Presenting a new narrative, an exhibition currently on display at the Gennadius Library digs up Ottoman-era Athens and presents it from an entirely different perspective. A collaboration between the library, the Benaki Museum and the Museum of the City of Athens – Vouros-Eutaxias Foundation, the exhibition sheds light on the years between 1458 and 1833, a period we are accustomed to seeing at best in the halflight or through the prism of stereotypes.
The time is perhaps ripe to be addressing the past and present of Athens and speaking with greater confidence and conviction about a significant period in terms of time and history which was by no means static.
According to the organizers, the exhibition explores several themes about the everyday life of the inhabitants of Ottoman Athens, as well as examining the interest shown by foreign visitors and travelers. The significance of excavations at the Athenian Agora, which revealed the remains of the Classical-Roman-Byzantine and Ottoman city, is also highlighted.
But it is also about the relationship of people in the early modern period with the city of Athens, “juxtaposing the remains of its classical past with the customs and lifestyles of the Ottoman period; it investigates the impact of the past on the negotiation of people’s identities in later periods.”
Ottoman-era Athens, as it is showcased in the exhibition, has different hues, strata, dark and brilliant moments, and, of course, a native class of Athenians, most of whom led a bourgeois life. Together with the Turks, the Arvanites, the Armenians and other subjects of the mighty empire, as well as many Europeans, whether living here permanently or passing through, Ottoman-era Athens, though a small city, had a vibrant life that unfolded against a backdrop dominated by antiquities, small churches, a bazaar and Turkish monuments. Among these were dotted old Athenian houses, typical examples of Ottoman urban architecture.
This entire world has been studied through a wealth of testimonial material, which allows us to draw a mental map not just of how the city looked at the time but also of those pieces of modern-day Athens that help us understand how the city was back then; and not just landmarks, but collections and artworks that survive and are stored in museums and archives.
This is a collaborative exhibition. Curated by Gennadius Library director Maria Georgopoulou, with Aliki Asvesta acting as scientific supervisor, and with the contribution of dozens of researchers and designers, the exhibition draws from a vast pool of knowledge. Descriptions penned by travelers constitute the canvas and the team has added material from “A History of Athens” by Ioannis Benizelos (1753-1807), evidence from studies on finds such as ceramics, and knowledge of the products, narratives and customs that prevailed at the time: “Ancient inscriptions built into the homes of the wealthy symbolized the unbreakable bond that Athenians had with their city’s glorious past… The Europeans were ever-present: consuls, ambassadors, poets, artists, Philhellenes and scientists. Others studied and made maps of Athens, while others still were living it and drawing their own map.”
Other museums and institutions have also contributed to the exhibition, such as the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, which made it possible to access the material digitally. Maps, images and scenes of life in the city are brought to life thanks to the Gennadius collection, while Athens, as it was at the peak of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th century, is captured in a monumental painting by Jacques Carrey, which belongs to the Museum of the City of Athens.
A rich variety of costumes, as seen in the Gennadius Library’s exquisite publications, as well as objects which belonged to Lord Byron, complement this comprehensive exhibition. The viewer leaves with the knowledge that Athens was not what we thought.
The exhibition “Ottoman Athens, 1458-1833” runs through June 30 at the Gennadius Library at the American School of Classical Studies (61 Souidias, Kolonaki, tel 210.721.0536, www.ascsa.edu.gr). A colloquium titled “The Topography of Ottoman Athens. Archaeology and Travel” will take place on April 23 and 24.