The Ancient Agora of Athens (Αρχαία Αγορά Αθηνών) is perhaps the most famous and visited archaeological site of Athens apart from Acropolis. It was the centre of the social, economic and political life of the ancient city. However, few of the thousands of Greeks and foreign visitors who come here every year know that until the 1930s it was the location of one of the most vibrant and central neighbourhoods of Athens, during the first decades as the capital of the new Greek state. It was named Vrysaki (Βρυσάκι), had its own vicinities and was located on the western outskirts of the old city, in the area extending from the Temple of Hephaestus (Ναός του Ηφαίστου) in Thisio (Θησείο) to the Stoa of Attalos (Στοά του Αττάλου).
There are two possible explanations for the name Vrysaki (which could be translated as “fountain” in English). According to the first, the name came from Evrysakis, son of King Aianta Telamonios, who placed the kingdom of Salamis under the jurisdiction of Athens and was rewarded by the Athenians with the rights of an Athenian citizen initially, and with heroic honors later. In the Ancient Agora you can see the sanctuary dedicated to him by the grateful city. The other says that in the centre of the area there was a fountain that supplied water to its inhabitants and gave the name to the whole neighbourhood.
Vrysaki had three large churches, with the names of which three smaller vicinities were identified : the Byzantine Agioi Apostoloi Solaki (Άγιοι Απόστολοι του Σολάκη) built probably in the 10th century, Agios Filippos (Άγιος Φίλιππος) and Panagia Vlassarou (Παναγία Βλασσαρού). In this last three-aisled basilica of the 17th century, the Court of First Instance (Πρωτοδικείο) was founded in 1834, while a little later the Supreme Court (Ανώτατο Δικαστήριο) was established. The main square of the neighbourhood was named Giganton Square (Πλατεία Γιγάντων), because of the three ancient monumental statues of Gigantes (Giants in English) that were visible in its centre. The statues were part of the ancient Odeion of Agrippa (Ωδείον Αγρίππα). Apart from the statues, the only other ancient building visible during that period was the Temple of Hephaestus at the top of the hill, which survived almost intact, due to the fact that it had been used as an Orthodox Christian church and burial place for non-Orthodox Europeans in the 19th century.
In 1824 the neighbourhood numbered 81 houses and 315 inhabitants. However, most of the buildings in the area were built after 1860 and were one or two-storey houses, some of them in neoclassical style. The neoclassical buildings were located next to slums and during the 1920s near the huts of the refugees, who had settled in a large area next to Thisio Square after the Asia Minor Disaster in 1922. Vrysaki was a patchwork that reflected its mixed population: people from various social classes – workers, employees, public servants, merchants and politicians. Most of its inhabitants were employed in bakeries, wineries, grocery stores, tailors, carpenters in the area or in one of its seven factories (footwear, candle making, mirrors, carpentry, canning). But in the end, it was interwar poverty that caused the degradation of the neighbourhood before its demolition.
Three of the most central streets of the neighbourhood were Eponymon Street (Οδός Επωνύμων), Polygnotou Street (Οδός Πολυγνώτου) and Evrysakiou Street (Οδός Ευρυσακείου). Also in the streets of Vrysaki there were many taverns visited by Athenians from other neighbourhoods. But it was Vrysaki’s outdoor cafés (kafeneia) that were well known. Each outdoor café had its own circle of patrons. Ano Sintrivani (Άνω Συντριβάνι) was for the employees, Kato Sintrivani (Κάτω Συντριβάνι) and Anavrytirio (Αναβρυτήριο) for the members of the political parties, the pharmacy of Kavakos (Φαρμακείο Καβάκου) for the scholars, and Oraia Hellas (Ωραία Ελλάς) for the politicians and senior public officers. It seems that Vrysaki was the melting pot of the city, a place where members of all social classes mingled and interacted.
The original urban plan of the new capital of Greece by Cleanthes and Saumbert, commissioned by King Otto in 1833, foresaw the excavation of the entire area occupied by the ancient city. The grand plan, however, did not implement. The initially accidental discovery of relics of antiquity that were identified with the Ancient Agora of Athens led to the decision to excavate the area where Vrysaki stretched. Due to lack of money, the excavations were carried out by the American School of Classical Studies.
Vrysaki began to be systematically demolished from 1931 to 1939. During the period of the first excavations, more than 5,000 inhabitants were displaced while around 600 buildings from 348 plots were demolished. The excavations stopped during the Nazi Occupation and the Civil War and were completed in 1956, with the completion of the construction of the Stoa of Attalos and the installation in it of the Museum of the Ancient Agora.
Nowadays the only proof that the crowded neighbourhood once existed is three things :
- The church of Agioi Apostoloi Solaki, which was excluded from demolition due to its architectural interest and is located today in the archaeological site of Ancient Agora.
- Evrysakiou Street, which has been renamed Vrysakiou Street (Οδός Βρυσακίου) and runs parallel to the northeastern side of the archaeological site.
- The neoclassical house on the corner of Vrysakiou and Pikilis streets, which now houses Vrysaki, a multi-purpose art centre and café.
For more than a hundred years thousands of people lived and died in Vrysaki, ignoring the importance of the monuments buried under their houses. However, it is interesting that the neighbourhood was for many years a place of interaction between the social classes of the new capital, in a similar way the Agora was the place of political and social fermentations in ancient Athens.
If you visit Vrysakiou Street today it is impossible to realise that it was once one of the main streets of the lost neighbourhood of Athens. Only with the help of the photographs from the archives of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (which documented everything before its demolition), you could realise the life that once took place here.
[Photo at the top : West side of Eponymon Street  – Photo by American School of Classical Studies at Athens: Agora Excavations]
We would like to thank the American School of Classical Studies at Athens for kindly providing the archival photographs.