CULTURE

Long Walls beneath Athens-Piraeus railway

The statement released by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism on February 9, 2010, seemed at first to be another routine, official announcement concerning the recent discovery of ancient walls during the ongoing renovations of the Athens-Piraeus railway corridor. After all, aren?t architectural traces of Athens?s rich historical heritage uncovered on city-center construction sites almost every week, even perhaps — if truth be told — almost daily?

But, these were not mundane, ordinary walls revealed in the public works between Kallithea and Moschato stations, as well as further down the line near Neo Faliro station. These are sections of ancient Athens?s much celebrated and feared Long Walls: extensive fortifications that connected the city around the Acropolis with its three ports some 8 kilometers away at Piraeus. Although less picturesque and photogenic than the Acropolis, the Long Walls rank a close second as evocative cultural monuments that materially attest to the former strength and greatness of Classical Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Defensive works erected around Athens and other ancient Greek city-states were absolutely essential to their survival and development. Without walls, Athens?s material resources and population would have been ripe for the picking in the fierce, bellicose world of ancient Greece. With walls, however, Athens was able to become a regional and imperial military power, a political pacesetter, and a flowering center of culture. In ancient times, a strongly walled city, especially one such as Athens connected to the sea, where naval and commercial ships could come and go freely, was virtually impregnable except by siege.

Among ancient Athens?s most notorious enemies were the Persians and the Spartans. Having overrun Athens in 480 BC prior to their naval defeat in the Battle of Salamis, the Persians became the No 1 enemy. The city?s devastated defenses were therefore hastily rebuilt within the following year under the leadership of Themistocles, the crafty Athenian statesman who successfully averted the Spartans? attention ? as the historian Thucydides relates ? until city engineers had completed their task. Today, the Themistoclean Wall can be seen in the Kerameikos district, near the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and in less likely spots including the basement of the Divani Palace Hotel on the south side of the Acropolis.

Themistocles also persuaded his fellow Athenians to refortify Piraeus, but passage between the city and the port remained perilous until Kimon oversaw the completion of two of the Long Walls in the 450s BC: the North Wall and the Phaleric Wall. The former extended from Athens to the main port at Kantharos (today the main ferry port), while the second lay further south reaching the coast just below Faliro Bay. Later, with the encouragement of Pericles, a middle wall, called the South Wall, was also erected parallel to the North Wall in 445 BC, thus creating a narrow fortified corridor between Athens and Piraeus.

Athens?s Long Walls presented an obstacle to the ambitions of the Spartans and their allies during the subsequent Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), when the Athenians? enemies wished to suppress their far-reaching political and military might. Upon finally defeating Athens, by developing their own navy, the Spartans insisted on the systematic destruction of the Long Walls in 404 BC. Twenty years later, however, the Athenians succeeded in rebuilding their defenses ? ironically, with the aid of the Persians, who temporarily had become Athenian allies. It was these reconstructed walls of 394 BC ? in particular, sections of the north face of the intermediate South Wall ? that were brought to light again recently beneath the Athens-Piraeus railway line.

Sadly, little can be done to prevent the reburial of the Long Walls, since the current renovations must soon be completed and the rail line reopened.