Greece's ancient treasures fall victim to €300bn debt crisis

Plato's Academy and Alexander's birthplace are among the historic sites lying desolate and neglected

It was the world's first university, where Plato taught, Aristotle studied and philosophy was born. But today as buses hurtle down the boulevard that bisects the park, past grey highrises, it is hard to believe this is one of the Greek capital's ancient treasures; Plato's Academy is so overlooked it is not even signposted.

"We haven't managed to save the €7,000 [£4,500] such a sign would require," says Nikoletta Divari Vilakou, the archaeologist in charge. "And that's because of the economic problems."

The crisis that has gripped Greece, rocked markets and rattled Europe's single currency is now enveloping the country's cultural heritage. The seat of learning, founded on property the philosopher inherited in 387BC, is not alone. This year, antiquities beneath the Acropolis stood under tangled weeds, testimony to the overstretched culture ministry's inability to clean and prune.

Nationwide, some of Greece's greatest glories – museums, castles and antiquities – have been closed to the public, from Kastellorizo in the east to Pella, Alexander's birthplace, in the north. Like the desolate tourist shops alongside them, the ancient sites are devoid of holidaymakers, symbolic of the recession engulfing the nation.

"Where will the ministry find the money to complete rescue works on the monuments and sites that are in danger?" asked the authoritative Sunday Vima newspaper. The scale of the crisis has not been lost on the governing socialists elected to run Europe's weakest economy after five years of scandal-plagued conservative rule. Unlike his predecessors, the new culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, a friend of the prime minister George Papandreou, readily acknowledges that although by far the nation's most significant resource, the sector remains painfully under-funded.

"Culture and tourism represent over 20% of GDP, a huge chunk of the economy," he told the Guardian. "We are the first to admit that for far too long culture has been marginalised, that not enough money has been dedicated to it, that we keep our ancient monuments away from the public and close them down."

Few areas embody the fiscal mismanagement that has blighted Greece in recent years as much as those of culture and tourism. With the exception of the New Acropolis Museum, the capital's biggest cultural success, the domain has all too often been treated as the fiefdom of politicians dispensing favours.

Highlighting the tawdry tales of corruption and incompetence at the culture ministry, a senior official in charge of finances and close friend of the former prime minister Costas Karamanlis, leapt from his home's balcony after being linked to wrongdoing.

"We have found funds going to the wrong places in terms of financing new creativity, sports teams, promotion and communication projects," said Geroulanos. "You hear of a shadow organisation that suddenly got €200,000 and has done nothing to show for it … or permits given out for bribes."

The minister, who studied public administration at Harvard and is seen as an architect of the wide-ranging "revolution" the socialists would like to bring to Greece, estimates that at least 60% of his time is now spent "clearing the air of the toxic waste of corruption and bad practice. What we are doing is combating waste and corruption and funnelling saved funds in the direction of necessary healthy projects which are an investment for the future."

But the task is far from easy. This year, as the cash-strapped government struggles under EU orders to pare the €300bn public debt and deficit, Geroulanos' €710m budget has been cut by 10%. Worse still, the sector has lost out on EU funds, crucial for restoring and renovating monuments. "Greek culture has lost out because the previous government didn't bother to design an [EU-funded] culture programme," he said. "We are now trying to redirect funds from other ministries."

Morale is also a problem. In the Plaka district below the Acropolis, custodians of wonders dating back to classical times – including many renowned archaeologists and conservationists – labour in graffiti-covered buildings under conditions that in any other EU capital would be considered intolerable.

"There is simply no money," said an archaeologist with more than 30 years' experience. "The lamp in my office blew the other day and I know that unless I pay to mend it, it will never be fixed.

"The problem is I earn €1,500 a month and with the cuts the government has announced my salary will drop to around €1,300 so I've decided to do nothing because I can't afford it. If it goes on like this, sites will close."

The decline mirrors the descent into chaos of Athens' historic centre, where roads named after Euripides, Sophocles and other ancients have been turned into no-go areas, casualties of rising crime, prostitution, drug-running that has gradually killed off businesses.

But Geroulanos vows that economic recovery will begin in the capital, starting with Plato's Academy, which will soon be linked by a pathway, he says, to Athens' great cultural gems: "If we can turn this experience into an opportunity to correct the wrongs of the past and start looking at the things we do in a different fashion, Greece can come out of this crisis much stronger."

Spending a bomb

Greece's cultural coffers may be overstretched but the country outstrips every other European Union state in the amount it allocates to defence (3.5% of its gross domestic product compared with 2.6% for Britain).

Nato's second-biggest military spender after the US, Greece was among the top five importers of conventional weapons from 2004 to 2008, according to the Swedish thinktank Sipri. Ranking behind only China, India, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea, it accounted for 4% of global arms imports.

Athens' socialist government has slashed military spending by €500m (£447m) this year but at €6.14bn the defence budget is still six times larger than the amount allocated to culture and tourism. Operating costs for the country's 100,000-strong military, navy and air force account for most of the expenditure, with officials citing the perceived threat from Greece's Nato rival Turkey to justify the sum. Greece is currently in negotiations to buy 450 armoured fighting vehicles from Russia, a purchase described as "absurd" by defence analysts. Helena Smith


Helena Smith in Athens

The GuardianTramp

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