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Athens show reveals the political and ideological power of geography

Athens show reveals the political and ideological power of geography

“Everything ends up on a map,” says historian George Tolias, scientific curator of the exhibition “The Genesis of the Greek State: Cartography and History, 1770-1838,” organized by the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation (MIET).

Consisting of rare maps, some of which are being shown for the first time ever, the exhibition at MIET’s headquarters at the Eynard Mansion in central Athens, demonstrates the “political and ideological power of geography,” says Tolias, research director of modern Greek history at the National Hellenic Research Foundation and a pre-eminent cartography historian in Greece.

“It is a visual media with narrative, as it relates space to a picture,” he explains, describing maps as “spatial representations.”

“Even if you do not read the footnotes and the appendixes, a map is more than a mere practical tool. It is a mnemonic device, the foundations for a wealth of information,” he says.

From this point of view, the exhibition, which follows two years of meticulous research, offers visitors the opportunity to examine the history of Greece from a different point of view, highlighting successive attempts to mold the geographic image of modern Greece as a nation-state.

“Claiming core territory was an essential and collective goal of the Greek War of Independence, the meeting point where the efforts of all revolutionary Greeks converged. Like in all nationalist and patriotic movements in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the central idea of freedom in the Greek War of Independence is indelibly linked with the notion of the homeland. Framed in this way, the contribution of geography and cartography acquired an important political and ideological role,” Tolias says.

The exhibition traces the emergence of the modern Greek state as a national political entity through its depicted on maps and in geographical descriptions that circulated before and during the War of Independence, up until the founding of free modern Greece. It is a collaboration between MIET’s Cartography Archive of the Greek Regions and its Greek Literary and Historical Archive, as well as the Library of the Hellenic Parliament, the National Library of Greece, the Benaki Museum, the Museum of Geoastrophysics at the National Observatory of Athens, and private collector George Costopoulos, among others.

Among the 170 artifacts on display, which include cartographical and geographical publications, executive maps spread out over many sheets of paper, rare atlases and scientific equipment used for cartography, there are some heirlooms that stand out even to the uninitiated non-specialist visitor.

One of them is a map believed to have been drawn up by Greek writer and revolutionary Rigas Feraios that infused the vision of the new state with a geographic shape, and “sums up the historical experience of a people through time and space,” explains Tolias.

The exhibition also features the “Map of the Borders” (1832-1837), which is being displayed outside the National Library of Greece for the first time. It was printed in Athens by the Royal Press in 1837 and is the first map and official legal documentation in the cartographical history of Greece.

The exhibition is broken down into five sections, which each presenting the successive foreign cartographical missions in Greek territory, from the work of the officers of the Russian Aegean fleet from 1770 to 1775, to the many efforts by geographers, cartographers and envoys of Napoleon and the work done by the French scientific expedition to the Morea in 1829-38.

“The Genesis of the Greek State: Cartography and History, 1770-1838” runs to March 19 at the Eynard Mansion (20 Agiou Konstantinou & Menandrou, Omonia, tel 210.522.1420).