It seems that while thousands of Athenians have lost their homes, and forests in the area have been reduced to ashes, one of Greece’s most famous ancient cities has avoided the flames. Yet as the inferno enveloping Marathon subsides, its mayor claims government authorities did nothing to protect it from the worst wildfires to hit the country in over two years.
“(We were) begging the government to send over planes and helicopters,” says mayor Spyros Zagaris. Yet none were forthcoming, and the city narrowly escaped flames which ‘raced’ down a hill to threaten ancient museums and monuments. Marathon‘s close call echoes that of Olympia, which just evaded the 2007 fires that decimated parts of the Peloponnese and Euboea. Sixty people lost their lives and over 100,000 hectares of land were destroyed during the fires two years ago, after which the Greek government were severely cricitcised for their rescue strategies. So far no-one has died in the latest disaster, which has claimed around 21,000 hectares. However there is expected to be a huge political fallout for Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who has already been accused of learning nothing from the previous fires. “There is no excuse for the incredible disaster in greater Athens,” says influential newspaper To Vima.
Almost 2,000 firefighters are still tackling the blaze, and helicopters and planes have been drafted in from Italy,Spain and Cyprus. The Prime Minister has slammed those criticising his handling of the blaze: “Close your ears to those few who, from a safe position for their own expediencies attempt to criticise everything.” Some whispers are suggesting the fires were started by property developers keen to clear land for building projects.
However these allegations are thus far unfounded. The 9,000 or so residents of Marathon, however, will be breathing a huge sigh of relief after their town escaped the disaster. Marathon is the site of the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when a combined force of Athenians and Plataeans defeated an invading Persian army. Only a burial mound for the 192 slain Athenians stands today, and the city gave its name to the famous marathon race after the legend of Pheidippides – a soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens to give news of the victory, before dying of exhaustion. There is also a museum celebrating the battle.