I first became introduced to the concept of Jews in Athens when I meet Vassilas, my Context Travel walking tour guide. He meets me in the district which is known today as Monasteraki, but as we walk through the flea market area, he mentions that it was originally called Yusurum named for a Jewish family of tradesmen who built a store in the area.
Athens did not have a “Jewish Quarter” per se, he tells me, sensing my interest, but just a few blocks away, there once were a few Jewish synagogues, only one that is still in use today. (There is also a Holocaust Memorial in a small pocket park there, at the bottom of a street that leads up to the Acropolis.)
There is limited information, he tells me, about Jews in Athens during antiquity; most of the Jews who lived in Greece up until modern times came after the Spanish Inquisition, in1492.
He is taking me on Context Travel’s “Everyday Greeks in Ancient Times” walking tour (www.contexttravel.com, [email protected], 800.691.6036), and as and we stand before humanity’s first House of Parliament in the ancient Agora, ancient Athens’ political center, he points out that just off to the side a marble marker was found, indicating where one of the earliest synagogues very likely stood, dating from at least the 3rd C BC.
That’s when he mentioned that Athens has a Jewish Museum (not on any tourist map), but he put a dot on my map so I could walk there on my own.
When he takes me into the astonishingly fine museum at the Agora and points out a small decorated ceramic vessel that Socrates, himself, might have used to drink the poison hemlock, he gets me thinking: one of reasons why Socrates was executed by Athens was because he questioned its religious system of 12 gods. Plato, Socrates’ student, later wrote that Socrates said, ‘I hear the voice of a ‘god’ – a ‘demon’ (spirit) in me.” I wondered in that moment whether Socrates had been influenced at all by the Jews of Athens who would have believed in monotheism.
After my “Everyday Life in Ancient Greece Tour” with Vassilas , I set out to find the Jewish Museum, indicated by the dot on a map
I don’t have a street address, and when I get to what I believe is the corner where it should be, I ask a private security guard who has no idea where it is. But an older gentleman overhears me and walks me around the corner to the Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum is only recently moved to this downtown location, but it offers a permanent collection and special exhibitions that tell the history of Greek Jews , which I am surprised to learn is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
Indeed, there is a replica of the marble sign from the Agora (the original is in the Agora Museum but not exhibited publicly), that dates from possibly the 5th C BC, which had set me on my quest.
Jews came to Greece before the destruction of the First Temple. They were merchants –
In Athens, Jews did not live in a Jewish Quarter, like in Corfu, Rhodes or Thessalonki, but lived around Athens, though they tended to live near the synagogue.
It is not known how many Jews lived in Greece at its peak – during the Holocaust, archives were burned. But prior to the war, Thessaloniki had 70,000 Jews; there were 29 communities.
Today, there are 5,000 Jews living in Greece – 3000 of them in Athens (a tiny number compared to the population). There are nine communities that are most active, with Jewish schools.
“It’s a challenge to keep the heritage,” a museum docent tells me. “Many come here and don’t expect fo find a Jewish community.”
It is 1:30 pm when I arrive at the Museum, which I discover is only open from 9 am-2:30 pm. So I dash through to see as much as I can before it closes.
The exhibits, which offer some fascinating artifacts, trace the history of Jewish settlement in Greece beginning 3 rd C BC. The collection contains more than 10,000 objects (some that can only be found here) pertaining to domestic and religious life. The oldest itemss are rare textiles and ante nuptial contracts from the 16th century C.E. Clothes and household items offer a vivid, personal picture of everyday life in the Greek Jewish communities from the mid-18th until the 20th century.
The exhibits are organized by themes, relating to history, the cycle of time and human life.
As I go about the museum (I only have an hour before it closes), I learn that in 48CE, there is evidence of the Apostle Paul preaching in synagogues of Corinth, Salonika and Verola.
Later, when the Ottoman Empire took over, the Ottomans gave Jews equal rights with Christians (that is non-Muslims).
When Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15 th C, they settled in the Ottoman Empire, including Greece – with most going to Salonika.
Greece became a state in 1832, and the Greek Constitution of 1844 gave equal rights in 1844. In 1882-1920, the Jewish community was recognized as a legal body During this period, Zionism took hold and many Jews emigrated to Palestine under Ottoman Rule.
The Greek government of Eleftherios Kyriakou Venizelos supported the formation of Jewish state, even before the Balfour Declaration. The Greek Foreign Secretary Niolaos Politis said in 1917, “The foundation of a Jewish State in Palestine would end the injustice that weights on the whole of humanity for over 20 centuries.”
Prior to World War I, the number of Greek Jews grew to 100,000 (65,000 in Solinika), and enjoyed “peace, speech, assembly freedom and were admitted into mandatory army service .”
Then the Holocaust came. Many Greek Jews joined the Resistance. There are video stories of survivors of Shoah and lsits of family names like Nissm, Aruch, Yussuroum , Matathias, Bakolas, Yeshua, Kostis, Braki, Felou.
Support of the Greek Government
The Greek government has been supportive of sustaining its Jewish heritage (this despite the neo-Nazi group that has been voted into Parliament).
The Jewish Museum of Greece was founded in 1977 to collect, preserve, research and exhibit the material evidence of 2,300 years of Jewish life in Greece. As a historical and ethnographical museum its main interest is to provide a vivid picture of Jewish life and culture as it was during those centuries.
The new building is organized in permanent exhibition areas with thematic modular exhibits, an art gallery, a periodic exhibition space, a research library, a space for educational programs, a photo archive and laboratory and a conservation laboratory.
“The idea of building a Jewish Museum of Greece was first conceived in the 1970’s by members of the Jewish Community of Athens,” the literature states. The Museum that was first established in 1977 consisted of a small room next to the city’s synagogue and housed objects salvaged from WW II, including artifacts, documents and manuscripts of the 19th and 20th centuries, jewelry of the Jews of Thrace that had been seized by the Bulgarians in 1943 (returned to the Greek government after the abdication of the Bulgarian king and the establishment of a communist regime in the country).
Over the years under Nikos Stavroulakis, director of the Museum until 1993, the collection expanded with rare books and publications, textiles, jewelry, domestic and religious artifacts.
The Museum soon began to attract the attention of many visitors, researchers and donors. In 1981, the Association of American Friends was founded, followed, a little later, by the Association of Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, with members of the Jewish Communities of Athens and Thessaloniki.
With substantial financial support from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Associations of its Friends, the old building was renovated and, in late 1997, 20 years after it first opened its doors to the public, the Museum moved to 39 Nikis street, in the center of Athens.
The Museum’s collections include more than eight thousand original artifacts, testifying to more than 23 centuries of Jewish presence in Greece.
Besides a few objects which Asher Moissis, president of the Jewish Community of Athens, had collected after the war, the core of the initial collection was made up of items that had been returned to Greece by the Bulgarian government, after the establishment of a Communist regime in that country. These included personal effects, jewelry, domestic items, temple objects and documents, which belonged to the Jews of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace and were confiscated after 1941, when the area fell in the Bulgarian zone of occupation. The confiscated items had been meticulously recorded and became the first significant body of artifacts of the collection.
This core collection kept growing, mainly through the donations of individuals and communities, initially from the area of Thessaly, the island of Rhodes and the city of Ioannina. Besides rare 17th – 19th century books and publications, a significant number of ritual textiles was assembled, most dating from the Ottoman times (14th-19th centuries), and soon became one of the Museum’s main attractions for both visitors and researchers. In 1984 the Jewish Community of Patras was dissolved for lack of members and the interior of its synagogue, along with its textiles and ritual objects was bequeathed to the Museum. These religious artifacts are extremely significant, invaluable and irreplaceable, since they come, for the most part, from synagogues and communities, which no longer exist, according to the museum’s notes.
More donations from individuals and communities from both Greece and abroad continued to pour in, further enriching the collection. The Museum’s relocation to its new premises (1998) brought a renewal of public interest and more donations followed.
In general, the Museum has been receiving an average of 250-300 new artifacts every year, since the year 2000. Its unique collections, which are continuously being expanded, document more than four centuries of Jewish life in Greece, considering that the oldest textiles and antenuptial contracts date from the 16th century C.E.
Recent special exhibitions (on through September 2016) include “Hidden Children in Occupied Greece.”
If you only have a single day to spend in Athens, resist the temptation to rush to the Acropolis Hill and the New Acropolis Museum first – these most popular sites in the city which birthed democracy and Western Civilization, are overrun by 9 am with tour groups (though you can visit as early as 8 am), creating a line of people like ants and a cacophony of sound like a noisy schoolyard. Instead, here is an itinerary that gives you the full span of history and culture and gives you time to really appreciate the marvels on display.
9:15 am: Start the day at the National Archaeology Museum, a 10-15 minute walk from the Omonia Metro Station (1.2E, about $1.50 a ride, or 4E for a full day of travel).Take a guided tour (50E for up to five people – we were lucky enough to have Andromache as our guide, [email protected]) – otherwise, you will be awed by what you see, but not understand their importance or context, even with the good labels and explanations in English. This is a spectacular museum that is not to be missed – only place where you will see archaeology representative of all regions of Greece over all its eons and periods (even surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, and what a marvel to see the items in context): beginning with the Neolithic period, 6500-3300 BC (and what extraordinary pieces! including gold objects and stunning clay figures that showed a devotion to Mother Earth, Gaia, and hinted at the matriarchy that preceded a patriarchal religion and society).
You will be able to see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae in 1876, (which we learn is actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for “marketing” purposes), spectacular gold ornaments and funeral objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife, There are two of only five full-scale bronzes left in the world – one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon, it isn’t clear because the tool that he would have held, a lightening bolt or a trident, perhaps, has been lost to time) was saved because as it was being taken to Rome by boat to be melted down for weapons, the boat sank and was found in 1926 by fisherman, plus a bronze statue of an African boy on a racing horse that was saved by being shipwrecked, made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art (Alexander was also the first person to have a portrait in a statue). You also see a vase with the first sentence (or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter, the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in Greek.).
Also, there is an astonishing special exhibit,” The Antikythera Mechanism,” about an astrological clock invented in 150-100 BC – centuries before Columbus used an astrolobe to explore the globe – that could predict planetary events 19 years ahead. The Mechanism, made with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker (how did they get the parts so thin and flat?), was found in 1900-1, in the wreck of a ship sunk off Antikythera. Seven large fragments and 75 minor pieces have survived. “Their exact position and the original structure of the Mechanism are still a matter of intense investigation,” though an extraordinary video suggests how the machine, containing at least 30 gearwheels as well as dials, scales, axles and pointers, was put together. The notes say that the Greek astronomical inscriptions on the surface of the Mechanism refer to astronomical and calendar calculations, while the inscriptions on its metal protective plates contain instructions for its use. The Mechanism was protected by a wooden case, which had a bronze plaque on the front and the back side.
“The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and most probably the five planets known in antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, it kept an accurate calendar of many years, and displayed the date of Pan-Hellenic games that took place at Nemea, at Isthmia, at Delphi, at Dodona and at Olympia.
“Its construction dates to the second half of the 2nd century BC. Its technology, which recalls the successors of Archimedes and the school of Poseidonius on the island of Rhodes, was the result of the development of philosophy and of exact sciences that took place in Greece until this era, and also draws on knowledge of the Hellenistic Age (celestial parameters, mechanical design and use of epicyclic gearing). The Mechanism bears witness to the astronomical, mathematical andmechanical ingenuity of ancient Greeks in Late Hellenistic period.”
It was the computer, the cell phone and the calculator of its day, and makes you realize that in every age, it only takes one genius to transform the world.
11:30 am: From the National Archaeology Museum, hop back on the metro (the stations are beautiful, and each one features an exhibit of archaeological discoveries excavated when they dug the metro, but you are repeatedly warned to watch out for pickpockets, and we personally know several people who were in fact pick-pocketed) to the Acropolis stop, and walk through Hadrian’s Gate (the original entrance to Athens), to the Temple of Olympic Zeus, one of the largest temples in Greece.
12:15 pm Walking through the Plaka, we stop for lunch under an umbrella, beside an arbor – relaxing and checking WiFi (just about all the tavernas have free WiFi. Greece offers exceptional value now – not only is the dollar strong against the Euro, but prices in Greece have been cut with the economic downturn, to make them more affordable. Our lunch cost less than 30E for 3 people, or about $10.
1:15 pm We walk past The Library of Hadrian (a gift of the Roman Emperor supporting education and exercise in Athens) and the Roman Agora (a commercial marketplace) in order to have enough time in the Ancient Agora – an exceptionally important site, where you will stand over the first House of Parliament, literally the birthplace of democracy.
You need to allocate at least one hour at the Ancient Agora in order to have time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd C BC building that was restored in 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site (it was renovated in 2003-4). Here you will see how citizens (a minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician accused of corruption. (Pericles, who we regard today as marshalling the Golden Age of Greece, received 43 of these “votes” recorded by scratching the name into a broken piece of pottery; to avoid prosecution, which could have resulted in being exiled for 10 years, Plutarch suggests that Pericles started the Peloponnesian War).
You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors (they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if selected, would receive a drachma’s pay), and the devices used to record their verdict. Also, there are a collection of small cups used by prisoners to take hemlock – one of the cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which gets me thinking that he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already established in Athens at the time – in fact, we visit the site where signs, etched in marble, announced the Jewish synagogue, near where the House of Parliament stood. The original artifacts are at the museum, but not on display).
Then walk down the street lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either). The homage paid to him by Athenians was shown in the decoration on his breastplate, depicting the goddess Athena standing on a wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated.
The Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500 representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first House of Parliament.
Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3 rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.”
The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a gathering place, also became a commercial center. It was there that courts were held (but capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’ hands not pollute the public space).
2:30 pm: Walk around the Acropolis Hill up Apostolou Pavlou, a beautiful wide cobblestone boulevard, lined with crafts people, street musicians (and virtually no cars), where you also see ruins of early neighborhoods, as well as peer into contemporary neighborhoods.
For the moment, we bypass the entrance to Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon (though you can buy your ticket, 12E, which gives free entry to the New Acropolis Museum and four other important archaeological sites, which can be used for one visit each over the course of four days), and head straight to the New Acropolis Museum. The entrance to the Museum is on another marvelous cobblestone pedestrian boulevard, Dionysiou Areopagitou.
3 pm: The New Acropolis Museum: Here at the museum, you will get the best orientation to what you will see at the Acropolis – it is a modern museum that opened in 2009, displaying in the most magnificent fashion the most incredible statues and art gathered (saved, preserved and conserved) from the Acropolis. On the top floor, from which you see the Acropolis just in front of you through a wall of windows, the statues and art are arranged exactly in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon itself – indeed, the room is the same size and proportion as the Parthenon, with columns spaced just as they would have been in marble. The presentation is exquisite.
Here, there is a superb video (presented in Greek and in English) that explains the history of the Acropolis, the artwork, and really prepares you for what you will see with a context. I watched the film in both Greek (English subtitles) and English (Greek subtitles), to absorb it all.
The second floor has statues and figures that are breathtaking – imagine, such features and dynamism in marble 2000 years before Europe’s Renaissance. Here we also see a “portrait” in marble of Alexander the Great – significant because he is the first person to have a likeness of himself in a statue.
We stop at the Museum’s gorgeous café, sitting outside on a rooftop restaurant just beneath the Acropolis, getting a pick-me-up with freddo cappuccino, freddo espresso and a double espresso (coffee and cocktails can be as expensive as a meal). The cafe is fabulous for lunch, as well.
Spend 2 1/2-3 hours going through the museum.
6 pm: Now walk back up Dionysiou Areopagitou to enter the Acropolis. This late in the afternoon is a magical time, when the city has cooled down and there are a fraction of the number of people who visit in droves during the morning hours. Now, it is so peaceful, you can linger, stroll around, read the markers, even get photos without hordes of people standing in front. We sit on a promontory that offers an amazing view of the city laid out in front of you, waiting for the sun to get lower and the colors to get more golden, and then go around shooting photos again, the colors of the stone columns becoming gold and orange. We even momentarily catch the Parthenon with no one else in front of it. For that instance, you feel as if the Parthenon is yours alone, as if you hold Western Civilization in your hands. I am struck by a bit of sadness, too, when I realize that the Parthenon is but a scabby skeleton of what it was (now that you have seen the video and the art in the museum), and what has been stripped away and lost forever. But the Greek Government is working to restore the Parthenon – a process that has been going on since Greece became an independent country, in 1821. After various false tries because of inadequate technology and knowledge in restoration, the government is working to replace the fabulous statuaries with replicas in just the exact places, leaving the originals in the museum where they are properly cared for.
(There is also a vigorous campaign to recover the artwork looted from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago, and is pointedly made the villain in the museum’s video history of the Parthenon. Since 1816, the marble statues and reliefs taken by Elgin have been prize exhibits of the British Museum. Meanwhile, the Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874, that is still on the Hill. The Greeks built the New Acropolis Museum expressly as an argument that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Athens from the British Museum because there is finally a proper place to house and display them.)
What gets my eye is the Erechtheion, built about 420 BC, an Ionic temple that on one side, is supported with the six Caryatids- stunning statues of women– five of the originals are at the New Acropolis Museum (the sixth was one of the many artworks taken from the Acropolis by the British Lord Elgin).
People wait here until the light is best – you only have a 10-minute window or so when the light is great and before the guards shoo you out
We leave finally when we are pushed out at around 7:30 pm by the guards – and get to watch the nightly formality as a contingent of soldiers come to secure the Acropolis). We come down to where people are on a rocky hill, with an incredible view of the sunset. We climb up, too, to take in the view.
Our perfect day is far from over, though.
8 pm: We walk down the Dionysiou Areopagitou (I use this wonderful boulevard as much as possible), cutting over to Rovertou Gali to the go to the Roof Garden Bar at the Hotel Herodion, with a stunning view of the Acropolis, lighted at night, a short walk after our late-afternoon visit, and a stone’s throw from the New Acropolis Museum (we can look through its windows at late-museum goers; the museum is open until 8 pm normally and until 10 pm on Friday nights). The Herodion’s bar offers a selection of imaginative cocktails. We enjoyed “Wisecrack Fizz,” with Pisco Barsol, st. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, and soda; a Hellas Fashioned, made with Metaxa 5, sugar, angostura bitters and rose water (one of the clever inventions of ‘Lefty’ the bartender), and 3 Cardinalsa, made with Midori, Frangelico, elderflower syrup, frsh lime juice and fresh orange juice, another of “Lefty’s” creations. the hotel also has a very fine restaurant (Hotel Herodion, 4 Rovertou Galli, Acropolis, Herodian.gr).
9:15 pm We get a couple of suggestions for our dinner, which gives us another wonderful excuse to walk through the Plaka to the Monastiraki district.
Thanassou restaurant is packed with people – we notice they are not tourists, but local people, enjoying the souvlaki and gyros. This part of the Monastiraki district is a little outside the most popular tourist area – in fact, restaurants and bistros and clever bars and coffee houses are opening throughout the district taking over where shops – like fabric stores – have been shuttered. The chicken souvlaki, served on pita, with yogurt, onions and tomatoes and french fries, is well done (about $12).
Acropolis Hill Hotel
By now, it is nearly midnight and I walk back to the Dionysiou Areopagitou toward my hotel, the Acropolis Hill Hotel, enjoying the street musicians virtually all along the way,
The new Acropolis Hill Hotel, which opened in the fall of 2010, is an “urban chic” luxury boutique hotel (at three-star hotel prices), nestled in the serene green, upscale residential area of Filopappou, virtually under the sacred rock of the Acropolis and a 15-minute walk from the Plaka. From the roof garden, it offers a lovely view of the Acropolis. It also has an outdoor swimming pool (in season), a lovely breakfast room where an ample buffet is served daily (including freshly prepared eggs, bacon and sausage; a selection of cereals, breads, cheeses, yogurt and fresh fruits), and a lobby lounge, plus free WiFi. My room also has a balcony, refrigerator, and flat screen TV with a selection of programming (7 Mousson Street, Gr 11 742, Filoppapou, [email protected], www.acropolishill.gr.)
The Acropolis Hill Hotel is one of five hotels in the Tour Hotel Group group:
Achilleas Hotel is a totally renovated hotel right in the heart of Athens commercial and business center, a two minute walk from Syntagma Square, a location next to the Acropolis Museums, Parliament, Emou shopping Street and the Syntagma metro station. It offers suite rooms ideal for families (Lekka 21 Str., 105 62 Athens, Greece, www.achilleashotel.gr, [email protected]).
For a different experience, the Kalamaki Beach Hotel is a resort-style property in the Peloponnese in a verdant area next to the emerald waters of the Saronic Gulf. It offers a swimming pool, tennis courts and children’s playground (www.kalamakibeach.gr).
If you have more time in Athens, here are some recommendations:
Take a walking tour such as Context Travel‘s “Acropolis Seminar” and Context Travel’s “Daily Life in Ancient Athens“ which together give a very comprehensive understanding of ancient Greece in a very intimate setting so that the guides can be very responsive to your interests and questions ([email protected], www.contexttravel.com/city/athens (story to follow).
The Jewish Museum of Greece offers fascinating exhibit where you can learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens, Greece, [email protected], www.jewishmuseum.gr (hours are Monday-Friday, 9-2:30 pm, Sundays, 10-2 pm).
This is an exceptional time to visit Greece – the dollar is strong against the Euro and prices in Greece have been reduced. I had expected to see the kind of blight and deprivation that the US experienced as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, but apart from some graffiti (“We are artists, not vandals,” one proclaims), and some closed shops, the city is absolutely magnificent, vibrant and bustling, with many chic, new enterprises opening, and the people are welcoming and good natured.