A History of Athens since the Early Modern Period

Athens was chosen as the Greek capital for historical and sentimental reasons.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Ottoman Athens

The first Ottoman attack on Athens, which involved a short-lived occupation of the town, came in 1397, under the Ottoman generals Yaqub Pasha and Timurtash.[25] Finally, in 1458, Athens was captured by the Ottomans under the personal leadership of Sultan Mehmed II.[25] As the Ottoman Sultan rode into the city, he was greatly struck by the beauty of its ancient monuments and issued a firman (imperial edict) forbidding their looting or destruction, on pain of death. The Parthenon was converted into Athens’ main mosque.[24]

Under Ottoman rule, the city was denuded of any importance and its population severely declined, leaving Athens as a “small country town” (Franz Babinger).[25] From the early 17th century, Athens came under the jurisdiction of the Kizlar Agha, the chief black eunuch of the Sultans’ harem. The city had originally been granted by Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603–1617) to Basilica, one of his favourite concubines, who hailed from the city, in response of complaints of maladministration by the local governors. After her death, Athens came under the purview of the Kizlar Agha.[28]

The Turks began a practice of storing gunpowder and explosives in the Parthenon and Propylaea. In 1640, a lightning bolt struck the Propylaea, causing its destruction.[29] In 1687, during the Morean War, the Acropolis was besieged by the Venetians under Francesco Morosini, and the temple of Athena Nike was dismantled by the Ottomans to fortify the Parthenon. A shot fired during the bombardment of the Acropolis caused a powder magazine in the Parthenon to explode (26 September), and the building was severely damaged, giving it the appearance we see today. The occupation of the Acropolis continued for six months and both the Venetians and the Ottomans participated in the looting of the Parthenon. One of its western pediments was removed, causing even more damage to the structure.[24][25] The Venetians occupied the town, converting its two mosques into Catholic and Protestant churches, but on 9 April 1688 they abandoned it again to the Ottomans.[25]

In the 18th century, however, the city recovered much of its prosperity. During Michel Fourmont’s visit in the city in the 1720s, he witnessed much construction going on, and by the time the Athenian teacher Ioannis Benizelos wrote an account of the city’s affairs in the 1770s, Athens was once again enjoying some prosperity, so that, according to Benizelos, it “could be cited as an example to the other cities of Greece”.[30] Its Greek population possessed a considerable degree of self-government, under a council of primates composed of the leading aristocratic families, along with the city’s metropolitan bishop. The community was quite influential with the Ottoman authorities, the pasha (governor), the kadi (judge), the mufti, and the garrison commander of the Acropolis—according to Benizelos, if the pasha did not treat them well and heed their opinion, he was liable to be removed before his annual term of office was out—particularly through the influence at Constantinople of the two Athenian-born patriarchs of Jerusalem, Parthenius (1737–1766) and Ephram II (1766–1770).[30] Taxation was also light, with only the kharaj tax payable to the Ottoman government, as well as the salt tax and a water-tax for the olive yards and gardens.[30]

Map of late Ottoman Athens, with the Wall of Haseki. / Wikimedia Commons

This peaceful situation was interrupted in 1752–1753, when the execution of the previous Kizlar Agha resulted in the dispatch of a new pasha, Sari Muselimi. His abuse of power led to protests by both the Greeks and the Turks; Sari Muselimi killed some of the notables who protested, whereupon the populace burned down his residence. Sari Muselimi fled to the Acropolis where he was besieged by the Athenians, until the Ottoman governor of Negroponte intervened and restored order, imprisoning the Metropolitan and imposing a heavy fine on the Greek community.[30] In 1759 the new pasha, a native Muslim, destroyed one of the pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus to provide material for a fifth mosque for the city—an illegal act, as the temple was considered the Sultan’s property.[30] In the next year, Athens was removed from the purview of the Kizlar Agha and transferred to the privy purse of the Sultan. Henceforth it would be leased as a malikhane, a form of tax farming where the owner bought the proceeds of the city for a fixed sum, and enjoyed them for life.[30]

The first owner (malikhane sahib), Ismail Agha, a local Turk from Livadeia, had been humane and popular, appointing good voevodas, so that he was nicknamed “the Good”.[30] English visitors during the 1760s report a population of around 10,000 inhabitants, around four-fifths of which were Christians. The Turkish community numbered several families established in the city since the Ottoman conquest; and their relations with their Christian neighbours were friendlier than elsewhere, as they had assimilated themselves to a degree, even to the point of drinking wine.[30] The climate was healthy, but the city relied chiefly on pasture—practiced by the Arvanites of Attica—rather than agriculture. It exported leather, soap, grain, oil, honey, wax, resin, a little silk, cheese, and valonia, chiefly to Constantinople and France. The city hosted a French and an English consul.[30] During the Orlov Revolt the Athenians, with the exception of the younger ones, remained cautious and passive, even when the Greek chieftain Mitromaras seized Salamis. Nevertheless, it was only thanks to the intervention of Ismail Agha that the city was spared a massacre as reprisals, and was forced to pay an indemnity instead.[30]

Edward Dodwell: The Bazar of Athens, 1821. / Wikimedia Commons

Ismail Agha’s successor, Hadji Ali Haseki was cruel and tyrannical, and the twenty years of his on-and-off rule over the city, represented one of the worst periods in the city’s history. Supported by the city’s aristocratic families, and his relationship with the Sultan’s sister, who was his lover, he extorted large sums from the populace, and seized much property from them. Through protests in Constantinople, the Athenians achieved his recall several times, but Haseki always returned until his final downfall and execution in 1795.[30] His early tenure also saw two large Albanian raids into Attica, as a response to which he ordered the construction of a new city wall, the “Wall of Haseki”, which was partly constructed with material taken from ancient monuments.[25][30] Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, arranged for the removal of many sculptures from the Parthenon (the Elgin marbles). Along with the Panathenaic frieze, one of the six caryatids of the Erechtheion was extracted and replaced with a plaster mold. All in all, fifty pieces of sculpture were carried away, including three fragments purchased by the French.[24]

Leonardos Philaras (c. 1595–1673) was a Greek scholar, born in Athens,[26] and an early supporter of Greek liberation.[27] / Wikimedia Commons

Athens produced some notable intellectuals during this era, such as Demetrius Chalcondyles (1424–1511), who became a celebrated Renaissance teacher of Greek and of Platonic philosophy in Italy.[31] Chalcondyles published the first printed editions of Homer (in 1488), of Isocrates (in 1493), and of the Suda lexicon (in 1499), and a Greek grammar (Erotemata).[32]

His cousin Laonicus Chalcondyles (c. 1423–1490) was also a native of Athens, a notable scholar and Byzantine historian and one of the most valuable of the later Greek historians. He was the author of the valuable work Historiarum Demonstrationes (Demonstrations of History) and was a great admirer of the ancient writer Herodotus, encouraging the interest of contemporary Italian humanists in that ancient historian.[33] In the 17th century, Athenian-born Leonardos Philaras (c. 1595–1673),[34] was a Greek scholar, politician, diplomat, advisor and the Duke of Parma’s ambassador to the French court,[35] spending much of his career trying to persuade western European intellectuals to support Greek independence.[36][37]

Peter von Hess: The Entry of King Otto in Athens, 1839. / Neue Pinakothek Collection, Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons

In 1822, a Greek insurgency captured the city, but it fell to the Ottomans again in 1826 (though Acropolis held till June 1827). Again the ancient monuments suffered badly. The Ottoman forces remained in possession until March 1833, when they withdrew. At that time, the city (as throughout the Ottoman period) had a small population of an estimated 400 houses, mostly located around the Acropolis in the Plaka.

Modern Athens


City plan, 1862 / Wikimedia Commons

In 1832, Otto, Prince of Bavaria, was proclaimed King of Greece. He adopted the Greek spelling of his name, King Othon, as well as Greek national dress, and made it one of his first tasks as king to conduct a detailed archaeological and topographical survey of Athens, his new capital. He assigned Gustav Eduard Schaubert and Stamatios Kleanthis to complete this task.[24] At that time, Athens had a population of only 4,000 to 5,000 people in a scattering of houses at the foot of the Acropolis, located in what today covers the district of Plaka.

Athens was chosen as the Greek capital for historical and sentimental reasons. There are few buildings dating from the period of the Byzantine Empire or the 18th century. Once the capital was established, a modern city plan was laid out and public buildings were erected.

View towards Lycabettus, 1862 / Royal Collection (London), Wikimedia Commons

The finest legacy of this period are the buildings of the University of Athens (1837), the National Gardens of Athens (1840), the National Library of Greece (1842), the Old Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament Building; 1843), the Old Parliament Building (1858), the City Hall (1874), the Zappeion Exhibition Hall (1878), the Greek National Academy (1885) and the New Royal Palace (now the Presidential Palace; 1897). In 1896 the city hosted the 1896 Summer Olympics.

Athens experienced its second period of explosive growth following the disastrous war with Turkey in 1921, when more than a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Greece. Suburbs such as Nea Ionia and Nea Smyrni began as refugee settlements on the Athens outskirts.

During World War II

German soldiers on the Acropolis / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Athens was occupied by the Germans during World War II and experienced terrible privations during the later years of the war. The Great Famine (Greece) was heavy in the city. Several resistance organizations were created. After the liberation, in 1944, there was heavy fighting in the city between the communist forces and the government forces backed by the British.

Postwar Athens

Omonoia Square during the 1960s / Wikimedia Commons

After World War II the city began to grow again as people migrated from the villages and islands to find work. Greek entry into the European Union in 1981 brought a flood of new investment to the city, but also increasing social and environmental problems. Athens had some of the worst traffic congestion and air pollution in the world at that time. This posed a new threat to the ancient monuments of Athens, as traffic vibration weakened foundations and air pollution corroded marble. The city’s environmental and infrastructure problems were the main reason why Athens failed to secure the 1996 centenary Olympic Games.

Athens Today

View of part of central Athens and some of the city’s southern suburbs from Lykavittos Hill. / Photo by A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Following the failed attempt to secure the 1996 Summer Olympics, both the city of Athens and the Greek government, aided by European Union funds, undertook major infrastructure projects such as the new Athens Airport and a new metro system. The city also tackled air pollution by restricting the use of cars in the centre of the city. As a result, Athens was awarded the 2004 Olympic Games. Despite the skepticism of many observers, the games were a great success and brought renewed international prestige (and tourism revenue) to Athens. Athens was chosen as the reference city for the 14th dokumenta major international art Event in 2017 under the title Learning from Athens.


  1. Tung, Anthony (2001). “The City of the Gods Besieged”. Preserving the World’s Great Cities:The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. New York: Three Rivers Press. pp. 260, 263, 265.
  2. Babinger, Franz (1986). “Atīna”. The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Volume I: A–B. Leiden and New York: BRILL. pp. 738–739.
  3. Hutton, James (1946). The Greek anthology in France and in the Latin writers of the Netherlands to the year 1800 Volume 28. Cornell University Press. p. 188. LEONARD PHILARAS or VILLERET (c. 1595–1673) Philaras was born in Athens of good family and spent his childhood there. His youth was passed in Rome, where he was educated, and his manhood.
  4. Merry, Bruce (2004). Encyclopedia of modern Greek literature. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 442. Leonardos Filaras (1595–1673) devoted much of his career to coaxing Western European intellectuals to support Greek liberation. Two letters from Milton (1608–1674) attest Filaras’s patriiotic crusade.
  5. Augustinos, Olga (2007). “Eastern Concubines, Western Mistresses: Prévost’s Histoire d’une Grecque moderne“. In Buturović, Amila; Schick, İrvin Cemil (eds.). Women in the Ottoman Balkans: Gender, Culture and History. London and New York: I.B. Tauris. p. 24.
  6. “and (Dontas, The Acropolis and its Museum, 16)”. Ancient-greece.org. 21 April 2007. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  7. Miller, William (1921). The Turkish restoration in Greece, 1718–1797. London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, The Macmillan Company.
  8. Valeriano, Pierio; Gaisser, Julia Haig (1999). Pierio Valeriano on the ill fortune of learned men: a Renaissance humanist and his world. University of Michigan Press. p. 281. Demetrius Chalcondyles was a prominent Greek humanist. He taught Greek in Italy for over forty years.
  9. “Demetrius Chalcondyles.”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 25 September 2009. Demetrius Chalcondyles published the first printed editions of Homer (1488), of Isocrates (1493), and of the Suda lexicon (1499), and a Greek grammar (Erotemata) in question-and-answer form.
  10. “Laonicus Chalcocondyles.”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 September 2009. Laonicus Chalcocondyles Byzantine historianal so spelled Laonicus Chalcondyles or Laonikos Chalkokondyles born c. 1423, Athens, Greece, Byzantine Empire [now in Greece] died 1490? Chalcocondyles was a great admirer of Herodotus and roused the interest of contemporary Italian humanists in that ancient historian. He strove for objectivity and, in spite of some inaccuracies and the interpolation of far-fetched anecdotes, is one of the most valuable of the later Greek historians.
  11. Buhayer, Constantine (2006). Greece: a quick guide to customs & etiquette. Kuperard. p. 36. The Athenian politician and medical doctor Leonardos Philaras (1595–1673) was an advisor to the French court, enjoying the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu.
  12. Parker, William Riley – Campbell, Gordon (1996). Milton: The life. Oxford University Press. pp. 418–419. The writer was a Greek, Leonard Philaras (or Villere, as he was known in France), an able diplomat and scholar, ambassador to the French court from the Duke of Parma.
  13. Merry, Bruce (2004). Encyclopedia of modern Greek literature. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 442. Leonardos Filaras (1595–1673) devoted much of his career to coaxing Western European intellectuals to support Greek liberation. Two letters from Milton (1608–1674) attest Filaras’s patriotic crusade.
  14. Milton, John – Diekhoff, John Siemon (1965). Milton on himself: Milton’s utterances upon himself and his works. Cohen & West. p. 267. Milton here refuses a request from Philaras for the assistance of his pen in the freeing of the Greeks from Turkish rule on the basis of his confidence that only those people are slaves who deserve to be.”

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.25.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.