The End of the Lyceum Saga?

Not sure how much I want to believe the latest coverage from Greece. Back in May of 2009, we were told that the site of the Lyceum was to be covered (Covering the Lyceum). A couple of months later, we were told it would be ‘soon’ opening to the public (Lyceum Opening Next Month). Roughly a year later, we heard that the site wasn’t really being kept up … not sure if we posted this, so here’s an excerpt from the Kathimerini coverage at the time:

[...] Archaeologists seeking the location of Plato’s Academy, with excavations sponsored by the Academy of Athens (1929-40) and the Greek Archaeological Society (1955-70s), have made many important discoveries, including sections of a wall and an inscribed boundary stone distinguishing the core area of the Academy district; a square, 4th-century BC peristyle building of unknown function; a large, late-Hellenistic, early-Roman gymnasium equipped with possible tables for students; and hundreds of slate writing tablets. Today, the peristyle building, which dates to Plato’s era, lies hidden beneath a paved, neighborhood square in which stands a marble bust of the philosopher.
The foundations of the subsequent gymnasium, on the other hand, which had no direct connection with Plato, can still be seen – within a pleasant, shady park reminiscent of the ancient precinct’s original wooded environment. Pausanias, the 2nd-century AD Roman traveler, also saw a gymnasium in this area (although perhaps a different one from that exposed today) and “not far from the Academy… the monument of Plato.”

Plato’s property – the actual site of his school – lay apart from the walled Academy precinct, somewhere between the currently visible gymnasium and the low hill to the northeast, Hippios Kolonos. Maps drawn as early as the late 18th century record this understanding of the area’s ancient topography. Today, however, some confusion can arise for visitors, who will find misleading, decades-old signs posted by the Culture Ministry that identify late Hellenistic and early Roman foundations as belonging to “Plato’s Academy.”

In addition, these archaeological remains, some of the most important for Athens’ heritage as the birthplace of Western learning, now lie completely neglected except by the occasional gardener. Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.

The late-Hellenistic, early-Roman gymnasium visible today may have been the site of the Platonic Academy in its final form – destroyed by Sulla when he ravaged the district and felled its trees in 86 BC – but it was never the base of Plato’s own Academy nearly three centuries earlier. The exact place where Plato resided and met with his students represents one of the great archaeological puzzles waiting to be solved. In the meantime, the Academy area and the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum deserve more informative, conscientious curatorship that ultimately will benefit both local communities and foreign visitors inspired by ancient Greece.

Now we’re hearing (once again) that the site is opening to the public … here’s the incipit:

A walk down Rigillis Street near central Athens, between Vassilissis Sofias and Vassileos Constantinou avenues, reveals glimpses into the significant progress that has been made in the excavations at the archaeological site behind the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the location of the Lyceum, Aristotle’s school of philosophy. On the banks of the Ilissos River, most of which today runs underground, the Lyceum was a part of a large complex which also housed a gymnasium where the city’s hoplites and riders were trained in the art of war.

The discovery of the Lyceum and the adjacent Palaistra, or wrestling school, was made by archaeologists in 1996 and was hailed as the “discovery of the century” by international media, not just because it is where Aristotle taught some 2,500 years ago, but also because it contained valuable information regarding the topography of ancient Athens.

For the past 15 years, archaeologists have been excavating and studying the site, which is expected to be opened up to the general public this summer to coincide with the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy, scheduled to take place in Athens from August 4-10. The congress is organized by the International Federation of Philosophical Societies in collaboration with the University of Athens.

The entrance to the site is located behind the elegant building of the Officers’ Club on the corner of Vassilissis Sofias and Mourouzi Street, where the visitor information booth will be located. The 1.1-hectare site contains the remains of the Lyceum and the Palaistra, which are also visible from the small Church of Aghios Nikolaos and the Athens Conservatory on the Vassileos Constantinou Avenue side of the site.

The perimeter of the site has been planted with herbs such as lavender, mint, sage, thyme and oregano, with indigenous trees – pomegranates, olives, laurel, cypress and acacias – here and there, giving visitors a picture of what the landscape would have looked like during antiquity.

Eleni Banou, the head of the Third Ephorate of Classical Antiquity, which oversaw the excavation and the design of the site, spoke to Kathimerini about its significance during a tour of the area, accompanied by architect and site supervisor Niki Sakka.

“The three gymnasium’s – Plato’s, Aristotle’s and Cynosarges – were complexes where the city’s youth and men would receive physical and mental training, as well as intellectual stimulation,” explained Banou.

“The Lyceum was set in a very green suburb of Ancient Athens that was named after the Sanctuary of Lycian Apollo. The Lyceum is best known for its connection to Aristotle, who had rented the facilities and in 335 BC founded his school there, known as the Peripatetic School,” Banou added.

The gymnasium, located near the banks of the Ilissos, takes up a quarter of a hectare. It consists of a large internal courtyard of 23 by 26 meters surrounded by a colonnade. Symmetrically arranged around the courtyard were the ephebeion, where young men would train to become citizens, sparring rings, dressing rooms, baths and other facilities. The building was abandoned in the 4th century AD and was used only occasionally up until the early Byzantine years.

Much of the site has been planted with grass to give it a more relaxing feel.

“We want the public to be able to sit on the grass, to lounge around, take a stroll. We want people to feel free to touch things and wander about,” said Banou.

Architect Dimitris Koutsoyiannis, who is responsible for landscaping the site together with Dimitris Koukoulas, explained how the temporary shelters over the antiquities will be removed and glass casings will cover water features representing the river and the two hot baths.

The area will also have walkways, plenty of seating areas and a pavilion.

The budget for the site’s revamp is 1.2 million euros, but Banou stresses that they have been very frugal with its use and there is money left over, which should strengthen her case for allowing the public free admission for the first year after the site opens. [...]

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