When I visited Athens in the summer of 2014, one year before the onset of civil unrest and fears of near bankruptcy, the contrast between the beauty of the ancient city and the desolation of its historic buildings struck me. It seemed like the whole town had become a character in a Greek tragedy.

Financial crisis and its consequences

The 2007-2008 global financial crisis has left Greece more economically weakened than any other European country. Budgetary deficits, government debt, tax evasion, and corruption have brought the country, which gave birth to the greatest philosophers of all time, in a state of despair.

In 2011 alone, more than 100,000 companies went bankrupt, and the unemployment rate increased considerably. Young people were particularly affected, as over 50% of them were unable to find a job. In 2014, Eurostat (Directorate-General of European Commission for Statistical Information) estimated that 44% of the population lives below the minimum level of income, while 20,000 Greeks have become homeless.

Building in the historic district of Athens

The austerity measures imposed by the Greek government in exchange for bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have burdened the population and led to protests and riots, especially in Athens. In June 2015, on the eve of a new bailout program proposed by the Eurogroup, which would have triggered a new austerity plan, the government announced the call for a referendum. The referendum was intended to approve or reject the Eurogroup proposal.

Fearing that their accounts could be blocked, many Greeks rushed to the banks to withdraw their money. The stock index faced a real storm when the threat of Greece’s exit from the Eurozone seemed imminent. The referendum took place on July 5, and the Greeks chose to reject the bailout fund. However, the vote did not matter much, as, on July 13, the Greek government signed a new bailout agreement.

Empty shop in the centre of Athens

 

Abandoned buildings 

The place where democracy was born was struggling to survive. Between 2010 and 2014, around 20% of the shops in the historic city centre have been closed. Everywhere in the Greek polis, the once impressive villas degraded, losing their vivid colours.

Building with real estate sale ad

Pláka, the old historic district of Athens, was filled with tourists and locals, but the solitude of the empty buildings at the foot of the Acropolis was painful. Passing through the narrow streets from the Acropolis to Roman Agora and Monastiraki Square, you cannot help but notice the deterioration of shop buildings in the most important shopping area in Athens.

Many of the buildings had real estate sales ads displayed. But as they were waiting for a new owner, the hope for a new life was fading day by day. In Piraeus, the largest and most important port of Athens, the situation was no better. Old villas, schools and cultural institutions were shut down and were in a severe state of deterioration.

ΜΠΑΧΛΙΤΖΑΝΑΚΗ School in Piraeus

When there is too much poverty, there is little room for culture. Even in a civilisation that laid the foundations for arts, philosophy and political and educational ideals, the economic factor becomes the primary concern of individuals, thus leaving in oblivion “the glory that was Greece”.

As the fall unfolds, the problems that Greece is facing are deepening. And the refugee crisis adds up to the already existing hardships. The Greek shore is the first to meet those who have fled from a country of war but only to reach a nation in crisis. And while Greek volunteers struggle to save those who have reached the shoreline, Greece itself needs to be saved.

Sometimes, on their search for a new life, people and buildings stumble and fall. The glory of Greece and the villas of Athens are now abandoned, but still so beautiful in their despair.