Walking through the heart of Athens, past the Parliament building in Syntagma Square and the environs around it, there’s a sense that something is missing, something that used to be there and which all real world class cities have.
Where’s the river?
You can stroll along the Seine serenely, the same with the Thames in London, do The Blue Danube Waltz next to the Danube in Budapest, see sailboats on the Charles River separating Boston from Cambridge, travel around Manhattan on the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers, and you can imagine Romans walking along the Tiber.
Athens used to be blessed with three rivers, Kifissos, Ilissos, and Eridanos, by whose sides philosophers from Plato to Socrates to the Cynics – for whom the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature – would walk.
“The riverbanks of ancient Athens were areas where city dwellers could find not only water but also cool, shady retreats in which to socialize, worship, practice military and athletic skills or pursue their studies,” wrote John Leonard for Kathimerini in December, 2010.
“With the ancient landscape in Athens now buried beneath asphalt streets and massive modern buildings, the imagination is more important than ever for both archaeologists and laymen alike when considering the physical setting in which past Athenians once pursued their daily lives,” he added.
What happened? Avarice. As always.
Greeks in the 20th Century, in the rush for development, didn’t want rivers running through the city which could provide a break from the heat and the rush and crush of crowds and which, if preserved, would elevate Athens to the ranks of among the world’s greatest cities instead of a concrete jungle.
The site Greek Travel Tellers, which has specialists in the country’s history and culture, lamented the loss too, writing that from the Archaic period to the Golden Age of Pericles and later on to the Roman period and even the Ottoman rule, Athens had its three precious rivers.
“The rivers are no longer visible and one needs to look underground to see traces of their flow. The rivers were buried under concrete during the city’s postwar car-centered development, with many of its citizens characterizing it ‘a crime against the city,’” it wrote, the waterways “sacrificed on the altar of evolution.”
The western and greater part of the plain of Attica was crossed by Kifissos river, which had its springs at the foothills of Parnitha mountain to the north and continued its course for 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) emptying into Falirikos Bay.
The eastern part was crossed by Ilissos river, heading westward from the foothills of Hymettus mountain, passing through the valley formed between Philopappos Hill and Sikelias Hill (between modern Kallithea and Neos Kosmos neighborhoods) no signs visible of what’s underneath.
The smallest, the Eridanos, streamed from the southern slopes of Lycabettus Hill, flowed north of the Acropolis, passed through the Ancient Agora and continued northward to the Sacred Gate in Kerameikos, and exiting into the Ilissos.
There was an abbreviated hope to bring the Ilissos River back, a plan emerging in 2019 that, if accomplished, would have restored part of the waterway even if it had to pass dirty, gray concrete buildings, many covered in graffiti.
A collapsing tramline built over the river in a neighborhood where people every day walked paved streets instead of strolling along paths perhaps covered with trees and flowers and could see and hear the water, proved an opportunity.
The BBC at the time also noted that the river was paved over in the post-war urban development drive, no one apparently trying to stop it, although whomever had the concrete market made a lot of money.
Professor Nikos Belavilas who heads Athens Anaplasis, a government agency that’s charged with changing the face of the city – including putting color on the faces of gray, concrete structures – said he had a plan to bring back the river.
He said it would avoid “spending tens of millions of euros on repairing the tunnel, when we could bring the river to the surface for a lot less money instead.” It never happened and never will because there’s not enough money to be made.
It was, bold and imaginative, to create a broad band of parkland on both banks of the newly-exposed river, running south from the Panathenaic Stadium – home of the revived 1896 Olympic Games – for 1.2 kilometers (0.7 miles).
Belavilas, who teaches urban planning at the School of Architecture of the National Technical University of Athens and is Director of its Urban Environment Laboratory, told Ethnos newspaper the plan had “important allies.” Then it didn’t.
There were similar ideas earlier but then came the rush to build more infrastructure for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and then the 2008 financial crisis came and everything else bad that happened.
So now all we can do is walk through the center of Athens and the places where the rivers used to run through it and try to sense the water underneath, hear the rush or the trickle as it’s stymied, not by nature, but by the hand of men who preferred money and a crime against this city instead of eternal beauty.
For, as Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”