By Elena Pappas
National Geographic Traveler
Geotourism Editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. Writers' columns that originally appeared in the print magazine will now also be published on the Web for National Geographic News. Look for TravelWatch every Friday.
It's 3 p.m. on a July day under a hot Aegean sun. If you walk across the searing sand of Schinias Beach, wade into the clear water of the Bay of Marathon, and look back, you'll see sunbathers, beach umbrellas, and behind them a ragged line of tavernas. Rock music from beach bars drifts through the air, along with aromas of grilled lamb and seafood. Beyond the sand stands a hodgepodge of summer cottages that cater to vacationers, many of them from Athens, 26 miles distant. Over to the right, the arc of beach is quieter, backed by a forest of pine trees. Behind it, out of sight, lies an extensive wetland.
Nothing hints of the world-altering event that took place here in 490 B.C., when Persian ships landed on this beach. As the invaders headed inland, a phalanx of greatly outnumbered Greeks counter-attacked across the adjoining plain of Marathon. Battle cries and screams filled the air as Greek spears penetrated Persian wicker shields. Athenians swept into the enemy from the rear, sending many disoriented Persian soldiers fleeing to die in the marsh. Retreating through the pines, still more Persians fell to the athletically trained Greeks. Only remnants of the invasion fleet escaped. The Greek messenger Pheidippides, the story goes, ran from Marathon to Athens, 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles), to report the great victory. Today, Olympic marathoners race a course of precisely 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles).
Ironically, it is the 2004 Olympics in Athens that fired up a new battle at Marathon. The Greek government's decision to build the Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Center in the western Schinias marsh dismayed conservation groups. Construction of two racing centers and artificial rowing lakes, a café named "Schinias 2004," and several new buildings began at the end of 2001. Defending the action, some Olympic proponents asserted the marsh site had been under water in 490 B.C., and had no historic significance.
"Inconceivable" is what the Archaeology Society at Athens has called the project. "It's like building a rowing center in Gettysburg," agrees historian David Hicks, president of Georgia's Darlington School and a lifetime rower himself. The victory at Marathon, says Hicks, inspired the Greek city-states to resist subsequent Persian attacks. Germinating concepts of freedom, democracy, and rule by law would not have developed under authoritarian Persia. Historian Makis Aperghis, head of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, adds: "There would not be a Western world if the Athenians had lost at Marathon."
Greek environmentalists like Aperghis also fret about the Schinias ecosystem, a mix of forest, freshwater marsh, and marine habitats. Theodota Nantsou of the World Wide Fund for Nature Greece says the area supports 176 bird species, including the rare glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus). The umbrella pine forest where the Persians fled is a sandy coastal habitat unique to the Mediterranean, one of only a handful remaining.
But Dimitris Moraitis, owner of the beachfront Schinias Sports Center, favors the rowing center and parkfor environmental reasons. He calls the project "good for the area because it is not protected now" and cites unregulated hunting and firewood cutting for tavernas.
The dispute has brought Marathon's long neglected historical value to world attention. "Greek authorities need to recognize the global appreciation for Greek heritage sites," says Gustavo Araoz, the director of the U.S. office of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites. ICOMOS and other groups waged a losing international campaign against the rowing center.
In September 2002, construction unearthed, and partially destroyed, the remains of ancient buildings dating to about 2500 B.C.unlikely for a site supposedly under water at the time. Government officials found themselves on the defensive, temporarily suspending construction to excavate and move the findings a short distance away, all the while under pressure from the International Olympic Committee to resume building.
Responding to criticism, the Greek government declared Schinias a national park in December 2002, listing specific environmental protection measures for the area. The canoe/kayak slalom racing center was relocated to an old Athens airport, but construction of the remaining flatwater racing center continued. The World Wide Fund for Nature called the decision, "a travesty of nature conservation" and a precedent that would allow major construction inside other parks. The racing center saw its first paddler in June, 2003, even as environmentalists claimed that nothing had yet been done to move from the letter of intent to actual protection for the marsh.
In response, Georgios Kazantzopoulos, environment program manager for the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, holds that the park is already helping to regenerate a marsh degraded by urban sprawl, litter, drainage projects, and scars left by an old NATO base. "During construction of the site and until March 2003, 14 new bird species have been observed in the area," says Kazantzopoulos, a result of water diverted into the wetland, causing water levels to rise. A leading spokesman for the environmentalist side, Costas Carras, counters that "the wetlands condition has improved this year simply because Greece has had its heaviest rains in 30 years."
Today's visitors find few reminders of the area's heritage: South of Schinias there's an ancient 30-foot-high (9-meter-high) burial mound for the 192 Athenians who died in the battle and, in the small Archaeological Museum nearby, a room with some relics.
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