A small corner of Europe celebrates Italy’s 1930s heritage
I am sitting on a shaded bench, almost alone in an Aegean public garden, happy to eat a couple of windfall mandarins in lieu of lunch. This nameless little refuge, near the harbour of Kos, is open for just three hours a day during the week.
In the corner, beyond the trees, is what looks like the foundation wall of an ancient stone building, unmarked and unexplained. Signs elsewhere suggest it was a Roman bathhouse, the North Thermae – one of several such places in the town.
Numerous similar town-centre plots were left open to the public for relaxation, and also for future archaeological work, after a devastating earthquake in Kos in April 1933. This delightful one was perhaps too small to be among the excavations carried out soon afterwards.
Kos is the capital and the main port and tourist town of the island which shares its name, halfway down the Dodecanese chain in the south-east of the Aegean Sea. At the time of the earthquake (in fact from 1912 until 1947) these islands were ruled by Italy, most of that time a Fascist state led by Benito Mussolini.
It should be no surprise to find ancient remains in Greece, but I did not expect to see so much in a town which lives very well off the simpler attractions of the sun, the sea and pleasure craft.
Besides numerous well-marked ‘archaeological parks’ in the central area, other small plots with ancient remains are scattered around the town, and open to the public all day. Many of them have no other indications, maybe because they were not excavated and therefore the nature of the former structures has not been identified.
But a huge amount of work was done between the big earthquake in 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1940. And the people who got it done were the Italian occupiers.
The earthquake destroyed the old town centre next to the castle and harbour, exposing the remains of an ancient town below it. In the authoritarian manner of Fascism, a new centre was built further away from the castle, leaving large areas to be explored systematically over the years that followed.
They include the agora, or forum, of the ancient town, which was founded in 366 BC and previously best known as the home of Hippocrates, the medical pioneer. It was one of the biggest forums in the ancient world.
They also found the old port, fortifications, a large gymnasium, a misnamed ‘Nymphaeum‘ (actually public lavatories with marble columns) and later Roman remains such as bathhouses and the 36-room house of an important citizen, which was partially reconstructed and is now a very well-arranged museum.
Next to that house, a Roman Catholic cemetery contains large memorials dated 2002, which commemorate – in Greek, Italian, English and German – 103 Italian officers who were executed on October 9th, 1943, in the early days of the German occupation of Kos. The Battle of Kos came one month after Italy had surrendered to the Allies.
Many splendid mosaic floors as well as statues, pots and coins were found here and there in Kos. Much of this is displayed in a purpose-built Archaeological Museum in the rebuilt town centre. Some of the ancient buildings were also reconstructed, at least partially, but they fell again under later tremors. For this is a major seismic zone: in Roman times alone, the town was hit by big earthquakes again in both 142 and 469 AD.
Offices for the Fascists
The replacement town centre was built in an elegant Italian style, with houses, shops and a surviving kindergarten, still in use as a primary school. A central square provided party offices for the Fascists on its west and a mosque on its east, flanking a fine market hall and the Archaeological Museum. All were designed by Italian architects.
But other, damaged mosques were duly demolished. A Greek Orthodox church, built in the centre only in 1932, survived that earthquake, but it too is now closed due to damage from a more recent tremor.
Besides that mosque I found no evidence of the long centuries spent under Ottoman rule – of Turkish residents or Islam – or even of the millennium or so Kos spent as part of the Byzantine Empire, ruled – as later by the Ottomans – from the city successively known as Constantinople, Byzantium and Istanbul.
If it was not obvious anyway, this all provides clues as to the Italians’ motives. Besides putting an Italian gloss on a distant corner of the Aegean Sea, these excavations redounded to the glory of ancient Mediterranean civilisation – and above all, the Roman Empire, which was central to Mussolini’s mythology. The town’s ancient Greek features were investigated as much as the Roman ones – but the latter, being more recent, were more accessible.
Job done – and then abandoned
All of the archaeological information about Kos can be read on numerous panels by the pavements, with descriptions in Greek and English and photographs taken before 1933 as well as of the 1930s excavations, accompanied by plans and artists’ impressions of the ancient buildings. Much of this excellent presentational work was financed by the European Union.
The panels lavish praise on the Italians – servants of a Fascist state – who rebuilt the town so painstakingly and imaginatively, and also set aside the archaeological zones and did the basic excavations.
Indeed it is hard to imagine any modern Far Right government embarking on such a civilised project even in its own country, let alone another one that it occupied. That seems to be the measure of how far the current Far Right’s horizons have fallen, even from the grim standards of the 1930s.
But there is another conspicuous silence: about the Greek state and its activities throughout the seven decades since it absorbed the Dodecanese Islands. In Kos there is a strong sense of a job done to the highest professional standards by foreigners – and then abandoned 80 years ago.
And yet what a centre could be made here for information and research, tracing the development of a major Aegean town through nine centuries of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, if only someone with suitable authority and enough money to dispense could take the initiative. Archaeological techniques have moved on a long way and it is a shame if they are not applied in this historic place again.
But no doubt many ancient sites await excavation all over Greece. After several years of enforced austerity, the country is probably in no fit state to take this any further for now.
Drafted in Kos, June 2019; edited and posted in Brighton, February 2020