The Iliou Melathron
The recent (07/09/1999) earthquake in Greece damaged, among other buildings, the Iliou Melathron, a rather grand Italianate building with two rows of arches on its facade above a basement level of small, barred windows. The building was designed and built in 1870 by Ernst Ziller to the orders of Heinreich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy.
Previously Schliemann had decided to set the seal on his devotion to things Greek by marrying a girl from that country and sent orders to the Orthodox Patriarch, asking him to find a suitable young lady. I am not sure what the Patriarch‘s reaction to such a request would be these days, but in those times when arranged marriages were very much the norm, he seems not to have been too surprised and duly found a suitable bride, Sophia Kastrioti, the daughter of an Athenian draper.
A year later, January 30 1881, the building was inaugurated in a glittering reception held in its grounds. It had cost Schliemann half a million gold drachmas, for the floors were made of Italian tesselations and the walls were decorated with paintings by Yuri Subic, the Slovenian artist.
The purpose of this grand edifice, however, was not to provide a suitable residence for Madame Schliemann. She, poor girl, was dragged off to care for Schliemann at Troy (and eventually to model the fabulous golden treasures he discovered). Instead the building was devoted to Schliemann‘s collection of coins and, of course, the things he found at Troy.
At the end of last year the Iliou Melathron was refurbished and turned into the Numismatic Museum of Athens, where 6,000 coins and other objects can be kept under one roof. This embryonic collection has had a number of homes since it was formed in 1829 but it is intended that the "Trojan Mansion" (Iliou Melathron) will be its permanent location from now on.
The museum not only contains the original Schliemann collection, but coins found all over Greece, such as the hoard discovered hidden in a cleft in the rock at Corinth, underneath a black-glazed plate. 51 staters and a gold necklace made up the treasure, which dates from the time of Alexander the Great. The coins were minted in a variety of locations such as Amphipolis, Miletus, Tarsus, Salamis and Sidon.
Of course the coins have their own interest - the variety of shapes, sizes and decorations, including portrait heads of famous people, from Alexander the Great to the Swedish king Gustav Adolf, as well as a fair selection of Roman, Byzantine and Turkish rulers. It is, however, the story that the coins tell which really brings the collection to life. For example, in 1970 a tomb was excavated at Myrina. Buried with the owner of the tomb was a black jug containing 149 silver staters, minted in Aegina around 457 BC. The interesting thing is that this gentleman clearly preferred this ”foreign• currency to the coins that were minted in his native Thessaly, rather like modern investors choosing to have their savings in American dollars or Japanese yen rather than in their domestic currency.
Dr Ioannis Touratsoglou, the museum director, has plans to expand the exhibition to include the second floor of the building. Here he hopes to display Byzantine, medieval and modern coins, thus completing the history of numismatics, from the earliest coins right up to the modern drachma that you might find on the streets of Athens.
Unfortunately, on September 9 it was announced that the museum has had to close indefinitely, owing to earthquake damage to the frescoes painted so long ago by Yuri Subic. We can only hope that the funds are forthcoming for speedy repairs and an equally speedy reopening. Those who cannot wait until then may be interested in exploring the museum's website, and click on the "English" button at top left if you end up with the Greek version.
If, however, virtual reality is not sufficient, you may be interested to know that an exhibition of some of the treasures from the Numismatic Museum has been mounted at the Zappeion Megaron in Athens. Called "Coins in the Aegean", the exhibition will tour various locations in the Aegean area over the next few years.
(Note: Readers in Australia may be interested to know that, thanks to a generous private benefactor, an Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies has been set up at Macquarie University in Sydney. As well as the coins already held by the university, there are 2,500 Greek and Roman coins which formed the private donor‘s collection. It is not clear whether the collection can be viewed by the general public, but certainly those with an academic interest in the subject can contact the Acting Director, Associate Professor C. Nixon, Department of Ancient History, Division of Humanities, Macquaries University, Sydney, NSW 2109.)