The capital of Greece was still a large village two hundred years ago. When Athens was chosen as the capital by King Otto in the 1930s, it was home to about ten thousand people. After that it went fast. In 1879 more than sixty thousand people lived there, in 1896 more than one hundred thousand and now there are almost four million. Many Athenians come from other parts of Greece. As early as the 19th century, people from all over the country flocked to the capital.
The newcomers often settled near others who came from the same village, region or island. For example, residents of the island of Psara gathered in the Psiri district. Metaxourgio was built by newcomers from other islands and the Peloponnese. Many Muslims from Thrace ended up in Gazi. The neighborhoods of Nea Smyrni, Nea Ionia and Kaisariani were created after immigrants from Asia Minor came to the capital in 1921. Nowadays, there is little to see in these neighborhoods of all those differences in areas of origin.
There is one major exception: Anafiótika, at the foot of the Acropolis.
This neighborhood consists of small cubist houses, whitewashed, with flat roofs. The narrow alleys in between are often no wider than about half a meter. Cats are everywhere on window sills, the shutters are painted blue or green. From the new Acropolis Museum I walked up the Stratonos, towards the Acropolis. On the left is a small church that I had never seen before, the Aghiou Giorgou tou Vrachou.
I turn left and suddenly it’s like I’m not in Athens anymore. Anafiótika looks like a village on the Cyclades. And indeed, the original inhabitants of this neighborhood come from one of the Cycladic islands: Anáfi. When King Otto I had a royal palace built on Syntagma Square (the current parliament building), they wanted the best masons and construction workers. At that time they came from the small island of Anáfi.
It is said that two of these construction workers – Damigos and Sigalas – built themselves a house here on the northeastern slope of the Acropolis. They did this at night, because the construction was illegal. After them, many other Anáfi construction workers followed. They were adept at building houses on steep rocky slopes. They created a village as they knew it. Almost as if they were homesick for their island, and maybe they were. This rocky slope of the Acropolis was never intended to be built on. In the 19th century, urban planners had already thought that archaeological research should take place here in the future, but due to a lack of money, this never happened.
Anafiótika was tolerated in all those decades, well into the 20th century. There were no toilets or kitchens, nor running water or electricity. The tolerance also meant that the city council did not care about such facilities. The shabby houses were always an eyesore for the elite. A ‘slum’ at the foot of the prestigious Parthenon was actually unthinkable. It was not until the 1970s that part of the neighborhood was expropriated. Of the original 100 island houses, half remained standing, the other half had to make way for the path that now runs around the Acropolis.
It is a miracle that the neighborhood still exists at all. The poverty and smallness of Anafiótika next to the glorious Parthenon is unreal. It is also strange that Pláka, the most touristic area of the city, of which Anafiótika is in fact a part, has not swallowed this neighborhood. Today about 45 houses are still inhabited. Some by descendants of the Anafiots, but also artists and writers, Greeks and foreigners, have settled here. People who do not need luxury are satisfied with few square meters. There are not even street names here, the addresses are ‘Anafiótika 1’, ‘Anafiótika 2’ and so on. And the love for the Cycladic island is still there: discolored posters from the island of Anáfi decorate most of the facades.