The ruined walls of Themistocles and Konon on Piraeus coast

After the recent tragic accident on the Maliakos Gulf highway, a re-emergent issue involved «local communities» who frequently manage to thwart initiatives of importance to the nation as a whole, such as the Maliakos Gulf road diversion. In fact, these are very small minorities, small interest groups who attempt to determine national policy – and often succeed. In the same category are certain unions which, in order to defend their members’ interests, demand a say in forming policy on health, education, energy, social security, telecommuncations and many other issues. These policies affect the entire nation and it is the elected government and Parliament who have the sole authority to judge and decide on them. The issue presented here is not very serious (depending on one’s point of view, of course) but it is a typical example of a «local community» which, for 40 years, has managed to thwart all actions by the central government and ignore court decisions. It is not even a question of a «local community,» but a mere dozen commercial establishments. The 26th Ephorate for Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities sent the Culture Ministry a letter dated September 17, 2004, signed by head archaeologist Giorgios Steinhauer, on the conservation of Piraeus’s Wall of Konon, whose ruins are clearly visible along the coast of Piraeus’s Piraiki district, now unrecognizable as the once-lovely old coastal strip of neoclassical homes. According to Steinhauer, only small sections of the Themistoclean Walls still exist. What we see today are those built at the initiative of General Konon in 394 BC, of which a 2,500-meter section is still standing between the Naval Cadets’ Academy and Pasalimani. Every 35-60 meters or so there are towers, many of which were rebuilt in 1966. In the 26th Ephorate’s archives there is a detailed study by archaeologist Io Zervoudaki dating from the 1960s. Shortly afterward, when Aristides Skylitsis was mayor of Piraeus, the wall was covered with rubble, dozens of cafes and restaurants opened and hundreds of tables and chairs spread out over the wall so people could sit and gaze out over the Saronic Gulf and forget their history. After endless trials and tribulations, the Ephorate succeeded in having the wall declared an historic monument (in the Government Gazette in 1982) and began to remove the cafe and restaurant tables. Together with the Restoration Service, it drafted a study to restore the monument and landscape the surroundings. Steinhauer wrote that despite opposition from business owners, the Piraeus mayor and ministers from successive governments of both major parties, the evictions were completed in 1982 thanks to the efforts of local residents, the determination of the then-prime minister, Georgios Rallis, and later, Melina Mercouri as culture minister. The wall was cleared of rubble and cleaned, apart from the final section on Akti Themistocleous where eight restaurants still have their tables spread out, right on the spot where the last remaining tower of the Themistoclean Wall is sited. For a decade, the 26th Ephorate has in vain applied to all the relevant authorities for the work to be completed along the whole length of the wall. That is why it has refused to grant operating licenses for these restaurants. However, the Piraeus Municipal Council had no such qualms and, by a decision on October 8, 2003, granted licenses to the restaurants to operate within the archaeological site. The Ephorate took recourse to the courts and the regional government. A court pressed charges against the members of the municipal council for its decision, which the regional government also characterized as «illegal and void.» Both the municipality and the restaurant owners lodged appeals against the region’s decision, but the Council of State rejected both «for reasons of public interest including the need to protect an ancient monument (…) and to avert indirect or direct damage from the presence of tables and chairs and related activities.» The Municipality of Piraeus (which has a history of incidents concerning restaurant owners generally) and the restaurant owners have ignored the Council of State ruling. The ball is now in the Culture Ministry’s court. Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis has made his position clear. «The political leadership of the Culture Ministry believes that the Konon Wall should be protected and the majesty of the site highlighted, since it is an important part of Piraeus’s history,» he told Parliament. We hope that it won’t take another 40 years to see the results.