Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Athens the Eternal City: Columns of Resilience, Symbols of Health and Unity

Jeffrey Levett
With poetic vision, Percy Bysshe Shelley anticipated that another Athens shall arise and to remoter time, bequeath, like sunset to the skies, the splendor of its prime. When the Athenians established democracy and began to build new temples to brighten the city, the first one was the Parthenon or ACROPOLIS whose aesthetic refinement and its general admiration, placed it in a category above the 7 Wonders of the World. An earlier Parthenon, was burnt down in 480 BC and in destructive fury by Xerxes I, when the Persians occupied Athens. The Athenians buried the remains of destruction as if burying the dead, and used the debris as material for new buildings. The Acropolis of Pericles became a renewed religious edifice, a sacred site and a refuge for the people when Athens was raided by hostile forces as well as a sanctuary in which abused slaves were granted asylum. Such distinction never stopped owls from roosting in its rafters.

The Acropolis survived virtually intact until the late 17th Century, when an exploding Venetian cannon ball damaged parts of the temple. It was at a time when the Parthenon was used as a gunpowder store by the Ottomans. In the 1800’s Elgin, bribed the Turkish commander and removed various sculptures from the Acropolis to be transported to Scotland. When he tried to sell them the parliamentary commission in London decided on a price much less than what Lord Elgin wanted and he ended up bankrupt.

In a competition to become the protector of Athens, men voted for Poseidon with his gift of a spring of salted water and a horse both gushing from the rock struck by his trident. Women voted for Athena and her gift of an olive tree which also sprang from the rock. The olive tree provides oil to sustain the Mediterranean diet and its branch as a symbol of peace. The city took its name from Athena since women outvoted men by just one vote, and the ever-present owl sacred to its patron goddess, Athena became the symbol of the city. Reasons behind the association of Athena and the owl and its association with wisdom are lost in time. Perhaps the best explanation is the poetic explanation, only when dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva [Athina] spread its wings and fly [Hegel], suggesting that only with age comes wisdom. The owl was frequently featured on coins from silver mined in Attica and minted in Athens. Today ancient Athenian Owls are the single most often counterfeited ancient coin. Although almost in the city center, the Acropolis has a rich biodiversity and it is necessary to protect its flora and fauna. Since Athens is lacking in greenery this is of great importance today.

This month [October 2014] marks a celebration of 25 years of WHO’S Healthy Cities Program. A Conference in Athens [Health and the City : Urban Living in the 21st Century] will mark its passage and the implementation of WHO’s agenda, “Health 2020”. It takes place 25 centuries after the erection of the Acropolis, which should be seen and promoted as a symbol of Athenian resilience and global harmony and unity. Among the roster of renowned speakers is Professor Evelyne de Leeuw of the Faculty of Health, Public Health and Health Policy, La Trobe University. 22 years ago, the Athens School hosted her under the Acropolis and next to the Tower of the Winds, when she assumed the office of ASPHER Secretary General. The Acropolis contained altars, shrines and a spring named Clepsydra some erected by the municipality of Athens. Close to the Propylaea, a small temple was dedicated to Athena and to Hygiene, daughter of Asclepius, goddess of public health. It is symbolic of wellbeing and was erected as a result of famine. A surviving portion of the sacred altar and a marble bronze base of a statue of Athena is also a reference to work place safety and the salvation of the chief workman, injured during the construction of the Propylaea.

Over historical time, Athens and the Acropolis have weathered the forces of nature and the ravages of disaster, remarkably well. 2500 years separate the Plague of Athens from a pandemic of dengue fever. At the time of Pericles, plague came from Ethiopia having passed through Egypt and coincided with war [Athens and Sparta]. Retreating behind the city walls caused food shortages and poor hygiene. Mortality was high. Pericles and his family perished.

The Ottoman Empire was in collapse and Greece desperately tried to accommodate one and a half million refugees from Turkey when dengue fever came from Syria via Lebanon. It closed shops and theatres, judges went absent from the bench, the draft was suspended and rail transport came to a standstill. Morbidity reached 80% with 6% mortality. The excruciating pain was felt more by the vulnerable refugee. Greece shut down for several months. Priests suggested that prayers would help to end the epidemic. One positive result was a revolution in Greek public health and the inauguration of the Athens School. It was a time when the Mayor of Athens [Spiro Mercouri], which showed then that Mayors can make a difference. It was the social policy of Eleftherios Venizelos that made the greater difference. After bragging that dengue would never touch him he was hospitalized for many days.

All cities have dimensions of complexity and a capacity to continue to function in spite of internal and external shocks. One way to boost resilience and reduce vulnerability of contemporary Athens is to strengthen Greek public health and the Athens School. It can provide vision, concepts and solutions for Athens and for a Greece committed to health and well-being. Public Health and its related School, which made a major contribution to the eradication of malaria and to the NHS are well proven forces for the fulfilment of the stated goals of the above mentioned Conference, namely, to design and plan a healthier Athens and to improve health and the health sector for all by reducing health inequity, improving public health leadership and participatory governance. To train or not to train should no longer be left in limbo.

The WHO is at the moment struggling to set in place progressive machinery for public health and primary health care. It should also address health disaster management. This is of vital importance, since austerity has induced a creeping health crisis by increasing vulnerability and reducing resilience. Excellent health indicators are under threat, suicide is emergent and there are growing considerations for human security. In spite of this Athens is still a relatively safe and friendly city.

If modern poetry can help, then Cavafy, provides a poetic expression of the psychological dimensions of his city, of Alexandria, You say you’ll leave, cross other seas to find a better city than your own. New places you’ll not find, nor seas, The city that you left will leave with you. Or for a more modern city, you can take the boy out of Chicago but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy.

To echo Byron, as mountains look on Marathon and Marathon looks on the sea, in Greece it is still dreamt that austerity will let it be. If Europa of the wide-eyed gaze, has any humanitarian message for Europe and its wonderful cities, it is that the gods in their wisdom left a butterfly of hope to bring relief to man’s mortal suffering.

Levett Jeffrey, From Cradle of European Civilization to Grave Austerity: Does Greece Face a Creeping Health Disaster? Prehospital and disaster medicine 2014. v. 29 (1) p. 2-3,
Levett Jeffrey, Letter from Greece (2004). World Shattering Events as Teaching Material for Public Health ASPHER IJPHE, 5 March 2004,
Levett Jeffrey Athens: A case of large-scale system failure? WHO Symposium, «Urbanisation-A Global Health Challenge», Kobe-Japan, March (1996), Tsouros A.D. The WHO Healthy Cities Project. Health Promotion International 1995.

Dedicated to ATHENS and to WHO Healthy Cities


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