| by Elke Close
At the end of January, I left the rainy skies of Edinburgh to spend six months in Greece on a research trip. It has been nearly four years since I last lived here and even though many things have changed, a lot is still the same. The food is still delicious, the history and ruins are as captivating as ever, the language might be even more difficult to understand than it was at the end of my Erasmus and unfortunately the country is still gripped by a crisis. Yet this time around, my exerience has been completely different. For one, I am not on Erasmus anymore, I have a great scholarship – I am lucky enough to be one of the Onassis Fellows for this academic year – that provides me with the most exciting opportunities. Additionally, I am not living in Thessaloniki this time but Athens and these places could not be more different. Considering that they are the two biggest cities in Greece, I find the atmosphere to be very diverse. Athens, being the capital, offers an ancient historian/random tourist like myself plenty of opportunities to indulge in one’s passion and visit one of the monumental archaeological sites or museums and even work with outstanding scholars or institutions, whereas Thessaloniki seems to be lesser known among the masses. Yet that does not mean it does not deserve our attention just as much.
Located in Northern Greece, the city and its surrounding area has a rich and multicultural history that has a lot to offer. Today, it houses several universities including the largest one in Greece, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, which means that the city itself has a large student community and is a great place to spend some time as a student. Yet due to the importance of democracy in our modern society and the emerging interest for Ancient Greece and Rome in the 19th century, Athens has become the focal point of our attention when it comes to Greece. Even today when the media is covering the current economical situation in the country, it seems to be the capital that gets the most attention. Of course this is not unusual at all because the city is the capital after all. Yet what we tend to forget is that for most of Greek history Athens was quite irrelevant to the affairs of the wider Greek world. In the Hellenistic period (336-146/30 BC) for example, Athens only played a small role in the international affairs, being outshined by bigger states such as the Achaean League, a federal state which encompassed the entire Peloponnese in the first half of the second century BC.
This made me realise the places or things we consider to be relevant today, weren’t of paramount importance in the past. At different points in history, whatever people considered to be significant depended on the cultural and social milieu of the age. So in a way history itself could be seen as relevant and irrelevant at the same time depending on who you are, where you’re from and at what time you are living. It seems that in accordance with own our identity we tend to prioritise different histories. This is especially interesting considering the events that we choose to commemorate today and the ways in which they tend to be remembered, dependent of course on the agenda of the leading politicians or the cultural tradition that is dominant in each country. Prioritising history or even histories has, in my opinion, always been part of what makes a person who he or she is, for it allows us to choose exactly those elements of the past that are relevant for the creation of one’s own sense of self. People feel the need to make their own history because it explains where they come from, just look at the importance of the foundation myth for Greek poleis. And it is by creating this personal history or story that we ourselves choose what is (ir)relevant. It is important however that we don’t forget that in its essence history is subjective and what we consider to be relevant today, might be completely irrelevant tomorrow. So it might be worth it to give places and histories like Thessaloniki a closer look, they may prove to be more relevant than you think!
Elke Close is a third year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and is working on the influence of the Greek polis of Megalopolis on the ancient federal state known as the Achaean Koinon. At the moment she is one of the Onassis Foreign Fellows for the academic year 2016-2017 and she is also the Secretary of ISHA International and Pubs and Publication’s Publicity Editor. You can find her on her academia.edu page or on twitter as @ElkeClose.
(c) Cover photo: Elke Close