By Nikos Tsimas, Project Manager

Architect, Scientific Collaborator of the Municipality of Almopia

One of the main questions of the project Living history, Living nature” is: How can a local authority define its identity and raise the awareness of the public and the authorities for the protection of its heritage?

The answer is: Through Art, through a field of human practice that is directly linked to the notion of heritage and may become the heritage of tomorrow.

The project targets at the revealing of the core identity of Almopia in Greece and the awareness of the public for the necessity of the protection of its local heritage, using the assistance of Contemporary Art. The artistic research leads to the creation of more than 19 original artworks inspired by the monuments and sites of natural heritage of the area, which are used as an innovative way to emerge questions on the spirit of Almopia.

The Municipality of Almopia extends in an area of about 985 km2 and its morphology can be described as a half-circle of mountains that surrounds a fertile plain. It hosts evidence of the human action from thousands of years ago; from paleontological findings to prehistoric tombs and from archaeological sites to Byzantines churches and castles, Almopia has a rich history. It also has a rich landscape; the largest part of its mountains is protected by the legislation of Natura2000 and has been characterized as a Wildlife Sanctuary. The environmental significance of this part of Almopia is combined with the historic one, as indications from the World Wars battles can still be found in the forests; impressive waterfalls are behind soldiers’ graves and steep cliffs hide ruins of military outposts.

This is the cultural heritage of Almopia. Diverse and precious, it has remained in the darkness for decades. Not even the locals recognize the existence of its parts nor comprehend the importance of places that are parts of their everyday life and their significant past. All these facts need an action that will initiate the dialogue for the past, the present and the future of the cultural heritage of Almopia. This action should closely involve the local community that is the first force to be reckoned with and can act not only as a protector, but as the main promoter of the significance and the necessity of the preservation of the sites.

The main aim of the project is to act as an initiative that will bring to the spotlight the heritage of Almopia as a unity, using unconventional means of awareness rising for its protection and promotion. It intends to bring the sites out to the public addressing the need for coordinated actions for protecting and valorising them and even opening the discussion about actions of vandalisms and protection from the community.

The main objectives of the project are:

– To focus on the present condition of the sites and create questions on their future.

– To attract a wide audience by involving an unexpected factor that may multiply the effect and extend beyond the limits of the traditional audience.

– To add value to the already precious and important, though not well-known, sites by enriching the means of their representation.

The final target is the sustainable development of the area arising ways of economic development as well, such as cultural and touring tourism.

Following the research for achieving these goals, a list of the most important sites of the cultural heritage of Almopia was made. The criteria of their selection were their historical and environmental significance. They are nineteen in total and spread all over Almopia:

1. The Castle of Chrisi was built in 10th century and is an evidence of continuous habitation of the area for centuries. It has never been valorized.

2. St. Ioannis Church in Ano Lutraki is a basilica from 18th century with vandalized frescos.

3-5. The Ancient Settlement in Apsalos and Aloro and the Prehistoric Tombs in Constantia are open air archaeological sites that are difficult to be found and not so well known to the public.

6. St. Dimitrios Church in Aetochori was built in 1842. It is a basilica with an ambulatory and stands as one of the most significant churches of Almopia. It is in a bad condition and rarely opens to the public.

7. The Byzantine Bridge in Aloro is said to have existed in the years of Alexander the Great and it has been used by him and his army. Now it is almost destroyed.

8. The Cave Chasm is part of the only cave park in Greece. The cave park has been related to paleontological finds (especially bones from bears that have been characterized as of great importance for paleontology). It is closed to the public.

9. Analipseos Church in Theodoraki is a basilica built in about 1800, with an important and very rare wooden temple that represents 24 phases of the Virgin Mary’s life. The frescos and icons have not been preserved yet.

10. St. Dimitrios Church in Xifiani was built in 1857. It is a basilica with an elaborate, wooden temple.

11. Mountains Pinovo and Jenna host more than 33 rare species of flora and plenty of protected species of avifauna. They have been sites of battles in the two World Wars.

12. Ntompro Pole is a plateau of great environmental significance with Serbian graves from 1st WW.

13. The Watermills in Sosandra are completely destroyed and hard to spot. They used to be evidence of the local economy of the past related to the use of water.

14. The Black Forest is part of the Natura2000 network and according to the oral tradition, Alexander the Great used timber from the forest in order to make the notorious weapon called Sarissa.

15-16. Folk Museum and Museum of Natural History host some of the most important finds of the area, such as the skulls of the Bear of Caves in Loutra.

17-18. St. Hilarion Monastery and Archaggelos Michael Monastery are in a good condition but their important frescos and icons are not so well-known.

19. The thermal Baths in Loutraki are a famous attraction with sites of major importance, such as the only cave park in Greece, which has never been open to the public.

After having set the general framework, it was obvious that there was the need for a strategy that would be clear and immediate and include a revealing character. This strategy needed to be creative and unique. The question that rose immediately was “which is the most convenient way of raising the awareness of the public for these sites of Almopia and make even more people to learn about them? What should we use as the main concept? Which might be the unexpected factor that would surprise and attract?

Art” was the answer.

Art can be revealing.

It is open to interpretations, it is vivid and unique, stimulates human interaction and though it starts as self-expression, it may become ecumenical.

It is part of our cultural heritage and might be a convenient path to follow in order to speak about cultural heritage.

And finally, it might be a problem-solving tool.

Then, the idea of the creation of one original art work for each one of the sites came up.

In order to have a concrete theoretical background, the artistic approach of the cultural heritage sites needed a notion that would unify them and would become the tool to shed light upon them. This was crucial since the sites that constitute the cultural heritage of Almopia come from different eras. This notion was the “genius loci” of Almopia, also known as the spirit of the place, which arises from these sites and outlines its character. The “genius loci” became the centre of the research and its hunt was the goal, since it included all the selected sites and could unfold their unique characteristics, emphasizing in their present condition. It was also a factor that generalized the framework of research, without emphasizing only on protection issues permitting the unexpected to appear. Genius loci refer to the core of the existence of Almopia and its revealing might be used for several purposes involving local development.

The 1st stage of the implementation was the collection of the necessary information for the sites. That phase lasted about six months. A team visited the sites and took photos of them, one by one, recording their present condition. In many cases, the sites were approached on foot. The team recorded the accessibility in the sites and the most convenient time that they could be visited.

The 2nd stage of implementation was to approach partners that could help and offer an essential professional perspective in the artistic field. The Municipality of Almopia asked for the collaboration of the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. Its positive answer was critical for the implementation of the project.

The 3rd stage was the announcement of an open call to the artists. The call emphasized on the revealing of the “genius loci” of Almopia and set a general framework for the creation of original art works for Almopia without putting emphasis on the present condition of the sites or setting questions for their future; there was the need of a sincere approach by the artists.

The 4th stage was the selection of the 19 artists. A variety in expressive means was essential because the final set of art works had to correspond to the diversities of the sites. The selection of the Greek artists was made by Mrs. Anna Mikoniati, curator in the Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art, and Mr. Nikos Tsimas, architect, scientific collaborator in the Municipality of Almopia. The selection of the artists from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was made by Municipality of Almopia and Municipality of Novaci.

The 5th stage of implementation was a 5-day tour in Almopia. All the artists were invited and visited all the selected sites. A walking tour would take place in the morning and a bus tour in the afternoon. Most of the artists followed the bus tour but some others had a different approach, making a parallel touring to sites that were not easily accessible by bus. The artists were encouraged to draw record and photograph everything they wanted during these days, creating their own primarily artistic material. In the last day, each one of the artists expressed his/her interest for their work and the site that wanted to work for and his/her general approach. A break of about 3 weeks was necessary for the artists before the creation procedure.

The 6th stage was an extensive 10-day workshop of artistic creation. The artists returned in Almopia and created their original artworks exploring the genious loci of Almopia. The artists worked in public buildings and their effort was recorded in camera and photos. In the last day, they presented their works in 3 buildings in Aridea in an open ceremony with the participation of the public.

The 7th stage is the exhibition of the art works with all the possible means (exhibition in Aridea, exhibition in other cities, digital exhibition). Schools are visiting the artworks and the students are encouraged to choose one of them and create their own artwork inspired from that.

It is worth mentioning that the project does not only involve artists from different countries (Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in a productive process for the cultural heritage of Almopia; it also involves artists from different backgrounds and fields of Art. The intercultural dialogue is combined with inter-artistic dialogue, since artworks made using different means by completely different artists are unified under the framework of the project and are presented as an experimental exhibition. Cultural diversity is linked to artistic diversity and the promotion of acceptance and difference.

The project is in full compliance with the European politics for culture such as the European Agenda for Culture; it applies to four of the six priorities that have been outlined in the Commission's culture work plan for 2010-2014:

Promoting cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, and inclusivity;

Promoting and protecting cultural heritage and the mobility of collections;

Promoting culture in external relations;

Increasing skills and mobility.

It is also in full compliance with the “Europe 2020 strategy” (2010), which mainly focuses on the shift towards a more sustainable economy in Europe. Raising the awareness on local cultural heritage is directly connected to sustainable development and additionally, promoting the awareness on issues of local cultural heritage which is an essential factor for the development of the Europe as a cultural union; such a union cannot be based on the general notion of unification but on the promotion of similarities and diversities of local communities. The project emphasizes on the originality and the promotion of uniqueness of Almopia setting the problematic not only on preservation/protection issues but also on understanding of the local culture by the locals themselves. Local developments is also linked to tourism that is an important issue for the area; some of the sites such as the thermal baths and the mountains of Pinovo and Jena have been developed in touristic way but there are yet more to come in this field for Almopia.

The project might also be a relevant example at European level, creating a network of contemporary artworks for sites of European cultural and natural heritage.

The project “Living history, Living nature” includes more actions related to history and nature of Almopia. More about this project can be found in the official portal www.lhilna.eu