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The Great Petros Themelis and the Wonder of Ancient Messene

By Yiannis Rountos*

This year’s DIAZOMA Association General Assembly, which took place in Kalamata between September 30 – October 2, in conjunction with a musical event and a tour of the archaeological site of Messene, gave participating members an unforgettable experience.

Here are some of the highlights of this annual meeting, which showcases cultural monuments and ancient theatres, placing them at the centre of modern living:

During the working sessions, the multifaceted array of projects being undertaken by the internationally recognised DIAZOMA Citizens’ Movement unfolded. These projects already constitute a national capital of sustainability. DIAZOMA’s role in coordinating and managing the highly significant Reconstruction of Northern Evia Programme was also considered. The studies for the Programme’s thirteen thematic pillars, which centre around the New Forest, are currently being completed. Moreover, the participants enjoyed experiencing the modern-day wonder of Messene, a model city in antiquity, through the presentation of the renowned archaeologist Professor Petros Themelis, who heads Ancient Messene’s excavation and restoration.

“Monuments are not secured- restored – promoted to remain empty shells, entrenched and inaccessible to citizens, but to be open, to become socialised in the present day. They must experience with us a second, if possible, eternal life.” Petros Themelis fervently advocates this belief, overcoming a multitude of difficulties with humble and dedicated local collaborators in his team and having secured synergies for funding technological support from sponsors, but also low-cost scientific collaborators from Greece and abroad for the required studies leading to the restorations.

Using personal initiative and ingenuity to bypass the cumbersome state apparatus, the great Petros Themelis re-establishes the city of Ancient Messene stone by stone. Besides, excavation finds were never an end in themselves as far as he is concerned – his satisfaction lies in restoration. This is why the current sight of the city’s reconstruction fills visitors with awe. Every ancient structural element that is unearthed finds its place, emphasising and communicating the professor’s 35-year “spiritual and experiential journey” in Ancient Messene.

As Professor Themelis points out, becoming acquainted with the work that has been carried out and continues in the 400 acres of archaeological interest bought by the company he founded brings to the surface “the message that creations of any kind emit”. A message with historical and geographical aspects, data concerning age and origin, creators and benefactors, the promotion of the overall project, and so on.

This wonder of reconstruction is completed daily with ongoing work. It is impressive how much the site has changed since my last visit five years ago. Everywhere: in the Theatre, where new rows of seats were installed in the koilon (the tiered sitting area), and the proskenion (the acting area) was completed; in the North Stoa, in the Agora, in the Prytaneion, in the city’s treasury, in the Ecclesiasterion-Odeon and Sanctuary of Asklepios, in the Stadium, in the Palaestra, in the impressive fortifications of 9.5 km and the gates, even in protective infrastructure work.

Today, despite the terrible losses inflicted on the city in antiquity by natural disasters and the great earthquake that led to its abandonment, as well as looters and metal-hunters later, Messene is again projecting the fundamental features of its identity. Characteristics recognisable from its heyday are visible at the site and natural fortress of Ithome, where it was founded by the Theban general Epaminondas in 369 BC, along with the liberation of Messenia from the Lacedaemonians. A city whose construction was based on the principles of Hippodamian urban planning (Hippodamus of Miletus, urban planner and geometer) and fortification techniques applied in almost all the cities of the 4th century BC.

Returning to Professor Petros Themelis, “the archaeologist poet, pioneer and shaper, excavator and restorer” – qualities aptly attributed to him by the inspired founder and president of the DIAZOMA Association, Mr Stavros Benos, the professor aspires to continue the completion of this great site and at the same time, to develop the Museum, which is now too small to host such a wealth of exhibits.

It should be added that, on the occasion of the Association’s General Assembly, the book Aenaos – Ancient Messene about Professor Themelis and his work in Messene was published, its unique content a treasure trove of information and photographs.

Moreover, a most touching evening dedicated to the professor took place at the atmospheric Theater. The perpetrators of music and speech were Giorgos Kouroupos and Ioulita Iliopoulou. They took us on a fantastic, lyrical tour of the Stoa of statues – a serenade to Ancient Messene, performed by Artemis Bogri and Tasos Apostolou, with Ioulita Iliopoulou narrating. The composition “4 Elements for Ancient Messene” no.114 by Stathis Gyftakis, Lilly Triantaris, with soloist Katerina Palaiologou, was also impressive.

This event was held in support of Professor Petros Themelis’ belief that “Ancient Messene should function today by embracing contemporary artistic creations, [its monuments] accompanied by events and artworks of high aesthetic value, assuming an educational, social and cultural role.”

(*) Yiannis Rountos: Relations, Communication and Sustainable Development Consultant with a special interest in Culture. Member of the DIAZOMA Association.

  • Yiannis Rountos with DIAZOMA President Stavros Benos and the two archaeologists, members of the Board of Directors, Vice-President Petros Themelis and General Secretary Vassilis Lambrinoudakis.
  • Members of the DIAZOMA Association at the site of Ancient Messene.
  • The concert at the atmospheric Theater.