19th century Athens

This page has been selected as the page of the month for our site. We welcome you comments about this page. We would greatly appreciate if you could answer our evaluation regarding this page.

On the 18th of September 1838 Athens was chosen as capital of Greece. In February of the same year, the population of Athens celebrated that fact in the church of St. George, the ancient temple of Thisseio long ago converted into a Christian church.

Between 1838 and 1896, a thorough attempt was made to lay out the plans of Athens, "modern" capital, after the current city planning standards of European cities. Emminent Greek and European architects, engineers and men of arts were invited to work for this purpose. However, due to financial shortcomings and political problems, these standards had to be lowered. Rendering Athens with the inevitably hybrid character of a peripheral European city, unevenly fashioned on selectively applied, foreign principles. Yet as urban landscape matured with time, imported elements took root in local soil and, by 1890s, the Greek capital had taken the familiar - if diminished in scale - outlook of a 19th century neoclassical city.

Population At that time the Athens population was around 10,000 to 12,000. As Athens became the capital, many Greeks moved to the city and the urban land prices rose extremely high. By 1850 the area between Acropolis and Lycabetus was already covered by buildings. In the population registration of 1879, Athens had already reached 63,374 inhabitants.

Streets That was the era of neo-classicism, and for that reason, the streets and squares of Athens were named after great personalities of classical history. We should point out that streets were not named after Byzantine personalities, neither after the fighters of the revolution: Byzantium was not yet recognized as a part of the Greek national history and the history of the revolution was a very recent, still alive, part of Greek history. Many streets were also named after important Athenian families from the Ottoman era.

Neighbourhoods The inhabited areas of the time were around Acropolis and Placa. One of the oldest neighbourhoods was that of Psiri (near Monastiraki); it took its name from the island of Psara, where most of its first inhabitants came from; in its center there is Plateia Heroon (Square of Heroes) which was named after the fighters of the 1821 revolution, who held their gatherings there.

Other old neighbourhoods were that of Neapolis (New city) which very soon became the students' vicinity, and that of Exarchia, named after the merchant Exarchos, who opened a general store, very big for the standards of the time.

In 1860 builders families, who migrated from Anaphi (an island near Santorini) to Athens to work on the Palace construction, founded the neighbourhood of Anaphiotika at the slope of the Acropolis.

During the span of 19th c., the commercial center of the city was confined by the two most commercial streets, those of Hermou and Aiolou. The first big and luxurious private houses were built in the new avenues of Academias (Academy), Panepistimiou (University) and Stadiou (Stadium); soon the neighbourhood of Colonaki was built.

Problems The public sector, being limited due to financial shortcoming, most of the new constructions were carried by the private sector (wealthy Greeks of Diaspora). Although the big constructions changed the topography of Athens, the city still had to face serious problems: there were no proper streets and the dust was always one of its most annoying features; there were not enough gas lamps in the streets and electric lighting was not yet introduced, because of the strong reactions from the gas company; Athens always suffered by lack of water and sewage.

Nevertheless, the fact that Athens was chosen as the first Olympic city, led to the urgent construction of public works, such as big streets, bridges, lighting, etc. The accomplishments of these works helped the reception of the visitors who attended the festivities of the first Olympic Games.

Society 19th century Athens illustrates the transformations of the Hellenic society. Athens became the pole of attraction of various groups of people. People of different origins and of different cultures met in the same place and confronted the new political and social conditions. The inhabitants of the Aegean islands, the farmers of Thessaly and the educated emigrants of West Europe were forced to learn to coexist in Athens.

During the Olympic Games, this amalgam of different people attended the Games. In the original photos of the period, one can notice in the crowd the peaceful coexistence of the multiple cultures.