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24 October 2013
Digging Aristotle at The Cheshire Cat Blog
Museum boom

part 2 - Digging Aristotle

The Cheshire Cat goes peripatetic at Aristotle's Lyceum in Athens, Greece.

The archaeological site of Aristotle's Lyceum in Athens was open for a short time this summer - for philosophers only. Around 3,000 participants of the seven-day 23rd World Congress of Philosophy [1] were permitted to visit the recently-excavated site in the centre of Greece's capital, and many attended congress sessions there, including a series of talks on "The importance of Aristotelian philosophy today" (Σημασία της Αριστοτελικής φιλοσοφίας σήμερα) on 9th August.

This was the first time that members of the public - albeit a rather select band - had been allowed into the site since its discovery in 1996.

From references by ancient writers it had been known for over two centuries that the Lyceum gymnasium, in which Aristotle established his school of philosophy in 334/335 BC, was situated somewhere outside the ancient city walls of Athens (see map 1 below), just to the east of the modern central Syntagma Square and the Greek parliament building. The Lyceum has been marked on historical maps, with varying degrees of certainty, since the 18th century, and a nearby street connecting Rigilles and Herodou Attikou Streets was even named Lykeiou (Οδός Λύκειου). However, it was only rediscovered by chance during the construction of a new contemporary art museum in late 1996.

The site, with an area of 2,400 square metres (50 x 48 metres), had been used as an unpaved car park, and was previously the location of an artillery barracks [2] (see map 2 below). It seems a miracle that such a prime piece of real estate in this densely built-up part of the city - the highest rent district in Greece - had not already been covered by yet another concrete monstrosity, even during the shameless building boom under the corrupt military dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s. It may be that the suspicion that the Lyceum lay here saved it, or that the land is surrounded by other cultural institutions such as the Byzantine and Christian Museum, the Athens War Museum, the Athens Conservatory and the Sarogleion (armed forces Officers' Club, see photo below).

On the discovery of the remains of ancient buildings construction work on the art museum was halted and archaeologist Efi Lykouri was called in to investigate. By January 1997, the Central Council of Archeology was able to confirm that the ruins were those of the Lyceum, and the then Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos announced:

"There is no doubt whatsoever that this is the school where Aristotle taught. We have decided that the excavations to unearth the remains will continue and that the site will co-exist in harmony next to the Museum of Modern Art so that the two can be visited simultaneously by Greeks and tourists."

However, as the extent and importance of the site became apparent, this decision was revised and the construction of the art museum was abandoned. [3] Archaeologists got busy with their spades and trowels, and politicians and officials considered how best the site could be developed and exploited as a cultural tourist attraction.

Plans evolved for a landscaped park around the site and the Ministry of Culture held an architectural design competition. The winning entry, announced in 2003, featured an enormous 12 metre high glass and steel canopy with a curved translucent roof to cover the ruins.

The archaeologists continued to excavate the site, and it became obvious that the site would not be opened to the public in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

More disappointingly, the archaeological finds at the gymnasium site proved meagre: only the foundations and lower courses of walls of the wrestling area (palaestra) and library and part of a baths from the Roman period were uncovered; there appeared to be no sign of statues, inscriptions or any significant evidence of the site as the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Lykeios, after whom the Lyceum (Λύκειον, Lykeion) was named, or as a gathering place for philosophers; and unfortunately, no treasures, revelations or "astonishing discoveries". So far, very little has been published about the excavation finds in English, which can only be taken as a discouraging sign.

Some historians and archaeologists have expressed doubt concerning the identification of the site as the Lyceum, and in 2001 the American archaeologist John M. Camp wrote:

"Some modest remains uncovered in 1996 several hundred meters farther east [of Syntagma Square] have been identified as the remains of the palaistra (wrestling ground) of the gymnasium, but as of 2000 the identification remains unsubstantiated." [4]

Political interest in the open-air museum project appeared to have dwindled as towards the end of the decade Greece slid into economic crisis. By 2009 the country had a new government and a new Minister of Culture, Antonis Samaras (since June 2012 Prime Minister), who in April of that year announced not only the revival of the project but also a budget of 4 million Euros, donated by the betting firm OPAP, which at that time was still 33% state-owned (since privatized). It was also announced that the project would be completed and the site opened to the public in 2010.

This proved to be yet another of many official announcements promising the opening of the site which have become almost an annual ritual. Several times after this author had heard that the site would be opened he dutifully traipsed along to only to find the same fence screening a closed building site on which nothing whatsoever was happening. In September 2010 a press release by the official Athens News Agency stated that the restoration work was finally - really, really, really - about to begin. However, when I visited the site again in May 2011 there had been no discernible progress (see photo below).

Although the Greek Ministry of Culture had 4 million Euros at its disposal, it had not even managed to put up a sign to indicate the presence of the Lyceum or what was planned for the site.

Again, in February this year an official announcement trumpeted the opening of the site by mid-summer. And this is where we came in. I was among those few fortunate enough to be able to visit the Lyceum in August, and was told that the public opening was now scheduled for October. Since then, silence.

There is no sign of the much-vaunted giant canopy, which appears to have been cancelled, just the same three small temporary canopies covering sensitive areas. Having visited the site, one wonders what the function of such a large, expensive canopy, which would have cost 400,000 Euros, could have been. It would not have been closed, so would protect neither the ruins nor visitors from weather; its translucence would have meant no shade from the sun. It would have certainly blocked the public's view of the remains, particularly from the adjacent Rigillis Street, the only place where the site can be seen from the outside. It seems to have been more of a grandiose architectural statement, a propaganda gimmick, or an attempt to divert attention from the deficiency of visual interest for the general visitor.

The garden around the site, on the other hand, is wonderful, and a particular joy to behold as an oasis of green in the hectic centre of Athens. The exposed area of the gymnasium dig has been surrounded by a lush lawn, itself a rare luxury in arid Hellas. Footpaths lead the visitor from the site's two entrances and around the ruins. The planting of trees, flowers and herbs [5] is also a balm to the eyes and helps provide a pleasant setting to contemplate history, philosophy, the meaning of life and the best way to get to the Plaka for lunch.

The presence of the tiny, little-known church of Agios Nikolaos on the eastern edge of the site (see photo below) and the other cultural buildings surrounding it add to the atmosphere. The latter also provide a visual and aural buffer zone between the site and the non-stop traffic on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue.

Apart from the garden, you may think that there is not a lot to look at on the site itself, especially if you have already seen Athens' other ancient splendours. But it is still an important place that deserves to be saved and preserved, and the people who have worked hard over the last 17 years to make it happen are to be applauded for their efforts. It is a tribute to Socrates, who spent much of his days here, to Aristotle and his Peripatetic school of philosophers who have influenced our ways of thinking and learning, and to the innumerable people who played, trained, bathed and worshipped here over several centuries.

The discovery of the Lyceum has also provided another piece of the puzzle of the topography of ancient Athens, vital for historians' attempts to decipher the city's past.
See also:

Museum Boom part 1

the Cheshire Cat Blog about
museums and archaeological sites
in Greece and Turkey.

Greek archaeologists working at the site of Aristotle's Lyceum, Athens

Young Greek archaeologists working
at the site of Aristotle's Lyceum,
Athens, August 2013.

Head of Aristotle from a double-headed herm found in the Athens Agora

Head of Aristotle from a double-headed
herm of the Roman period. Thought to
be a copy of a bronze portrait by Lysippos,
commissioned by Alexander the Great
circa 330 BC.

Pentelic marble. Found near the Southeast
Fountain House ("the Enneakrounos
Fountain"), in the Athenian Agora, in 1894.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
Inv. No. 3772.
Read about Aristotle's birthplace
of Ancient Stageira, Macedonia in
the My Favourite Planet guide to
Stageira and Olympiada

Greek archaeologists working at the site of Aristotle's Lyceum, Athens

May 2011: The only sign that what appeared
to be a vacant lot at the Lyceum site was
connected with the history of Athens.

Pomegranates growing in the garden of the Lyceum, Athens, Greece at The Cheshire Cat Blog

Pomegranates growing in the newly-
landscaped Lyceum garden, August 2013.

Agios Nikolaos church, Rigillis Street, Athens, Greece at The Cheshire Cat Blog

Agios Nikolaos at Rigillis Street, a tiny gem of a church hidden among the trees
behind the Byzantine and Christian Museum, at the eastern edge of the Lyceum site.
Another one of those places which guidebooks ignore.
Vyzantino Greek Restaurant, Plaka, Athens, Greece
NEWGEN Travel Agency, Athens, Greece
Hotel Orestias Kastorias Thessaloniki, Greece - The heart of hospitality beats at the heart of the city
Hotel Liotopi, Olympiada, Halkidiki, Macedonia, Greece
Hotel Germany, Olympiada, Halkidiki, Macedonia, Greece
Hotel Okeanis, Kavala, Macedonia, Greece

George Alvanos

in Kavala's historic Panagia District

Anthemiou 35,
Kavala, Greece

Olive Garden Restaurant


+30 22460 49 109

Travel Agency


+30 22460 49 286

Map of Athens by Jean-Denis Barbié du Bocage at The Cheshire Cat Blog

MAP 1: Detail of "Plan of Athens, for the Travels of Anacharsis, May 1784" by Jean-Denis Barbié du Bocage (1760-1825),
showing the Athens Acropolis ("Citadel") and the supposed location of the Lyceum, outside the Classical city walls,
just to the east of the Diocharis Gate. (Map cleaned up and coloured by David John.)

From Jean Jacques Barthélemy, Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce (Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece), 1788. [6]

19th century map of Athens by L. Thuillier at The Cheshire Cat Blog

MAP 2: French guide book map of Athens by L. Thuillier, 1896, showing the site of the Lyceum (right).

The "Palais Royal" (Royal Palace) is now known as the Vouli, the home of Greece's parliament on Syntagma Square.
The "Jardins Royal" (Royal Gardens) are now the National Gardens.

Guides Joanne, Hachette & Cie., Paris, 1896.

The site of the Lyceum, Athens in May 2011 at The Cheshire Cat Blog

The site of the Lyceum in May 2011, before it was tidied up and landscaped.
This photo was taken from outside the fence along Rigillis Street, to the west of the site.

The long, low building along the southeast edge of the site is the Athens Conservatory (Ωδείο Αθηνών),
currently used as the temporary premises of the new National Museum of Contemporary Art (see note 3 below).
In the background, the 1026 metre high Mount Ymittos (Hymettus), renowned in ancient times
for its industrious bees and their honey, slopes down to the Aegean seaside at Vouliagmeni.

The site of the Lyceum, Athens in August 2013 at The Cheshire Cat Blog

The site of the Lyceum in August 2013, with grass, flowers and herbs growing strong
and a row of young pomegranate trees along the footpath on the west side of the ruins of the gymnasium.
Panoramic view of the area around Aristotle's Lyceum, Athens, Greece at The Cheshire Cat Blog
Athens War Museum   Byzantine Museum Lyceum Athens Conservatory Sarogleion (Officers' Club)
and Rigillis Street
  Panathenaic Stadium
Panoramic view southwards over the area of central Athens around the Lyceum from Mount Lykavittos.
  Notes, references and links

1. The World Congress of Philosophy

The congress, organized by the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP) and established in 1900, is held every five years in a different country. The 23rd congress, held at the University of Athens 4 - 10 August 2013, was the first to be hosted by Greece. This year's theme was "Philosophy as enquiry and way of life". The congress was opened with a classical concert at the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, below the Acropolis.

The website for the Athens congress:

Information and reports on the congress have been published online by a number of websites and blogs, including FISP's own website:

The 24th congress is due to be held in Beijing, China, 11 - 28 August 2014.

2. Artillery barracks on the site of the Lyceum

One of the barracks buildings, on the site where the Athens War Museum now stands, was used for several years as a repository for much of the art collection of the National Art Gallery (Εθνική Πινακοθήκη, Ethniki Pinakotheki) until the construction of the present museum building, which took from 1964 until 1976, with delays due to the military dictatorship (the Colonels' Junta, 1967-1974).

The museum, now known as the National Art Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, designed by professors Pavlos Mylonas and Dimitris Fatouros, exhibits Greek and European art of the 14th - 20th centuries. It is situated at the junction of Vassilissis Sofias and Vassileos Konstandinou Avenues (near the Hilton Hotel), about 500 metres east from the Lyceum.

National Gallery of Greece website:

3. The National Museum of Contemporary Art

The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST, Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης, ΕΜΣΤ) was subsequently established in October 2000. It has been temporarily housed in the Athens Conservatory (Ωδείο Αθηνών), on the corner of Vassileos Georgiou Β Street and Rigillis Street (Οδός Ρηγίλλης, Odos Rigillis), central Athens, on the southern edge of the site of the Lyceum.

In March 2014 the museum is scheduled to move into its new permanent home in the former FIX brewery, designed by architect Takis Zenetos in 1957, which stood derelict on Syngrou Avenue since the brewing firm's bankruptcy in 1983. It has taken over 13 years to renovate the vast concrete hulk of a building due to various delays in the construction schedule. The budget of 33,760,980 Euros and 92 cents has been co-financed by the Greek government and the European Union.

EMST website:

4. John M. Camp on the archaeology of the Lyceum

John M. Camp, Director of the Agora excavations of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and Niarchos Professor of Classics at Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Virginia. I have not discovered whether Professor Camp has been convinced of the identification since 2001.

See: John M. Camp, The archaeology of Athens, pages 267-268. Yale University Press, 2001.

5. The new garden at the Lyceum

Eleni Banou, Director of the 3rd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, oversaw the excavation and the design of the site. The garden project was created by Anastasia Lazaridou, Director of the Byzantine and Christian Museum, and the landscaping was designed and executed by architect Dimitris Koutsoyiannis and Dimitris Koukoulas.

The Athens newspaper Kathimerini reported that the plants include lavender, mint, sage, thyme and oregano, as well as indigenous pomegranate, olive, laurel, cypress and acacia trees.

The report also states that the budget for the landscaping project is 1.2 million euros, and that Eleni Banou hopes that the admission to the site will be free for one year after it is opened to the public.

See: Aristotle’s Lyceum to open this summer, report by Iota Sykka, Kathimerini, 25 February 2013.

6. Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece

Jean Jacques Barthélemy (French Jesuit classical scholar, 1716-1795), Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce, dans le milieu du quatrième siècle avant l'ère vulgaire. Published in 4 volumes by De Bure, l'ainé, Paris, 1788.

A fictional story of the journey of a descendant of the 6th century BC Scythian philosopher Anacharsis who travelled from Scythia, on the Black Sea, to Athens.

Volume I in French (1789 edition):

Published in English as Travels of Anacharsis the younger in Greece during the middle of the fourth century before the Christian aera. Translated by William Beaumont. Published in 7 volumes by G.G.J. & J. Robinson, London, 1790. At the Internet Archive.

Volume VII in English:

(Follow the hyperlinked authors' names on the Internet Archive pages for lists of other volumes and editions.)

Poster for the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy in Athens

Poster for the 23rd World Congress of
Philosophy, 4 - 10 August 2013, in Athens.

Rigillis Street sign in Athens

Rigillis Street sign in Athens.

Aristotle fridge magnet in a Greek souvenir shop

Aristotle fridge magnet on sale
in a Greek souvenir shop.
Photos and article by David John © 2011-2013.

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