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Acropolis Renovation Proposals Draw Controversy

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There is a controversy brewing over the Acropolis, the famous historical site in Athens where the Parthenon stands. Scholars from all over the world are fuming over proposed changes that include removing previous repair work and adding concrete walkways to make the ancient citadel more accessible to visitors. Michael Cosmopoulos teaches archaeology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL COSMOPOULOS: Thank you. It's good to be here. And also, please allow me to wish happy Easter to those of your listeners who are Greek Orthodox.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, indeed. Happy Easter to all of those who are celebrating Easter. How controversial are these changes, and what among them stand out to you as an archaeologist?

COSMOPOULOS: So the Acropolis and especially its most famous building, the Parthenon, were built in the fifth century B.C. at a time when Athens had developed the first democracy in the world. In the course of this 2 1/2 millennia, the Acropolis has had a long and turbulent history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's been altered many times. It was once a Byzantine church and then a mosque.

COSMOPOULOS: Exactly. Exactly. At some point, it even became a residential neighborhood with houses built in the Parthenon. So when it comes to restoration, here's the question - what do you preserve? Do you preserve the original buildings to be close to the purpose and the symbolism that they were meant to have? Or do you preserve parts of the different periods, the life history, if you want, of the buildings?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think these renovations will, quote, "conceal and devalue" the site as some scholars worry it may?

COSMOPOULOS: I'm not really that concerned, but we have to remember that this is not the first time that we have intervened in this monument. These restorations and upgrades follow preexisting ones. For example, the pathway that leads up to the site follows the already existing cement pathway from the 1970s. So the issue here has two sides. One is the philosophical - it has to do with what aspects of the history of the building you preserve. The other is practical because it is very important that whatever interventions we do to the site are A, reversible, and B, they do not destroy existing monuments. So right now, part of the controversy is whether these pathways, which is made of cement, actually is destroying the original bedrock. There is also the issue of motivation behind, are we doing all this for the sake - for the good of the monument? Or are we doing it to increase tourism - the flow of tourism into the site?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And where do you see the answers to this? I mean, it has been stated that the goal of the Acropolis Monuments Conservation Committee is to restore the monumentality and authenticity of the Acropolis. But like you say, there are suspicions that perhaps this is to do with increasing foot traffic.

COSMOPOULOS: A monument that symbolizes democracy itself should be accessed by people. Archaeology, for me, has a very strong social mission. It's not archaeology for archaeology's sake. It's not the monuments for the monuments' sake, but the - it's the monuments for humanity. So in monuments like these, which carry such a strong symbolism and a symbolism that is so important to us today in 21st century Western democracies and also around the world, it is important that people are able to experience those monuments. I see it as providing access to as many people as possible to such an important monument for our history for the purpose of educating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Cosmopoulos is an archaeology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Thank you very much.

COSMOPOULOS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.