Wildfires and heatwave threaten Greek heritage sites

An unprecedented heatwave and raging wildfires are threatening lives, landscapes, and important historic buildings across Greece. Many of the country’s heritage sites have been forced to close to protect employees and tourists from the devastating heat, which is the worst to strike Greece in 40 years.

The record-setting heatwave has caused temperatures to soar to 42 degrees Celsius in parts of Athens, whilst over 100 wildfires have swept through the city since 3 August. The Acropolis in Athens, built in the fifth century BC, will remain shut in the afternoon hours.

Due to the government’s decision, people who work outside, such as guards, must not work at noon during the heatwave so the Acropolis site closes between midday and 5pm,” said Theodora Malamou, the editor in chief of The Art Newspaper Greece. The UNESCO-protected world heritage site has welcomed 14.5 million visitors since its grand reopening in 2009. 

The skies were grey and red, ash was falling on us. It was apocalyptic,” recalled Eleni Myrivili, the former deputy mayor of Athens. “We don’t want people to be exposed to the sun and heat for long periods of time in an area where there is no shade. This is the thing with extreme heat — it’s a subtle, slow and invisible kind of enemy.”

Forest fires, worsened by strong winds and dry air, later threatened the Monastery of Saint David on Evia island. The ancient site of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games at least 3,300 years ago, was also recently saved from approaching flames. Journalist Yiannis Politis warned the blaze was “just one kilometre from the archaeological site.”

Citizens’ Protection Minister, Mihalis Chrisohoidis, said “our forces fought an all-night battle… to keep the archaeological site and the town intact.” Local villages on the Peloponnese peninsula were later evacuated.

Across southern Europe and parts of Turkey, recent wildfires have devastated landscapes, forced the evacuation of thousands and killed eight people so far. Nikos Hardalias, the Greek deputy civil protection minister, concluded that “we are no longer talking about climate change, but a climate threat.”

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