Saving the Byzantine Pompeii of Thessaloníki

The following article by Alexis Georgoulis from Euronews reviews the dangers to the Late Roman and Early Byzantine (4th~9th Centuries AD) remains that were discovered in construction of the Venizelos metro station at Thessaloniki’s urban center. These are highly extensive (1,500m²) archeological findings of great historical and cultural importance. The problem is how to preserve them while completing the station. There are two approaches. Either to excavate beneath the ruins and build the station there, thus saving the ruins in situ, or to dismantle them into fragments and temporarily store them outside the city for later reassembly after the completion of station construction. Of the two approaches, dismantling the ruins for later reassembly is archeologically worthless. Infiltrating this decision we have the usual complex banking and EU political problems.

The major question here is simple: does the past matter to a woke generation that probably doesn’t know the difference between Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods. The Greek heritage deeply infused Roman culture and dominated Byzantine culture till its final conquest in 1453. We know for example that the poetry of Sappho with a bulk of the Greek literary inheritance was still available in Constantinople up to the 12th century, but much was lost during our European West’s destruction of the city during the Fourth Crusade (1202~04). Try to imagine what western culture would have achieved if the bulk of Greek poetry, history, philosophy, mathematics, science, engineering had been available in the early renaissance. What survived and we now have is just a fragment of the wealth.

Classical studies are now suffering from their sleeping obsolescence. Greek and Latin programs have being seriously cut or eliminated throughout the American university system. I see no end to that process, which has affected even our major research institutions. What value do Classics have to the economic importance of STEM or the influence of CRT? Still, the labor in Greek continues. The two-volume Cambridge Greek Lexicon has just been published, and mine will be arriving shortly. It represents a completely new review of Greek semantic usage by an extensive body of scholars. It doesn’t replace, but crucially supplements the old Liddell & Scott edition. All who love Greek or are hopefully trying to learn it should consider purchase.

Alexis Georgoulis

In Greece, an archaeological site of incalculable value is today at great risk of being irretrievably damaged.

In 2013, the construction of the Venizelos metro station in Thessaloniki led to the discovery of impressive remains dating back to the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period (4th-9th century AD), a time when Thessaloniki was considered a multicultural city at the crossroads of East and West.

These archaeological findings are of immense historical and cultural importance because nowhere in the world has archaeology found a city’s central urban area belonging to this period which is so well preserved and boasts such a sprawling surface (the site covers over 1,500 m²).

The monumental ensemble includes parts of the Roman marble paved avenue Decumanus Maximus, its intersection with the main road of the city (the cardo maximus), workshops, shops and residencies, and portions of a square surrounded by colonnades. Some experts are even referring to the complex as the “Byzantine Pompeii” because it is found in excellent condition, and, as in the case of Pompeii, it gives a clear idea of how everyday life looked like back then.

But the way the Greek government has decided to handle the spectacular discovery has sparked a fierce debate, both at national and international level, and deserves the attention – and perhaps the intervention – of the European institutions.about:blank

In March 2020, despite the significance of this monumental complex and against the majority opinion of the archaeological community, the government decided to dismantle the ancient findings into bits and pieces and temporarily move them to a storage unit outside the city, with the intention of placing them back after the station’s construction. The main argument behind this decision was the need to finish the station’s construction in time and avoid any repercussions by the European Investment Bank, which finances the works of Thessaloniki’s metro.

In doing so, the government ignored a scientifically and technically solid solution for a win-win construction plan to build the station in time while keeping the antiquities in situ. This alternative scenario, which is both realistic and respectful, was proposed by a group of experts: to excavate and build the station under the archaeological layers.

According to archaeologists, the procedure of removing the findings destroys underlying archaeological strata and exposes them to external risks.

Moreover, the project of moving the delicate pieces is remarkably time-consuming: in case of removal, a new archaeological excavation must take place because under the level of the current complex lie another three meters of archaeological layers, estimated to be 700 years old.

The archaeological remains date back to the the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period.SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP or licensors

The Greek government should learn the lessons from previous unsuccessful attempts. A similar plan was implemented when extremely important findings were discovered near the square of Hagia Sophia, also in Thessaloniki. The archaeological site was dismantled and stored outside the city. Unfortunately, after construction work was concluded, the effort to put the findings back in their original place proved to be impossible because they could no longer fit in the space from which they had been extracted.

We must make sure the remains found in the Venizelos station do not suffer the same fate.

Public opinion is overwhelming opposed to the removal: according to a recent survey, two out of three residents in Northern Greece don’t support the extraction .

Neither does international law approve the strategy: all the international conventions on cultural heritage – namely the Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage (Lausanne, 1990), UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention (revised on 10th of June 2019), the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) and the Venice Charter (1964) – underline the need to preserve monuments of cultural importance in the location where they are originally discovered.

This is an essential precondition, regarding integrity and authenticity, for any monument to be considered for the World Heritage Monument list of UNESCO.

A possible awarding of the new archaeological site as a World Heritage Monument would be most beneficial for Thessaloniki, helping to promote the city as a tourist destination and bringing economic gains. It would be a pity to lose this potential title and all its advantages.

For all the above reasons, cultural institutions, such as Europa Nostra and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), academics, civil society and legislators are being mobilised in order to stop the removal process and prevent a destructive scenario from happening.

Time is running out: Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, has already green-lighted the extraction, rejecting all three appeals by a thin margin of 13 out of 25 votes.

This problem concerns the whole Europe – and only Europe can act now.

My colleagues of the European Parliament and I have already addressed a question to the European Commission, asking if the executive intends to intervene and defend the preservation in situ of the Thessaloniki antiquities before the damage becomes irreparable. Going forward, the European Union must establish guidelines for similar cases to guarantee the substructure works doesn’t entail the erosion of our ancient history.

We must seize this unique opportunity to build a modern metro line that benefits the city’s development and connectivity while preserving and highlighting our common European cultural heritage.

Alexis Georgoulis is a Greek Member of the European Parliament who belongs to The Left group and sits on the committee on culture and education.

This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Fine Art, History, Policy, Politics, Willett. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Saving the Byzantine Pompeii of Thessaloníki

  1. Babeltuap says:

    They tried to demolish Paul Revere’s home in Boston. Luckily some women banded together and saved it (barely). It’s now the only structure left on the block to tell one of the greatest stories of a people. I learned a lot on the tour from that little wooden home.

    I can’t imagine what stories these artifacts could tell. Dismantle it and nobody will.

  2. Barbara Ann says:

    “The main argument behind this decision was the need to finish the station’s construction in time and avoid any repercussions by the European Investment Bank, which finances the works of Thessaloniki’s metro”

    I seem to recall the Greek people had a run in with the European bankers not so long ago and voted “oxi” (no) to their demands. The Greek government caved and here we are.

    Does the past matter? Now there’s a question.

  3. scott s. says:

    As far as the 4th Crusade, I’ve never understood the motivation of attacking Byzantium.

    Protecting elements of material culture is a vexing issue everywhere. My sister is an anthropologist, and has done a lot of work in administering NAGPRA (Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). That involved resolving competing claims from current groups over the right to determine the disposition of remains and funerary objects of ancient peoples.

    We have somewhat similar issues in Hawaii, with particular emphasis on human remains (Iwi in the Hawaiian language). With respect to the built environment, there is interest in the Native Hawaiian community in restoring features to something resembling their original purposes and use. Many surviving features were related to food production. Things get more complicated when features have religious meaning; there is an ongoing debate in the meaning given to the embrace of Christianity.

    With respect to languages, I did study Latin in high school (and I’m not even Catholic) and our teacher offered an extra-curricular classic Greek study. But I can’t say that I am more than just “exposed” to it.

    • Pat Lang says:


      “As far as the 4th Crusade, I’ve never understood the motivation of attacking Byzantium.” Loot.

      • Deep says:

        Fourth Crusade – turf war between Republic of Venice and Byzantium – they were commercial rivals. One forgets how vast the Venetian empire with control of much of the Mediterranean sea trade was at that time time.

        Venice wanted nothing to do with the Pope in Rome either. So Constantinople as the center of Christendom, did not deter their lust for pillage either.

        So this Crusade was not per se a religious war, more a long standing territorial dispute. Even Venice’s refusal to return St Mark’s relics was more avarice on their part, than an expression of religious reverence.

        • Pat Lang says:


          Yes. Loot. The Venetians inspired this crime. The Byzantines never really recovered from it and Greek Orthodox clergy still hound you about it.

  4. Mr. Willett:

    Do you have any thoughts or comments on the late British historian, scholar, and intelligence officer Arnold J. Toynbee? (He had some professional knowledge of events in Anatolia.) His taxonomy of civilizations is now sadly and shamefully neglected.
    If you click on my name, the SW should take you to a web page where some excerpts from his magisterial A Study of History are collected.

    Some criticized him, for various reasons.
    For a sample of that criticism, and the reasoning behind it, see the review of his work by Shalom Freedman quoted here.

  5. English Outsider says:

    This is a sad business. I have argued in the past for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Not always a popular view in England but I believe it is past time it was done. But if a cash-strapped Greece is unable to look after these ancent artefacts and sites, perhaps that argument is a little premature.

    The EU’s not my favourite institution but I thought it was pretty good at making sure such sites were preserved. I hope it can do so now. Sneak it in under the PEPP or some such dodge and no one would raise an eyebrow.

  6. Steven J. Willett says:

    I read a large amount of Toynbee during my graduate years at UCSD, but mostly in sections concerning Greece, Rome and the Far East. I found the attempt to follow the rise, development and fall of 19 civilizations an overwhelming and largely impossible task. There were another 9 civilizations that died for various reasons, giving him a total of 28 to handle. I found some analyses behind civilization breakdown of considerable interest, and much of that is well worth reading today as the US hegemonic empire finally begins disintegration. I recommend you read Lucian’s The Way to Write History if you can find a good modern translation.

    • jerseycityjoan says:

      “I found some analyses behind civilization breakdown of considerable interest, and much of that is well worth reading today as the US hegemonic empire finally begins disintegration”

      I would love to know your thoughts on what is going on today. You have a unique perspective as you are so knowledgeable about the past. I know you are kept busy by your focus on ancient history literature and your translations but occasional commentary about 2021 and our future on Planet Earth would be invaluable.

      Thank you for all you do.

    • Thank you for your contributions.
      Here is a little bit of classical music you might enjoy, featuring one Timotheus of Miletus:

      The complete libretto is available here.

  7. Deep says:

    Of course we need to keep learning about Classical Civilizations, for nothing other than learning how little is new under the sun. Past is prologue, how can one ever face the future without a clear grasp of the past?

    Even the affliction of narcissism, when one thinks they alone are inventing life on their own terms for the first time ever, has a classical antecedents. The ancients knew that one too.

    The journey of man through one life on planet earth. appears to have similar times of shadow and light. I am always struck by the psychological profundity when I scrape the surface of the “classics”. Even though this professional discipline was formalized only a century ago.

    All tales throughout time seem to reduce ultimately to stories about birth, marriage, conflict, war, death and desire for transcendence. Why keep making rookie mistakes is reason enough to study the classics.

    Hardly an erudite regard on my part, but I hope it does express a fundamental appreciation. There is strange modern comfort when one meets the agonies of their own soul in characters at least 5000 years old or older.

  8. Deep says:

    Why study the classics? Robert Oppenheimer knew the exact words to channel from this hoary past when he witnessed the dawn of the Atomic Age:

    There is nothing new under the sun, or even a thousand suns.

    PS: Hat tip also to Dr Boodberg and his History of Eastern Religions – that I was “forced” to take – requisite 6 units outside of any US history major. Which was well before later Berkeley grads were trekking off to Indian ashrams, for their own brand of ganja fueled eastern enlightenment in the 1970’s..

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