The historical memory as inherent part of the local cultural identity and its prominent use under modern destination management practices. Comparison between Greece and abroad, plus food for thought for further development.
Despite Greece having many sites of modern and medieval historical importance, these are always overshadowed by their ancient counterparts, and lack the best practices adopted abroad. Even though some correlating events do exist, there are not featured prominently as local tourist product, and therefore do not constitute a stand-alone attraction for foreign visitors, which is the ultimate goal.
Historical battles re-enactments are big events in many countries, such as the 19th century Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, the 15th century Battle of Grunwald in Poland, or the Battle of Alamo in Texas, usually hosted by the local historical societies. These are major events which shaped their corresponding nations, are cornerstone material to tourism promotion, and visitors pay premium tickets to witness or take part in them.
In Greece, one such example is the Armata festival of Spetses, commemorating the naval battle of 1822. The (army-led) commemoration of the Battle of Roupel Fort in Serres, the Exodus of Mesologgi, and the destruction of Kougi in Souli are also less known and rather feeble attempts, lacking any major promotion.
Speaking of forts and bunkers, in Albania, especially in Tirana, the former underground bunkers of the mad dictator Hoxha today have a dual role, as a museum testament of the Communist oppression, and as an art gallery, transitioning the space from war and hardship to peace and creativity.
Roupel and Bizani forts, in Macedonia and Epirus, or other places with strong emotional memory, such as Makronisos or Korai 4 in Athens, can also host art exhibitions and events, gradually shifting the focus from the clinging burden of the past to the hopeful potential of the future.
Commonwealth cemeteries are an integral part of the commemoration of the major battles of WWI. Of course in Europe the battlefields of Flanders around Ypres attracts thousands of visitors annually, and the same holds true for Gallipoli in Turkey, a far more known destination to Europeans than Prigkiponisia islands, which are high on the agenda of Greek visitors on “pilgrimage” (sic) trips. It is also important to notice that the Gallipoli memorials are pacifist in nature, highlighting the words of Kemal Ataturk depicting the land as a mother which welcomes the foreign dead soldiers with the same compassion as its own.
In Greece, in both Athens and Thessaloniki the war cemeteries are generally ignored by both locals and foreign travellers. Lemnos island, opposite to Gallipoli and the main port of the attack, is also not taking significant steps to promote its cemeteries and its role in WWI.
This brings us to the question of why commemorating war historical events, and of course the modern answer is to promote universal peace, solidarity, and brotherhood between (former) warring nations, so as to never again repeat the same madness. This is the main message behind heavy memory places such as Auschwitz in Poland or the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The commemoration of pacifist events also serves obviously the same purpose, such as the re-enactment of Gandhi’s Salt March in Gujarat, India.
Sadly, in Greece, war commemoration still serves a dividing rather than uniting role, highlighting the Greek nation’s “superiority” and “righteousness” over the “barbarism” of their former enemies, either ancient ones (such as the Persians) or modern ones (such as the Turks). Places of internal conflict, especially relating to the Civil War, such as Makronisos, are still held as “sacred” by the relevant parties, and instead of acting as reconciliation beacons, they are doing their best to weight even further their emotional load.
Medieval festivals are also quite common around Europe, usually associated with castles and walled cities, such as Carcassone in France, Obidos in Portugal, Rakvere in Estonia, Visby in Sweden, Malta, England, and more. These multi-day events are again extremely popular to foreign and local visitors, with actors and salesmen dressed in historical clothing, and accompanied by medieval food, music, dance, jousting matches, and more.
In Greece, the only such example is the Medieval Festival of Rhodes, as the walled city is a UNESCO listed monument, which however lacks the glamour and support of the local community, that similar events enjoy in other countries. There are many similar locations around Greece which can host Medieval festivals, such as the romantic Monemvasia, and the eerie ruins of Mystras. It should be also noticed that the actual grounds of the festival should not necessary be inside the medieval site, but next/in the shadow of it, although the festival ticket may include entrance to the site as well.
Similar to the medieval festivals, there are also many folklore theatrical events around Europe, with local volunteer actors re-enacting the era through costumes, props, and dwellings. These are usually associated with specific sites, such as the Viking camps of Flam and Lofoten in Norway or the UNESCO listed Birka in Sweden, the Bronze Age settlement of UNESCO listed Tanum in Sweden, or the Stone Age village of Kierikki in Finland. It should be noted that the local tour guides are also dressed in traditional costumes, adding greatly to the visitor experience.
In Greece, a similar example is the traditional village of Olympos in Karpathos, where women still continue to wear their folklore dress even today, which creates a strong enough attraction for visitors to drive over 25km over a once unpaved road to live this experience. Although it can be argued that almost every village has its own traditional fair, these are not targeted to outsiders, but are rather used as a kitsch identity reference for the village expats.
In Greece, there is a surprising lack of societies recreating the ancient world, reviving ancient traditions, customs, and food, with a few quirky examples, such as the religious Lavrys community. In direct contrast, there are ancient Greek hoplite societies in Britain, Roman Legion societies in Poland, and Gladiator schools in Rome. These are similar to the medieval Society for Creative Anachronism, active in the USA since the 60s.
One of the few examples is the recreation of Olympias trireme docked in Faliron, surprisingly part of the Greek Navy, which allows visitors to row around the harbour for a tiny fee.
Religious activities may also be part of historical memory, such as Baptism activities in the River Jordan, common both in Israel side, as well as in Jordan It should be noted that neither country is Christian, but both heavily promote these events as part of their tourist product.
In Greece, the Baptism site of Philippi is considered as the second holiest after River Jordan, as it was there that Lydia was baptised, becoming the first European Christian, and a women more so. Many foreign tourists do regularly perform baptisms there, especially American Bible groups following “Footsteps of Saint Paul” tours, but it is not promoted heavily internationally, as part of Northern Greece’s tourist product.
The local Greek religious intangible heritage may also be promoted as a non-religious product, similar in style to a yoga retreat, which retains particular elements of the practice, such as posturing, chanting, dieting, and meditation, but devoid of their former religious significance. A similar experience based on Orthodox Christian traditions may include fasting, the celebrated recipes from Athos mountain, baptism purification rituals, chanting Byzantine hymns, meditation with candles and incense, and connecting with others.
- Which other historical re-enactments could we create in Greece? Which would be big enough to attract foreign visitors’ attention, such as the Battle of Marathon, of Thermopylae, of Philippi, global events which shaped the fate of empires? What about the legendary sea journeys of Odyssey or the Argonauts? What about non-military events, such as the Trial of Socrates or rhetoric speeches in Pnyka?
- Which marketing efforts should accompany such events? How can these be efficiently promoted and widely communicated? How can these be embraced by the local communities and municipalities? Who is going to take part in them, such as actors? Consider both local volunteers and foreign visitors.
- Compare the marketing and promotion efforts of Gaziantep castle in Turkey versus the Roupel Fort in Greece, both important fortifications of the World Wars, and part of the national narrative of each country. How accessible they are to local (and foreign) visitors? How known they are? What can be done to raise awareness and build a stronger brand?
- What if official tour guides in Greece where dressed in traditional or ancient costumes, in places like the Acropolis, Knossos, or Mystras? Would you consider that as kitsch or as a nice touch which adds to the traveller experience?
- Why in Greece we tend to ridicule rather than embrace the attempts by societies to revive ancient traditions and costumes? What if there was a mock Spartan Military Camp in Lakonia, or a Sacred Band community near Thebes? What about a Rhetoric Society in Pnyka or a Philosophic Society in Plato’s Academy? Consider also the example of the golden wreaths sold to tourists around Plaka, and the people dressed up as ancient hoplites for photos beneath the Acropolis.
- What about ancient revival festivals, where local actors and foreign visitors dress in traditional costumes, follow traditional rituals, food served is based in ancient recipes? Could this be connected to places like Elefsina and its mysteries, especially in 2023 when it is one of the European Cultural Capitals? Or a reconstructed ancient campsite/temple close to Delphi, where actors would offer cryptic oracles to tourists?
- What role can modern technology play in historical re-enactments? How can an ancient or medieval site be digitally enhanced through augmented reality applications of smart phones?