It was the world’s first university, where Plato taught, Aristotle studied and philosophy was born. But today as buses hurtle down the boulevard that bisects the park, past gray high-rises, it is hard to believe this is one of the Greek capital’s ancient treasures; Plato’s Academy is so overlooked it is not even signposted.
“We haven’t managed to save the 7,000 euros [US$9,500] such a sign would require,” says Nikoletta Divari Vilakou, the archaeologist in charge. “And that’s because of the economic problems.”
The crisis that has gripped Greece, rocked markets and rattled Europe’s single currency is now enveloping the country’s cultural heritage. The seat of learning, founded on property the philosopher inherited in 387BC, is not alone. This year, antiquities beneath the Acropolis stood under tangled weeds, testimony to the overstretched culture ministry’s inability to clean and prune.
Nationwide, some of Greece’s greatest glories — museums, castles and antiquities — have been closed to the public, from Kastellorizo in the east to Pella, Alexander’s birthplace, in the north. Like the desolate tourist shops alongside them, the ancient sites are devoid of holidaymakers, symbolic of the recession engulfing the nation.
“Where will the ministry find the money to complete rescue works on the monuments and sites that are in danger?” the authoritative Sunday Vima newspaper asked.
The scale of the crisis has not been lost on the governing socialists elected to run Europe’s weakest economy after five years of scandal-plagued conservative rule. Unlike his predecessors, the new culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, a friend of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, readily acknowledges that although by far the nation’s most significant resource, the sector remains painfully under-funded.
“Culture and tourism represent over 20 percent of GDP, a huge chunk of the economy,” he told reporters. “We are the first to admit that for far too long culture has been marginalized, that not enough money has been dedicated to it, that we keep our ancient monuments away from the public and close them down.”
Few areas embody the fiscal mismanagement that has blighted Greece in recent years as much as those of culture and tourism. With the exception of the New Acropolis Museum, the capital’s biggest cultural success, the domain has all too often been treated as the fiefdom of politicians dispensing favors.
Highlighting the tawdry tales of corruption and incompetence at the culture ministry, a senior official in charge of finances and close friend of former prime minister Costas Karamanlis leapt from the balcony at his home after being linked to wrongdoing.
“We have found funds going to the wrong places in terms of financing new creativity, sports teams, promotion and communication projects,” Geroulanos said. “You hear of a shadow organization that suddenly got 200,000 euros and has done nothing to show for it ... or permits given out for bribes.”
The minister, who studied public administration at Harvard and is seen as an architect of the wide-ranging “revolution” the socialists would like to bring to Greece, estimates that at least 60 percent of his time is now spent “clearing the air of the toxic waste of corruption and bad practice.”
The task is far from easy. This year, as the government struggles under EU orders to pare the 300 billion euros in public debt and deficit, Geroulanos’ 710-million-euro budget has been cut by 10 percent. Worse still, the sector has lost out on EU funds, crucial for restoring and renovating monuments.