website and started a petition drive for signatures to forward to the European Parliament, the Greek Parliament, and relevant Greek agencies.

"From an archaeologist's point of view, this area is ideal for expropriation," says Efremidis, drawing a parallel with the new Acropolis Museum in the district of Makriyanni, where the culture ministry had serious trouble persuading the residents of condemned buildings to move out in 2003.

"This is a much easier case than that of the Acropolis Museum," he adds. "There are no owners to evict, only uninhabited houses and gardens. And yet, while the Acropolis expropriation proceeded, this one did not."

An early 20th-century photograph of the Artemis Agrotera site, published in a 1917 study on the temple by National Numismatic Museum director John Svoronos, shows steps carved into the rock leading up to the shrine's former position. Locals say the steps could be seen until the Colonels' Junta in the early 1970s, when a section of the rock was destroyed to make space for a block of flats, one of them reportedly owned by the wife of former dictator George Papadopoulos.

Property in limbo

Two of the site owners contacted by the Athens News declined to comment on the issue. But in a September 2004 letter seen by this newspaper, all eleven owners called on the culture ministry to release their properties from a state of "outright seizure" that has existed since the area was first earmarked for expropriation in 1964.

More than 30 years - and fresh attempts at expropriation - followed before the owners in 1998 first received a price estimate for their site properties, set at 472,838,000 drachmas (1.39 million euros). But nineteen days before this expropriation margin was to expire in August 1999, the culture ministry's department for modern monuments blocked the site's release. The department tabled a question on the site's derelict buildings, wondering whether they should be preserved as potentially valuable.

A negative response on the matter took nearly two years to be issued, further delaying the expropriation process. This led the owners to suspect the culture ministry of purposely stalling due to a lack of compensation funds.

Expert disagreement

Despite a succession of expropriation calls from the Central Archaeological Council, agreement within the council on the temple's historical importance is not always absolute. "Today there's no Ilissos River, no antiquities, nothing," Yiannis Savalanos, then chairman of the culture ministry's expropriation fund (TAPA), told a 1995 council meeting whose minutes were seen by this newspaper.

At a later discussion of the issue in 2002, Savalanos argued that the Artemis Agrotera temple was not necessarily built on the ancient foundations found in 1962 near Ardittou St. Liana Parlama, then head of the Third Ephorate of Classic Antiquities that supervises the area, agreed with his assessment.

Arguing that the council reached some of its expropriation decisions in a "slipshod" manner, the owners point to two separate recommendations made by Parlama on the issue in 2002 and 2003. In the former, the ephorate head argued in favour of expropriating only the foundations section. Nearly four months later, she voted to expropriate the entire 1,158-square-metre area. The owners question this change of policy, given that no fresh excavation had been conducted on the site during this period.

Update by HCS

In September the Central Archaeological Council was scheduled to hold a meeting on the site of the temple. Following that visit, the council planned to convene a session to decide granting "approval or not of the demolition of the existing buildings for the conduction of an archeological research on the building block flanked by the streets of Ardittou, Koutoula, Thomopoulou, and Kefalou" [in the neighborhood of Kallimarmaro in central Athens]. Local citizens of the Mets area, as the district is called in which the temple is located, continue to monitor governmental actions concerning the site and urge interested persons to sign their petition at the URL http://www.artemisagrotera.org/en/petition.asp.

HCS readers may wish to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/contents.html, especially in the news and issues section and the webpages devoted to the ancient world at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archiveclassics.html

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