CULTURE

History and beauty lessons at the Numismatic Museum

While the riddle of the Greek debt dominates conversations, temperatures are rising and the atmosphere on Panepistimiou Street in central Athens is decidedly stuffy.

But here?s a chance to change your mood and take a journey back in time. The year is 1881, when German architect Ernst Ziller built a marvelous residence, known as the Iliou Melathron, for his friend, the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

Inside the restored building which now houses the Numismatic Museum of Athens, you can picture the day when elegantly dressed members of high society would gather on the mansion?s arched terraces to admire floor mosiacs made by Italian artisans and walls covered by murals depicting scenes of life in Pompei. All around the building were elegantly decorated ceilings, including the residence?s master bedrooms — the private quarters of Schleimann and his spouse, Sophia Engastromenou, 30 years his junior and whose marriage to the German expatriate had been the result of matchmaking.

The building — which at the time of its construction had cost the formidable sum of 439,650 drachmas — became a point of reference for the city?s social and cultural life all the way up to the beginning of 20th century. It was sold to the Greek state in 1926 and subsequently housed the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Court.

Every Tuesday at noon, the Numismatic Museum offers history lessons through the prism of money and its myths, but also on the mansion and its celebrated residents.

?Myth and Coins,? is the subject of a guided tour scheduled for Tuesday, July 26, followed by ?Before Coins? on August 2, ?Coins at Times of Crisis and Prosperity? on August 9 and ?Iliou Melathron: an Exquisite 19th-Century Residence,? on August 16, among others.

A visit to the Numismatic Museum might throw light on the meaning of the term ?strong currency? or how ancient Greek coins were actually made. Things may get very exciting when comparisons are made between the past and the present: An Athenian soldier?s hourly wage was set at 3 obols in the 5th century BC, while the daily wage of an untrained workman was an Attic drachma and a housewife had to pay three obols for three cotylae (828 ml) of olive oil.

Last year?s guided tours pilot program proved successful, even in August, and the museum is hoping it will again prove a hit with visitors this year, even though local institutions are suffering due to staff shortages and a lack of funding.

In the meantime, the museum?s upcoming temporary exhibition, ?The Cost of Nutrition,? will focus on the prices of products from antiquity to the present. Afterward, it will travel to the Museum of the History of Cypriot Coinage, which is housed at the Bank of Cyprus in Nicosia, in February next year.

Back in Athens, the Numismatic Museum is also preparing for the display of the so-called Abdera Hoard, a rare collection of ancient coins which were repatriated following a donation by an American collector who had purchased the items in New York in 2000. This exhibition is expected to open in November.

Numismatic Museum, Iliou Melathron, 12 Panepistimiou. For reservations, call 210.364.3774 or 210.363.2057.