The World Monuments Fund aims to include Athens’ oldest cemetery on its watch list to advocate for its preservation.
By Maria Paravantes for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 25/02/12
The cemetery’s most visited grave, 'I Koimomeni' [The Sleeping Daughter], is a marble sculpture by Yiannoulis Halepas that depicts an 18-year-old from a prominent family. She died of tuberculosis in 1873. [Maria Paravantes/SETimes]
The First Cemetery of Athens, the Greek capital's oldest, has been placed on the 2012 World Monuments Fund (WMF) watch, as many of its marble monuments are now facing structural damage.
Mayor George Kaminis sought inclusion on the list in an effort to attract attention and find the means to support conservation efforts.
"Maintenance is a costly affair … It is an effort on the part of the city to salvage the sculptures," Nikos Kokkinos, Athens deputy mayor for Cemeteries and Administration, told SETimes.
Established by royal decree in the mid-1800s, the First Cemetery of Athens is the final resting place of many of the country's most prominent figures including artists, statesmen, actors, but also laymen of Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faith.
The cemetery also houses the works of Greece's finest sculptors.
Katerina Tsatouha, an archaeologist at the Athens' Research Department, describes it as the country's largest "outdoor funerary sculpture collection", featuring 19th and 20th century sculptors such as Yiannoulis Halepas, Nikos Stergiou, Nikolaos Georgantis, Mihalis Tombros and Stavros Valassakis, who were commissioned to craft funerary art -- statues, engravings, urns, tombs, gravestones, sarcophagi, mausoleums and effigies in Pentelic marble and metal.
Athens' notorious smog, the elements, time, but also human interventions have taken their toll on these works, which are in dire need of conservation.
"The site is emblematic of many urban cemeteries around the world that are facing problems of long-term preservation and maintenance," Erica Avrami, director of Research and Education at the New York-based WMF, told SETimes.
"These are important cultural resources, as well as vital urban open spaces that can be reintegrated into the life of the city through conservation efforts and new stewardship models," Avrami said.
Located in the centre of Athens, the cemetery, like most 19th century graveyards, was designed according to the model of the Pere Lachaise in Paris.
It was originally built around the chapel of Agios Lazaros in 1840. With the population boom in the late 1800s, haphazard extensions deprived the cemetery of the romantic feel with older monuments and wider spaces.
Although the WMF does not provide a specific programme of action, it aims by including the site on the watch -- a two-year cycle of advocacy -- to foster dialogue and explore co-operation possibilities.
Notable individuals laid to rest at the First Cemetery include Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who excavated Troy and Mycenae; culture minister and actress Melina Mercouri; popular Greek actress Aliki Vougiouklaki; Greek rebetika songwriter Vassilis Tsitsanis; Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou; Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis; internationally acclaimed conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos; revolutionary Grigoris Lambrakis and Cretan troubadour Nikos Xylouris.
Last summer, residents of the area known as Mets protested the city's decision to build an underground parking lot near the cemetery grounds.
"This decision was given the green light during Avramopoulos' [Athens mayor 1995-2002] tenure," Kokkinos explained.
Residents are requesting that the municipal committee call off the contract and retract licenses, given the area’s historical significance and environmental consequences.
During an event organised by the City of Athens to inform residents of the renovation programme, Kaminis said it was vital that "in such difficult times for the city, we make use of every opportunity. This garage will bring in revenue."
The First Cemetery of Athens belongs to the Association of Significant Cemeteries and the European Cemeteries Route. Plans to build a Museum of Funerary Art in 2008 never materialised.