norgaard

Photo by Flickr user Titanas.

Think of your immediate associations with Greece: beyond a few thoughts about party islands the visual symbols that arise in your mind are the classical pillars, democracy, and philosophy that serve as the foundations of your worldview. You see the Acropolis rising in all of its carefully preserved glory from a city of concrete low-rise apartment buildings. It remains the haven of western heritage, the symbol of the ideals that built modern western countries.

Of course, this image of the Acropolis could only appeal to our classical interest in Greek history so effectively after being stripped of the Byzantine and Ottoman influences incorporated into the ruins over centuries. Generally speaking, tourists in Greece are not interested in later history or modern issues—some travelers come with an understanding of ancient Greek but few can understand or speak the modern language; only some come to focus on Byzantium and even fewer are interested in the Ottoman era. Hardly any are passionate about more contemporary Greece—about its revolution, Nazi occupation, or its current political environment beyond widely publicized economic struggles. The result is that the most prominent and frequented museums and sites highlight classical Greece and recent history fades—or is written out—from the publicized narrative. Even after only ten days in Greece I felt tourism excavating through more recent decades to achieve a cleaner version of the ancient past.

This focus on antiquity is entirely different from tourism in other countries where travelers come for both history and modern culture. Traveling to a nation for history only to ignore contemporary culture is intensely problematic—passion for history is positive, but culturally appropriate travel to any nation should involve an attention to modern people. When I climbed to the Acropolis I had the distinct impression that few tourists bothered to look out onto the modern city of Athens and I was taken aback. I had never considered the fact that traveling to Greece could be problematic, possibly because of its place as a western European country, but as cameras captured the pillars of western ideals and heritage I got the sick feeling that the western tourism industry in Greece was another example of the self-centered travel that gratifies our own culture.

Most tourism sets up shop in Greece to explore the foundations of western civilization, not the full trajectory of Greek history; the lack of interest in the entire Greek narrative comes from the central issue that this is not the culture that tourists come to the country for. This isn’t to say that the tourism industry in Greece is bad—it is essential to the Greek economy, and caring about the western tradition has immense value. I myself traveled to Greece for the sake of this heritage, but while studying my own history it would be wrong to ignore Greece as a foreign country with a modern culture that merits recognition of foreign travelers. In a nation so inundated with tourism, the large-scale forgetting of this seemingly simple fact has immense consequences.

One of the more ironic effects of this selective travel is that it can actually limit the understanding of classical Greece, defeating the whole point of being in the country to understand that era. Take the Parthenon Marbles, some of which are displayed in the British Museum and some in Athens. It’s widely accepted that art and artifacts do not exist in a vacuum—the curated style of those objects influences the way in which a viewer understands them, and so becoming acquainted with the modern Greek perspective on antiquity, especially the nationalist obsession with it, is essential to understand what antiquity actually was.

With this context in mind it’s clear that many of the Athenian curatorial decisions of the Greek marbles are basically meant to stick it to the British. The museum goes as far as to display a blank chunk of marble with a description about what the British piece of the block, the part with sculpture on it, looks like. The political and nationalistic undertones of these types of decisions are strong—the presentation is meant to show as much what the frieze could be as what it was—but an unaware tourist could easily brush off the UK-Greece controversy and misinterpret the exhibition as objective antiquity with no dimensions of current Greek nationalism.

Arguably more important, though, is that this singular focus of the tourism industry prioritizes classically western values over the full, multicultural Greek heritage. Greece is a fascinating combination of various cultures: it is closely tied to eastern influence even beyond the close connection between Greece and Egypt in antiquity as Greece was under Ottoman rule for centuries. This Ottoman influence resulted in a blending of cultures but also hostility between modern Greece and Turkey; to take an everyday example Greek people can get immensely insulted if you call “Greek coffee” “Turkish coffee” despite the fact that the two drinks are virtually identical. Centuries of invasions from the north additionally resulted in Slavic influence, making the country feel a bit like both Eastern and Western Europe. Today the country has a massive immigrant population—at this crossroads between East and West a variety of immigrants, both legal and illegal, cross through Greece on their way to other EU nations.

Despite this legacy of diversity, the idea that Modern Greek citizens are pure descendants of classical Greece is championed by Greek nationalists. This was partially a concept crafted during the Greek independence movement to appeal to Western Europe, but over time has been reinforced by the tourist-historical narrative that focuses only on that heritage. A philosophy of racial purity or racial superiority is definitely not shared by the entire nation but it underlies certain political groups and becomes evident in the vehement discussion of claiming objects from classical historical sites. This is not just Greek people choosing to relate to antiquity—the push comes from foreign influence and the rhetoric of decay that undervalues the rest of the historical narrative.

As I descended from the Acropolis into a café in the Plaka district I realized that in Greece in particular it’s easy to slip into a passive ethnocentrism of selective memory, a mistake that is easily forgettable in the close connection Greece has with the west. Ignoring local culture during travel to any country is easy to call out when outside of that context, but in the midst of the chatter of English words on ancient topics I felt how easy it is for the subtler forms of ethnocentric travel to slip our notice.