Friday, 18 January 2013

The Holy Olive Tree (Η Ιερή Ελιά)

The Western suburbs of Athens bear no resemblance to the East, North and South of the capital. Ever since I can remember, they have been regarded as belonging to the lowest in the socio-economic order of Athenian life. It is in the Western suburbs of Athens that industry rooted itself when the city began to expand. This is in total disregard to their significance in the growth of the capital city of Greece: the Western suburbs, the most congested and the most polluted in the whole of the capital, have been linked to Athens since antiquity, and their present fate is truly a sad one.

It was in the west of Athens that the philosopher Plato housed his Academy during the 5th century BC, which was fenced off naturally with olive trees. These olive trees were believed to have originated from 12 mythical olive trees which represented the 12 gateways to the city of Athens. These 12 trees were, according to the myth, clones of the Holy Olive Tree which the goddess of wisdom, Athena gifted to the city in order to win the seat of patron to the city, in a contest against the god the sea, Poseidon (had he won instead, Athens would have been called Poseidonas), which is how Athens was born.

This Holy Olive Tree is believed to have survived somewhere in Plato's Academy, possibly one of the 12 trees that once marked the gateways to Athens, and it is thought that Plato sat below its branches with his students. From those olive trees evolved the largest Olive Grove in all of the Athens region, none of which remains now because the olive grove was eventually reduced to a single tree, Plato's Holy Olive Tree, which met an untimely end in the mid-1970s, when it was knocked down by a bus in an accident. Its trunk was then salvaged and preserved, and it has been on display in the and put on display in the nearby Agricultural University of Athens, while experts picked three parts of it that looked healthy enough to reproduce in an area with some temporary fencing around it. And indeed, over the next 30 or so years, it did shows signs of growth, which is remarkable given that it regrew in amongst the pollution and congestion. This is the reason that its recent death yesterday is being greatly mourned among all Greeks all over the world: somebody (probably one or two people who are completely ignorant of letters or blatantly ignored the signs) uprooted the main trunk, most likely for the purposes of keeping themselves warm.

It should sound surprising that a university with an agricultural nature should be situated in the middle of an industrial zone. But this is where the Olive Grove was located, in which the Holy Olive Tree was rooted, and it remained the sole witness for nearly 2,500 years to many changes in the area. For a start, the philosophers left (Plato's Academy is now an archaeological site), and the Olive Grove it lay in was slowly replaced by heavy industry. The University provides an indirect reference point to the agricultural nature of the general area. The Holy Olive Tree was located near the Holy Road itself which in ancient times linked the Acropolis with the goddess Demtetra's temple of mysteries (a cult that began after her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades from the underworld) in Eleusis (present-day Elefsina), in the westernmost Athens suburb.

The Holy Road is still named thus, and along its course which forms a main arterial route (running side parallel to Athinas Avenue, which basically starts and ends at the same place as the Holy Road), you will find bus stops with the very names I have mentioned (all in bold green above). The Holy Olive tree has suffered a sad fate, but we must not necesasrily blame those accused of cutting it down (namely gypsies and very poor - possibly illegal - immigrants). I feel quite sure that it was not an act performed by the local (and very noble) working class of this area; if they really were such low-life themselves, they would have done this ages ago, and not waited for the economic crisis to come before they did it. It is clearly an act that shows that the state is not functioning correctly. It comes at a time of economic crisis coupled with the winter cold.

Even sadder is the simple fact that most Greeks will not ever have visited the former area of Plato's Academy, despite its relative proximity to the Acropolis, and although those living in the Western suburbs may have seen the bus stop sign for the Holy Tree, it is doubtful that they would have actually stopped off there to see the Holy Tree itself. After all, buses are used for the purposes of commuting, and not touring. So as they lament the loss of the Holy Olive Tree, they have to admit to themselves that they never gave it due credit.

A place I bet you haven't visited: the Palataki (Παλατάκι - Little Palace), along the Holy road itself. I took my son there last weekend while I was in Athens. The Western suburb of Haidari was where the King of Greece (Otto) had a country house built in true Gothic style (as were his origins) in the 1800s. It now houses the local children's unit of the public library. The Little Palace is surrounded by trees in a park, where locals can sit at a cafe (of course).

My relatives, my workplace in Athens, and even the house that I rented are/were all located in the Western suburbs, so I have a tender spot for this area where I lived, worked and shopped. Although I was very often in the area (unlike the majority of Athenians who may have got as far as a popular nightclub in the area), I am also guilty of the same deed as most Greeks. I have plied the Holy Road by bus and on foot, many many many times, but not once did I bother to check out the Holy Tree, or even Plato's Academy.

Although news reports are now flooding in telling us that it wasn't the r;genuine' Holy Olive Tree that was uprooted, this simply detracts from the issue: something's not quite working right in society for this to happen at such a critical period.

For more information about the sad fate of the Holy Olive Tree, here are some helpful links (in both Greek and English):
For my own stories about Western Athens, click on teh links below:
For past and present photos of the Holy Olive Tree (including the trunk), click on this google-images link.

There is also another side to the coin in the demise of the Holy Olive Tree. We need to break away from our ancient past. We are modern Greeks, and we need to be reborn without the heavy burden of our past constantly wearing us down. May this day bring forth a new leaf. Amen.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.